An era of the conceivable made concrete…And of the casually miraculous.
Adrian Veidt, The Watchmen by Allan Moore
A while back I found a post by pseudo-intellectual Peter Frase, pulling several mental muscles trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a Star Trek utopia if only it didn’t have intellectual property laws. [h/t Instapundit-->Overcoming Bias] That got me to thinking about how our contemporary world stacks up against Star Trek’s utopian vision.
Star Trek is often used as a starting point for musing about this or that utopia because everything in Star Trek seems so wonderful. Star Trek is Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of New Frontier democratic socialism evolved to a utopia so perfect that individuals have to head out into the wilds of deep space just to find some adventure. Watching Star Trek, one naturally begins to wonder what it would be like to live in a world so advanced that all of the problems we deal with today have been resolved or minimized to insignificance.
Well, we don’t actually have to imagine what it would be like to live in a Star Trek-like, radically egalitarian, technologically advanced, “post-scarcity” society because we live in a Star Trek-like utopia right now, right here, in contemporary America.
How can I say that? Simple, Star Trek the Next Generation takes place 353 years in the future from 2364 to 2370. If we were to think of ourselves as living in a futuristic science-fiction society we would likewise look back 353 years in the past to 1658.
Image what modern America would look like to the people of any of the world’s major cultures back in 1658! Any novel, movie, TV or comic book set in day-to-day middle-class America would read like astounding science fiction to anyone from 1658. Our society looks even more utopian in comparison to 1658 than Star Trek world 2370 looks to us today.
I’m not just talking about all the amazing and frightening technology like nuclear power/weapons, spacecraft, cars, cell phones, computers, the Internet, etc. I’m also talking about issues of want, individual dignity and social/political equality.
Just to start, by the standards of anywhere 1658 ,contemporary America is a land completely devoid of material poverty. No one in 1658 would consider anyone in America, even a street person, to be even marginally materially poor. Poor people today in American have a material standard of living that surpasses that of even the wealthiest individual in 1658.
For example, just turning on a faucet and getting safe, clean drinking water would look as amazing to a 1658 person as a Star Trek replicator looks to us today.
A poor American has functionally unlimited access to clean drinking water, something not even the emperors of 1658 had. A 1658 person would be gobsmacked that we take perfectly clean and safe drinking water so much for granted that we don’t think there is anything even remotely odd about using a few gallons of it to shit and piss in every single time we go to the bathroom!
In 1658, one in four children died before the age of five. For poor Americans today, more children die from accident than disease. In 1658, waves and waves of disease cut through the population regularly, killing young and old alike in vast numbers. Plagues of all kinds emptied cities and wiped out armies. In modern America, owing to vaccines, antibiotics and sanitation even the poorest person is protected from history’s greatest killers. We have so forgotten the terrible diseases of the past that many of today’s idiots question if vaccinations and antibiotics are even necessary any longer!
In 1658, even middle-class people spent 80% of their income on food and the poor spent 95%. Today, our “poor” spend at most 25%. Moreover, they routinely eat 1658 luxury foods like beef, jello and marshmallows. Spices common today like black pepper cost the equivalent of hundreds of 2011 dollars an ounce in 1658. Sugar in 1658 cost roughly five dollars a teaspoon. Tea and coffee were exotic drinks of the fashionable wealthy, selling for the equivalent of $20 or more a cup.
Even more amazing, poor people today eat different foods for every meal every day! In 1658, the vast majority of humanity ate the same boiled grain/rice for their one or two meals a day, every day. There was no seasoning and salt was rare. Any meat at all was a weekly or monthly luxury. You had to be a 1658 upper-middle class to eat bread with every meal. If you bemoaned to anyone in 1658 that 2011 America was a flawed society in part because obesity was a major health concern for its poor, they would have looked at you like you were insane. Well, the wealthiest of 1658 would think you insane, the actual poor of 1658 would beat you to death in moral outrage.
The wars in Star Trek seem almost bloodless to us and likewise our modern wars would seem almost bloodless from the perspective of 1658. In a contemporary American war, combat related casualties are usually around 5% of all combatants with about 1%-2% killed. For non-combatants, the percentage killed is a fraction of one percent even when fighting in urban areas. The wounded, even enemy wounded, are whisked away to advanced medical care.
In 1658, battlefield related casualties averaged around 30% in Europe and up to 50% or higher in other parts of the world. It was common for the winning side to simply massacre the commoner troops on the defeated side in order to prevent them from turning to banditry. Even if there was no intended massacre, the armies of 1658 simply did not have the resources to care for large numbers of prisoners. Fielding an army was a race between winning the battle/war and having the army disintegrate from disease and starvation. Barely able to keep themselves in the field, they couldn’t very well support large numbers of prisoners. Our romantic notions of pre-industrial martial chivalry were restricted solely to upper-class warriors. Even our modern ability to level entire cities wouldn’t seem so dramatic. Pre-industrial armies routinely burned cities to the ground, and when they did the majority of inhabitants died from fire, starvation and exposure.
War in 1658 was much, much worse on civilians because armies stripped the country bare for a day’s march on either side of their line of travel, leaving starvation in their wake. Even the best-disciplined armies left a wake of robbery, rape and murder in their wake even in their own countries. In a modern American war, it is not uncommon for the standard of living of people around the American army to actually rise after the army moves in. Simply by vaccinating children, a victorious American army can save many, many, many times more lives than taken in the war.
