In Too Deep: Can You Buy a Starfleet Big Mac?
Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
I was watching Star Trek Continues recently (great fan-made show, highly recommend it) and was dwelling on the show in general when it occurred to me: This show takes place in a Utopia so perfect that they no longer need to use money. A nice idea, until we realise all the crappy jobs people do solely because of the money benefit from doing it. So if we take that away, would we still have toilet cleaners and burger flippers? Is the birth of the Federation the death of the Big Mac? Well lets find out.
To start with, lets look at perhaps the best explanation we get for the economy (or lack thereof) in Star Trek from the fantastic film Star Trek: First Contact. In one scene, Captain Picard is explaining to 21st century woman Lily the way the future works.
â€œLILY: It took me six months to scrounge up enough titanium just to build a four-metre cockpit. …How much did this thing cost?
PICARD: The economics of the future are somewhat different. …You see, money doesn’t exist in the twenty-fourth century.
LILY: No money! That means you don’t get paid.
PICARD: The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. …We work to better ourselves …and the rest of humanity. Actually we’re rather like yourself and Doctor Cochrane.â€
Also, while I’m here, lets quote another moment that seems almost to be a jab at the aforementioned scene. In the Deep Space 9 episode, Jake (a human) has to explain to Nog (a Ferengi, aka like a race of intergalactic money-hungry merchants) that he can’t pay.
“JAKE: I’m Human, I don’t have any money.”
“NOG: It’s not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement.”
“JAKE: Hey, watch it. There’s nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.”
“NOG: What does that mean exactly?”
“JAKE: It means… it means we don’t need money!”
(Also, because it might be useful later, Picard once points out to a revived 20th Century man who use to run a law firm, that â€œA lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things’. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.â€)
Okay, so with those quotes in hand (and other quotes that basically amount to ‘money doesn’t exist any more’), what conclusions can we come up with?
Well, first off, it’s clear that money doesn’t exist. But surprisingly, there’s nothing there to replace it. I mean at the very least you’d expect some sort of barter system, like that that existed in the olden times. But no, apparently the other fact that becomes clear is that people do the job because it makes life better for everyone else. Now this is a somewhat communist/socialist world-view (and how that managed to fly in the 60s I do not know, even though the show never did say it outright in the original series), but lets ignore the politics and focus solely on the situation at hand. People don’t get paid and do what needs to be done for the good of mankind. The third fact we learn is that due to the invention of replicators, the need for material goods is gone as well (why earn money to buy something when you can literally make it for free at your own home?). Now while I could do a blog about how the first replicator we build will no doubt destroy civilisation (though the logical question is whether a replicator could build a replicator, meaning you’d only ever need to build one, the same way you’d only ever need to build one 3D printers that is capable of making identical 3D printers) I’m gonna get sidetracked if I go down that route. But money no longer exists because bartering no longer exists. I don’t need to barter with you for the goods you own when I can just create my own set of goods. So, since there’s no reason to work to make money to buy goods, why work at all? Well, to better humanity, supposedly. And this is where things get interesting.
(Side note: Yes I know about the Eugenics War and World War III and basically all the stuff that goes so wrong that mankind is almost reset, meaning it’s easier for civilisation to rebuild after that. Star Trek clearly shows that their Utopia can only be reached after you’ve pretty much destroyed modern civilisation and built it up anew. This is taking the concepts found in Star Trek and directly transposing them onto our modern society to see if they could possibly work… as well as making a few jokes here and there at the concept).
Now for a time I worked at McDonalds and I honestly enjoyed doing it. I had great friends, great bosses, really enjoyed where I was working for the most part. The fact I was getting paid was somewhat secondary to me. I mean I did like having money, I just never worked for the money. I worked because I liked the job. Now, I’m very atypical. I’m the sort of guy who would be content working a low-rung job if it made him happy. How many people can that be true of in all the jobs out there? I mean for every one person whose happy with their job, there’s another who does it because capitalism tells them they have to. Now lets say we take away that need to work for money. Lets say everyone had the ability to do whatever they wanted in life if they so choose. Suddenly, whose gonna be doing all the horrible jobs that nobody wants to do, but are vitally important for society to function? Are there people out there who love to collect the garbage, or work in middle management for some construction company? I’d happily make Big Macs for the rest of my life, sure, but I’d be pretty much the only one doing it. So how is society suppose to function when no one wants to do all the icky jobs that make society function?
Well there are a few ways to answer that. The first is robots. Robots do all the less-than-fantastic jobs. And I don’t mean robots as in literal humanised robots, but more as in automated machines that automatically clean the toilets and dispose of the garbage. With all the messy jobs out of the way, that leaves everyone free to pursue their life’s passion. But what if everyone wanted to be a Starfleet captain? After all, there’s only a limited amount of ships to go around. What happens to all the people who didn’t become captains? Did they accept lower-ranked positions, find work elsewhere? What? What about the people who wanted to be doctors but just weren’t smart enough? See, not only do we have a whole bunch of jobs that people don’t want to do, we have very few jobs compared to the sea of applicants. So what’s the outcome of this? Well, you’ll probably have a lot of people doing jobs they hate while deluding themselves into thinking that since it’s for the benefit of humanity, they have to do it. That would explain why red shirts keep joining the Enterprise despite how many of them die. They know that what they’re doing is benefiting humanity, even if at the most all they’re doing is proving that the monster on the ship is gonna kill ya. It’s a strange society where some people would be stuck doing something they have no real passion for, but knowing it needs to get done in order for the system to work. There’s no reward for doing it, you just have to do it. With everything at your fingertips work just becomes a part of your life that you put up with. It’s just a trade-off you have for all the great stuff you can do in your free time. And if you’re really good, you can convince yourself that you’re the most special person in the Federation since everything hangs on you fitting into society. Ultimately this Star Trek utopia is even more depressing than our current world. At least in our world you have a bunch of numbers on a screen that reflect how hard you worked.
But to swing it back round to the original question: Can you buy a Starfleet Big Mac? The answer… Yeah, if McDonalds was set up in much the same way a church was. I mean think about it: Religion tends to involve people doing rituals in accordance to their beliefs. If you made one of those rituals the making of a burger, and got people believing that it was the right thing to do, then you could easily have a little cult of people making burgers for free. It doesn’t have to be religious in the traditional sense, just a unified belief that making the burgers is a good thing for the person doing it. So what would a Starfleet McDonalds look like? Well, it’d probably be a bit more high-class, and all the meals would be free. But at the same time there’d still be people coming in to get a Big Mac cos, well, Big Macs are really tasty. So it’s entirely possible that the mess hall in Starfleet HQ has a McDonalds there for people with less-than-perfect dieting routines. The question is though, does a replicated burger taste as good as the real thing?
So there you have it. A bizarre and nonsensical look at a very random part of Star Trek. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.