Trekonomics: The Economics
of Star Trek by Manu Saadia
Pipertext Publishing Company, 2016; 265 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
One of the main innovations of the Star Trek TV and film series of the ’80s and ’90s was the introduction of the “replicator.” Replicators are machines that essentially perform alchemy for citizens of the United Federation of Planets. They’re designed to rearrange the subatomic particles that permeate the universe into specific forms of matter upon request. Program a replicator with the molecular structure of a pizza and you’ll have free pizzas for life. The material abundance represented by this fictional invention is central to Manu Saadia’s claims in his new book, Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek.
Saadia insists that the invention of replicators would render our contemporary notions of conspicuous consumption irrelevant. In his view, showing off one’s possessions is a meaningless gesture if anyone can replicate identical ones in the blink of an eye. He claims that replicators have a civilizing effect on Federation citizens, whom he characterizes as selfless, practically indifferent consumers. For example, he observes that people rarely struggle over “custom-made, unique goods” in the Trek universe, even if those goods are allegedly “highly coveted.” Saadia argues that the limited supply of such goods has no impact on consumer demand due to the economic principle of “local nonsatiation.” In other words, time spent pursuing one finite commodity is time a Federation citizen could spend choosing from a practically limitless supply of alternatives. This is one of a few instances when Saadia’s economic analysis, though logically viable, becomes less than compelling.
One evening, while reading this book, I gave in to a craving to watch an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the opening minutes of “Chimera,” Chief Engineer Miles O’Brien realizes he forgot to pick up a gift for his wife while away at a conference. Miles turns to Odo, who is admiring the jewelry and chocolates he’s brought back for Major Kira, and says of the chocolates, “I’ll buy them from you.” The prevalence of replicators apparently does nothing to mitigate Miles’s worry over disappointing his wife. What’s more, Odo, who has an abundance of souvenirs, still insists on giving the chocolates to Kira. After all, they’re her favorite kind.
The fact that this brief exchange flies in the face of one of the main principles that Saadia lays out in Trekonomics is no major flaw. He acknowledges that Star Trek demands “an explicit buy-in, a leap of faith, from the audience.” A generous reading of this book, which is technically non-fiction, will allow Saadia the same leeway. Saadia ends up fashioning himself a sort of economic apologist for Star Trek in a way that can be frustrating. Some of his observations about the Trek universe can be challenged with counter-examples from the franchise’s numerous TV episodes, movies, and books. But with a leap of faith, it’s possible to look beyond the specific texts in the canon and imagine the everyday lives of Federation citizens with easy access to replicators, transporters, holodecks, lifesaving medical technology, and faster-than-light warp speed travel. Saadia’s invitation to readers is to share his fascination with the potential effects of the end of scarcity on Earth’s societies. In our current political climate, I imagine that many will find that invitation hard to resist.