Star Trek, however, isn’t just about universal material well-being created by technology, it’s also about social perfection. In Star Trek there are not only not any social divisions of any note within humanity but humans and a multitude of non-human species live in harmony. From the perspective of 1658, 2011 America likewise has no social divisions of any note.
In 1658, modern evils like racism weren’t yet a problem because people hadn’t even gotten to the point were they considered all of the people in their own lands fully human, much less people on other continents. Most of the population of Europe were still surfs denied basic human rights. In India, the Muslim Moguls had just completed their conquest of the Indian subcontinent and ruled over a population of Hindus whom the Moguls could, within the bounds of Islam, enslave or kill at any time because they were not People of the Book. The just-displaced Hindu aristocracy were themselves divided into a caste system so pronounced that in some cases upper-class caste members could kill any individual of the 85% of the population who were outcast if an outcast approached within bowshot range. In China, millions were worked to death on grand state projects like the Great Wall, and in Japan, a Samurai could kill any commoner at any time for any reason. Every major culture, without exception, routinely employed judicial torture for both interrogations and punishment of the common people.
The degradation between the classes and caste was so universally bad in 1658 that the eventual evolution of racism would represent an actual improvement. The idea that all white people, rich and poor and of different European nationalities, all comprised one superior people, was a great leap forward in human rights. The powerful of society had to see the beggars on their own threshold as fully human before any members of the society could begin to see people on the other side of the world as fully and equally human.
For someone from 1658, our divisions of socioeconomic class in 2011 America would be perceived as so minor as to be utterly invisible. As Dinesh d’Souza once pointed out, 2011 America is a land in which, if the richest person, e.g., Bill Gates, told the poorest person to kiss his shoes, the poor person could punch Gates in the face and the rest of society would applaud them for doing so. That would have been unthinkable in 1658 when in every culture a poor person striking a rich person would have been seen as a threat to the entire social order. A scene like that in which the American President, the most powerful individual in the world, takes questions from ordinary people at a town-hall meeting would seem like something in an Eden that only the divine could create.
In 1658 only England, Holland, Iceland and some of their colonies had anything approaching democracy, and even then the franchise was restricted to small percentage of the population. The vast majority of political thought held democracy as wholly undesirable, being likely to implode upon itself horrifically. The idea that anyone but propertied adult males could exercise the franchise did not exist even among the most radical democratic thinkers of the time.
People in 1658 would be amazed that modern Americans take it for granted that anyone from anywhere in the world can come to America, become a citizen and have rights of full participation in political matters. In 1658 there was no concept of immigration and certainly no concept of mutual assimilation. Even if people did move from region to region, they remained defined by class and family connections.
In 1658 no one ever asked the question: what do I want to do when I grow up? Most people were born into a job, overwhelmingly farming, and even those born to rich and powerful families had little discretion in how they spent their lives or earned their living. The idea that you could match your job to your likes, dislikes and even innate talent was largely unknown. Everybody did what their birth and circumstances dictated. Personal desires meant virtually noting.
So here we are, living in a science fiction utopia. How do you like it?
Right now, you are probably thinking something like, “Okay, we’ve got things way better than people had them 353 years ago but we’re far from utopia. We’ve still got all these internal social, political and economic problems.”
Well, guess what? If the Star Trek future were real the people of that time would feel the exact same way. We are ever shifting the goal posts for utopia. It is like we generate a constant amount of discontent, and when we progressively solve problems, we simply concentrate that discontent on ever smaller and smaller problems or, as is increasingly common, invent new things to worry about.
Let’s face it, our evolutionarily programmed drive to dominate and control other human being will always drive us to invent new problems as a pretext for dominating others. If we did live a Star Trek world in which free energy and replicators produced anything anyone wanted, a political movement would soon arise dedicated to the idea that individuals decided to replicate the wrong things, the 23rd century equivalent of Big Macs and incandescent bulbs, and we would all be squabbling again.
By definition, a utopia is a state of universal personal satisfaction. As a biologist, I would argue that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which drives natural selection and evolution, prevents us from ever really being satisfied and thereby prevents us from ever appreciating a near utopia even when we live in it every day. Likewise, we can’t depend on the wisdom of alien species or even artificial intelligence to save us from ourselves, because they too must bow to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the natural selection it drives.
Even though we can’t ever reach a perfect state and will always be restless, we can still vastly improve our society and personal lives by deeply appreciating how close to utopia we actually are. Studying history, especially technological history, has given me a real intuitive understanding of how hard the lives of our ancestors were. This understanding in turn makes me appreciate our ordinary, everyday, casual miracles all that much more. When I turn on a tap and get a drink of clean, safe water I feel a sense of wonder and amazement akin to that I imagine I would feel wandering around the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D).
All this makes me a much happier person with my solidly middle-class American existence. Instead of bemoaning my lack of wealth or status in the modern world, I find pleasure, satisfaction and security knowing that my children and grandchildren are virtually immune to lethal diseases and that their lives will be ones very much of their individual choosing. I know that even if they have to fight for their political freedoms, they have at least the idea and moral conviction that they have the innate universal right to do so.
I marvel that I can communicate in seconds with ordinary people on the other side of the world and even travel to see them in less than a day. I wake up every morning wondering what new things the bright creative people of our civilization have created or discovered. Then, I sit down at my own personal miraculous logic engine to create a little something myself.
Looked at from the perspective of the vast majority of humans who have ever lived, we do live in a Star Trek-like utopia. Even as we work tirelessly to improve humanity’s lot even further, we should draw great spiritual contentment and strength from a constant awareness of how greatly we have succeeded so far.
Now I’ve gotta run, got a date on the holodeck.