My ideal vision of the future has always been as it’s portrayed in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation: humanity has transcended all of the petty nonsense that we’re still fighting about today; poverty has been eradicated; common diseases are distant memories of a medical dark age hundreds of years in the past.
Technology in the 24th century (while admittedly looking more and more dated as the twenty-first century marches on) makes everything accessible to everyone. If you want something, you can fabricate it out of one of the ship’s many onboard replicating machines. It’s the same with food, just speak into the box, tell it what you want, and zap! There it is, bon appetit. And entertainment via the Holodeck is so much more immersive than the trivial pastimes we occupy ourselves with today.
And it’s more than just food and games. Transportation is completely reimagined. With transporters and faster-than-light warp drives, traveling to and from work must be a non-issue. People of the future don’t have to take the subway anywhere. The whole idea of commuting is probably as antiquated as a horse-and-buggy seems to the mass transit riders of today.
My point in all of this is to look at our own technological advancement. I’m a firm believer that we’re well on our way to not only achieving, but probably surpassing all of the feats of advancement on display in Star Trek. Three-dimensional printers are just becoming a commercially viable commodity, and so the ability to replicate various objects might soon be a reality for the developed world. Similarly, as driverless cars inevitably take over the roadways, traffic, parking, car accidents, they’re all bound to become headaches of the past.
And as technology takes over more and more of the heavy lifting involved with day-to-day life, how is this going to affect the economy, our sense of wealth, our very definition of the word liberty? I ask this because, in Star Trek anyway, everything is free. Futuristic machines are so ubiquitous that it wouldn’t make sense to charge anybody for goods and services. No, the very idea of currency does not mesh with the utopian economy built on a foundation of infinite clean energy.
If we ever get there, or to some version of something like the world they have on Star Trek, how are we going to make that transition? How are people in charge going to give up their ability to demand a percentage of our own personal wealth in exchange for whatever it is they have to be offering? Or will things stay the same way they are now: a group of people at the top taking a greater percentage of what I would argue should be equally divided?
Take transportation as an example. Let’s look at taxicabs. A driver might not own his own car, he might lease it from a central dispatching agent. But in the process of me getting from point A to point B, I’m paying the driver, and ultimately those profits go on to not only sustain the greater taxi company, but more importantly, to support the driver’s income.
And so what happens when that driver’s job is replaced by a computer? Is the price of a ride going to go down? I can’t imagine any taxi company willing to lower the fare. Look at Uber taking outrageous advantage of its congestion pricing. If anything, it shows that increased availability has only added to skyrocketing prices. I mean, the fact that we’re willing to pay a certain price now shows that the amount is, if not reasonable, than at least plausible. So what’s going to happen when taxis drive themselves? I’d argue that in this potential scenario, the owner of all the taxis, now free from worrying about assuming the liability of hiring drivers, gets to take home all of the profit, leaving a now unemployed segment of the workforce to look for some other means of earning money.
As technology takes over more and more aspects of society, where is everybody supposed to work? It’s just going to increase this divide, that those in power, those currently with wealth, they’re going to maximize and multiply what they currently have, leaving everyone else with a constantly shrinking piece of the pie.
There are signs that it’s happening already. Look at music and writing. When I was growing up, a CD cost about fifteen bucks. I got a physical object, and a lot of people made money producing that object, selling those objects, it was all part of a system. It was the same way with books and booksellers. But now those commodities are largely digital. We’re getting the same product, the same work of art, but there’s no longer the economy supporting the manufacture and sale of those goods.
And the prices aren’t really that much cheaper. Songs are over a dollar each on iTunes, and publishing companies and authors are constantly fighting with Amazon over how much a digital book should cost. Because as technology grows, the idea of currency doesn’t make sense.
I don’t know how they did it in Star Trek, but they somehow got to the point where nobody pays for anything. People with a lot of money had to give up their extreme riches in order for everybody to share in the wealth and utopia ushered in by a golden age of technological progress. I think we’ll eventually have to deal with how that’s going to work in current society. And it’s going to be tough.
If machines do most of our work, is there still going to be that mentality where you have to work forty hours a week? If poverty doesn’t exist, are we still going to judge those least fortunate for their lack of a work ethic? If you had all of your basic needs met and didn’t really have to do anything, would you still toil away at a job that you didn’t like? In Star Trek, nobody has to, and nobody does. They find something they want to do because they enjoy it, and money isn’t a problem. I have no idea how we’re ever going to get there, but I hope that we do, because the future is coming whether we like it or not, and our current ideas of wealth and economy simply won’t suffice.