The original series of Star Trek, which began as a TV show 50 years ago and inspired several movies, was set in the 23rd century. They used a currency called Federation credits.
SAADIA: The name Federation credits and credits is what every science fiction universe uses. They all call it credit. In Babylon Five – it’s credits. In Star Wars, they talk about Empire credits.
To Saadia, the fact that most science-fiction writers resort to the generic term “credit” shows they weren’t thinking too deeply about the future of money.
SAADIA: Because if you get into the details you would try to call it something else.
But in a 1986 Star Trek film, something interesting happened.
SAADIA: So in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the crew of the Enterprise has to travel back to the 20th century to rescue, to bring a bunch of whales into the future to save Earth, because Earth is under attack by a probe that is trying to communicate with whales. It sounds ridiculous, and it kind of is. But there is this famous scene in a restaurant where Captain Kirk, always the ladies’ man, is trying to convince the biologist to let him take the whales. And she takes him to a pizza joint in San Francisco. And at the end of the meal when the bill comes, she has to pick it up because obviously Captain Kirk doesn’t have money, and they don’t have money in the 23rd century. So it’s played for comedy here and it works really well because the actors are fantastic. But it’s also the pivotal moment, I think, to me, for the economics of the future.
Saadia says that what began as throwaway jokes about a future without money became the entire social and economic foundation for the next installment of Star Trek – The Next Generation – which takes place in the twenty-fourth century.
SAADIA: None of the behaviors that we normally associate with market economies have currency in the 24th century.
There’s also no poverty or famine; there’s an abundance of everything. This is largely thanks to the miracle machine known as the replicator.
SAADIA: And the replicator is a machine that can materialize anything you ask of it, on the spot. It is largely a metaphor for automation and robotics. The replicator is the last machine. There is no better machine than the replicator. The other thing about the replicator is that it is a public good. So what that means is that it is non-excludable and nonrival. Anybody can use it, and nobody can put any kind of toll or barrier to its usage. And your usage of the replicator doesn’t prevent anybody else from using it as well.
As utopian as that sounds, Saadia argues that it’s not necessarily impossible, based on a reading of the present.
SAADIA: Some sectors of the economy today — technological sectors of the economy — are no longer relying on monetary exchange. I mean one of the most striking examples of that is the GPS, the Global Positioning System. This is something that costs society about $1 billion a year to operate, so basically it’s nothing. And it creates an amount of value that is absolutely incommensurate to its annual cost. And it’s also free to use by everybody. There are more than 3 billion GPS receivers active in the world at any one time. So you can see a non-monetary part of the economy develop alongside the regular monetary part of the economy, the market economy. So I think that where there is no scarcity, there’s probably no need for money. That’s how I see it. I believe that the use for money will become less and less prevalent.