A Star Trek Utopia? We’re Living in It

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.

12 thoughts on “A Star Trek Utopia? We’re Living in It”

  1. Continuing with your theme. Imagine if the crew of the USS Enterprise c.1775 could walk around the USS Enterprise Carrier.

    Or for that matter, Imagine if the USS Nimitz could time travel back to just before Pearl Harbor..lol..a la “Final Countdown.” :)

  2. @Jason an entirely metal hulled vessel the size of an entire armada powered by nuclear fission which serves as a mobile base for supersonic aircraft that use computer guided munitions and radar/infrared sensors. Yes, it would certainly seem very scifi from the perspective of the late 18th century.

    As far as today, it’s certainly easy to ignore the enormous progress that we’ve made by focusing on only the problems, or the alleged problems. In the developed world we wash our cars and water our lawns with drinking water. The cost per meal of the sort of food that was commonplace in 1658 runs to mere pennies.

  3. In C S Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength, the magician Merlin is restored to life and speaks as follows about the modern age:

    “”Sir,” said Merlin in answer to the question which the Director had just asked him. “I give you great thanks. I cannot indeed understand the way you live and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it; a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone with no more honour than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there are warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.”

  4. One of the reasons often cited for the success of the original Star Trek was it showed a future of hope, that mankind would work things out and venture to the stars. This was amid the backdrop of the civil unrest and campus demonstrations of the 60’s (as well as the Nuclear Missile confrontation in Cuba), so there was real concern that the violence of Kent State and Watts would escalate out of control. Star Trek was based on the premise that somehow mankind would save itself from itself. Gene Roddenberry envisioned a cohesive humankind embracing human diversity, and even accepting and later welcoming Vulcans and other extraterrestrials. The primary key to this utopian abundance in the future seems to be huge, manageable sources of energy. (Though no one explains where they got the first dilithium crystal)

    The thesis seems to be that once there was abundant energy, the need for money would go away, and with that want, and class envy, and socioeconomic division. Everyone would be happy to serve in the exploration of the galaxy, whether it be in Star Fleet (the Navy in space), or in some political or bureaucratic function back on earth. We really don’t see civilians or business people until later in Deep Space Nine, where the concept of “profit” is maligned by the introduction of the uber-capitalist Ferrengi race. And to me, as much as I love Star Trek, this is a major flaw in the “logic” (as Spock would say) of this particular utopian vision. Again, the question comes back to how to (and who gets to) allocate resources. We kick the can down the road slightly by imagining abundant resources due to abundant energy, but we still leave the question of allocation unanswered.

    In their first forays into space, the fledgling humans mostly visit worlds that are self sufficient and content. And then they run into the Klingons and Romulans, both warlike and aggressive species that are presented as the foil to human enlightenment and successful implementation of the utopian dream. Again, how to respond when someone else wants your stuff. Suddenly the abundance of a whole world isn’t enough when warlike species want to take over your world. Interesting storytelling, and imaginative sets and props, but no real answer to the allocation question, even in a future of abundance.

    You’re right, Shannon, the concept of of utopia is an ever shifting goalpost. And that is as it should be because technology and innovation will constantly take us in different directions. I just wish that we could start having more true dialog and meaningful conversations in our body politic about what utopia we should be striving to reach. And, that we could learn the Star Trek lesson that energy abundance is the key to the future.

  5. Many of our world’s conflicts arise from 3 things:

    – Who owns “it”.
    – Who controls or get the benefit from “it”.
    – Who pays for “it”.

    Where “it” is the limited resource/item/thing in question.

  6. Where do I begin?

    Yes, there are many things in our society that many of us take for granted as necessities that are actually luxuries. Also, if a person put their mind to it, it is possible to live comfortably and safely without those luxuries at very low cost.

    But one of the most basic of necessities is some form of housing or shelter. In order to afford the payments or the rent on that luxurious shelter with clean cold and hot water on demand, we need this thing in our society called “a job.” A job may not impose anywhere near the stress or strain as, say, being a serf in medieval times or a slave or plebian in Ancient Rome. But getting a job and keeping a job requires the ability to conform to a set of complicated social rules that would confound the medieval person transported into our society, much as conformity to the social rules of Star Trek society might be beyond the mental abilities of someone from today.

    Suppose one chooses not to have a job or one is unable to get or hold a job or one is has a low paying/low status job. There are ways to save on housing costs. One can have roommates or family members. It also requires conformity to a system of social rules to live with roommates or family members successfully in our culture. One can also move into cheaper housing, but society has put up roadblocks in that regard. You can live in the po’ part of town, perhaps trading some personal risk to the crime that is not held in check (that kind of thing would be known to medieval society), but there are limits to that. You can’t simply pitch a tent on public land and bathe in the river.

    There used to be all manners of substandard although cheap forms of housing — slum tenements, flop houses. Think of the Roger Miller song “King of the Road” where the protagonist does a math calculation of the minimum amount of day labor required to afford a bed for the night in such housing along with some meals. What are the opportunities these days for day labor by the unskilled? Where are the flop houses?

    So the social contract is that a person has the wherewithal to maintain a set of social relationships that requires a rather complicated set of skills, or one “falls off the edge of the earth” into homelessness, essentially getting a grade of “D” or “F” in the course “coping with the social rituals and requiremenst of Modern Society.” I don’t know if you have looked at a homeless person carefully as of late, but there are people among us, fortunately few in number, who don’t live in that paradise but rather live a life not far removed from the standards of diet, hygiene, and life expectancy of the Medieval Era.

