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A lot of science fiction shows present a darkly dystopian view of the future, where humans battle for limited resources, starkly divided between the haves and have-nots. But some views of the future are far more utopian. In “Star Trek,” members of the federation live in a post-money society: Everyone has the basics, nobody has to work, and ordering what you need is as easy as telling a replicator, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”
As Trekkies get excited for “Picard,” the latest “Star Trek” franchise, we thought we’d dive deeper on how that society works. It’s the latest in our ongoing series exploring how tech and the economy are portrayed in science fiction.
Marketplace’s Jack Stewart spoke with Manu Saadia, author of the book “Trekonomics.” He said the concept of a society with no money is crucial to the series. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Manu Saadia: It defines the ethos of all the characters in “Star Trek.” It defines the universe. And it is the absence of money, but it is also the changes in behaviors. You hear Patrick Stewart [playing Jean-Luc Picard] give a spiel where he was like, “We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions — we’ve grown out of our infancy.”
Jack Stewart: So, if there’s no money, if there’s no currency, if you don’t have that drive to accumulate wealth, what motivates characters in “Star Trek”? How does it work?
Throughout this series, justice seems to be their most profound concern and what they’re aiming for as good peopleManu Saadia
Saadia: Prestige, and the admiration of your peers and doing good and doing what is right. Throughout this series, justice seems to be their most profound concern and what they’re aiming for as good people.
Stewart: Are there any examples in our society today of this concept of doing things for the greater good, not necessarily for accumulating wealth?
Saadia: There are plenty. In fact most of scientific research — that then turns into marketable goods — is done for prestige, to benefit the greater good in whatever form, whether market or non-market. Another example of a public good like that is Wikipedia. It’s amazing. It’s free, and it’s all human knowledge at your fingertips.
Stewart: When Gene Roddenberry was coming up with this universe and this concept, things like Bitcoin didn’t exist. What do you think he would have made of that? Does that fit into this concept at all?
Saadia: I’ve always wondered if there is an accounting unit of some sort to keep track of what is being made and what is being produced.
Stewart: You mean, like a federation accounting unit?
Saadia: Yeah, an accounting unit. Not a currency, but something to keep track and account for the allocation of resources. But we don’t see that in “Trek.” These are the parameters of the world. I’d be very surprised that the next Picard show would be about accumulating artifacts.
Stewart: Suddenly he starts carrying cash.
Saadia: Or Bitcoins.
Related links: more insight from Jack Stewart
The closest real-life experiment to the grand vision of everyone having access to everything they need might be the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI). It’s being billed to look after the welfare of humans when robots do all the work. It’s an idea being embraced by some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. We talked to one of the proponents, Matt Krisiloff from the startup incubator Y Combinator, on Marketplace back in 2017.
UBI has become a more mainstream idea recently, with Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate, proposing something he calls the Freedom Dividend. The Washington Post looks at whether he’s succeeded in starting a conversation around it.
The most recent experiment is in Stockton, California, where 130 people are getting $500 a month, no strings attached, in a pilot program. It’s a clever idea, but the more you read, the more you realize it isn’t going to usher in the utopian “Star Trek”-style future anytime soon.
If you really want to nerd out on currencies and monetary systems in sci-fi, check out The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It spells out some of the ways that writers have tried to make money a key plot point. One great example is the concept of compound interest applying to savings when people go into hibernation, or stasis or travel through time. Just by leaving their cash in an interest-paying account for a nice, long time, they can become wealthy. Kind of like we’re told to do with our 401(k)s. Way to make science fiction mundane, Jack!