    Even if you master all of that, as a result of illness or old age and infirmity, you can end up residing in a nursing home. Nursing homes can vary from Bedlam-esque horror stories to marvels of patient care, although the variance has been reduced, through regulation eliminating the worst horror stories, perhaps through Medicaid and other programs forms of socialized medicine, limiting the quality of the best homes. Residing in a nursing home beats however the aged were treated in times past, but have people around here visited such places recently?

    What I mean is that if a person is able to master conformity to a complicated set of social behaviors, a person is able to have a luxurious life beyond the dreams of 100 years ago, and I am not sure I would want to return to, say, surgery from 50 years ago even though I had lived through it (childhood tonsillectomy). But one is on the thin edge of holding on to that — think of the burgeoning long-term unemployed and the debate we will have after tonight about yet another extension of unemployment compensation. We don’t die of infectious disease and of infection — no, scratch that remark, we die horribly of the same killers as in medieval times, only it is in a hospital or nursing home bed at the end stage of cardiac disease or cancer where we are unable to fight off the antibiotic-resistant infections that have become endemic to health care settings.

  7. I think someone with a fierce intellect and a passion for economics could write a PhD grade paper titled ‘The Economics of Star Trek’. This has always fascinated me, but I could easier write technical manual for a warp core than I could write anything coherent on economics. But the questions do beguile me, and they have tremendous application to the here and now —

    So, we know they have replicators to break down and reassemble matter at will. Feed in old chicken bones and burned out circuitry, get a diamond wedding ring out the other side. Feed in dirt, get a well done steak with mushrooms on top out the other side. Thus, there is really nothing out there that has any value at all that is determined by scarcity (except for the unreplicatable alloy Latinum, as any good Ferengi would tell you.)

    Thus there really is no want. No hunger. No material needs.

    So…… who takes out the garbage? And why? Who does all the jobs that are about building and maintaining the systems? Some people have to get up at 5 in the morning to stand that post. Why? Why not call in sick twice or three times a week? Ya gonna fire me? So what? What do I need your money for anyway?

    Are we not already seeing this to some extent in the British riots, and the unwillingness of the unemployed but basically taken care of class to spurn those garbage-collecting and waiter jobs, but wait around for someone to make them a starship captain or lingerie photographer or movie star or whatever? After all, that kind of job seems a lot more cool, so, other than that, forget it.

    If we really do create a society where all such basic needs are met, how do we address this fundamental issue of human nature? It is a question I have always wanted to ask a genuine communist. (One of two questions, the other being, “Don’t you honestly, in your heart, think a truly successful communist society would be in fact excrutiatingly boring as hell??

    I have never been able to move much futher beyond this in anything with merit to ask or answer about the questions. But it does feel like an almost fundamental flaw in human nature that means that that utopia simply can never be, because unless there is a genuine fear of hunger/want/homelessness, whatever… people, like me f’rinstance, just ain’t gonna make that daily trudge.

    (OK, make me a starship captain… fine….. I’ll get up in the morning.)

  8. “Don’t you honestly, in your heart, think a truly successful communist society would be in fact excrutiatingly boring as hell??”…Poul Anderson wrote a pretty good SF story along those lines. A guy in our time (or a bit later) has an incurable disease so they send him into the future in the hope the disease will be curable. When he arrives at the future they cure the disease, no problem, but the entire society is like an especially boring hippie colony, where people spent their time on simple crafts, folk dancing, etc..no conflict, no struggle. The guy becomes so totally bored that he loses his mind. All his hosts can think of to do is to send him further into the future, in the hopes that someday a cure for his mental problem will be found.

  9. I once knew a Bahai would believed the Utopia would come about when (of course) everyone was a Bahai. Once that happened each of us would be internally transformed into a person wishing only goodness and justice. That’s similar to Star Trek:TOS and Star Trek:TNG where the worst emotions Federation citizens might display was professional jealousy, which was never so severe as to lead to murder. This was a vast, strange gap between us because I don’t believe human nature will change or can be changed. Yet we both cited the same reasons and sources for beliefs.

    “Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there are warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound.”

    Nice quote. What would Merlin have said if he arrived in France instead of England? Certainly the food would have been better. And if he had arrived in the USA instead of England, he could have listened to music and heard speeches on radios.

    Anyone have the Savage’s response to the Brave New World?

    And ( sorry ):

    “Europe were still surfs denied” should be “serfs.”

    “social rules”

    People transported from now to the past would find the social rules difficult to follow, too. Sumptuary laws seem strange to me. I might never understand which fur I could wear on which occasions, or which bird I could train, or which bow to make and how deep and whether or not I had to kiss a ring or buff a shoe or whatever.

  10. 30 years after your 1658 peg date. The following was published:

    John Locke, “The Two Treatises of Civil Government” [1689] Second Treatise, Chapter V, §. 41.

    “There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i. e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniencies we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.”

  11. Poul Anderson actually thought through his science fiction, and he was very up to date on his social science reading, just as he was on physical sciences. His story The Man Who Came Too Early is a classic, in which an American transported back in time to Dark Ages Iceland finds that his advanced knowledge just gets him into trouble.

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