Federated bookkeeping, why our economic abilities have atrophied,
or: How does a starfleet officer pay in a Ferengi bar?
I cannot live without science fiction. Sci-Fi was something that helped to connect my father, my brother and me despite the fact that we could agree on pretty much nothing, neither on how to start your day nor how to approach life and its many challenges. Later I realized that our family was not special. We were rather ordinary in the way storytelling had cast its powerful spell on our behavior and thinking. To this day my brother and me argue about whether the universe in the Strugatskys' "One Billion Years to the End of the World" showed sentience, had always been sentient or became sentient with the discovery of the professor's formula. While we could not agree on how to understand the stories, we were for a change happy to be in disagreement.
While Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek universe never seemed to be the most challenging "reading" it was certainly one that could open more conversations than say Ursula Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness". I am still uncertain whether the popularization of Sci-Fi decreased its quality or rather shifted its focus away from overly academic problems to those that are a little less obvious and maybe not that scholarly, to things that we might consider mundane. But the less obvious problems, those that may not immediately raise our ire by showing us familiar forms of injustice, present scientific or technological puzzles or shake our worldviews, turn out to be even more interesting because they reveal what we presume to be natural or immutable and take for granted. Take the federation's disdain for currencies for example that makes finance and money in Start Trek (almost) non-existent in their post-scarcity society. What most people would consider utopian, a society where everyone contributes within her/his means and receives according to his/her needs, is to some degree certainly just a device to avoid having to answer the question of how the federation's economy works, how its citizens solve economic problems and when humanity exactly hit post-scarcity. But by omitting the solution to the problem we are also challenged to devise one ourselves. So while there is a tendency to omit the specifics of economy for practical reasons, this inability empowers the federation's philosophy and allows the narrators to weave their spell.
The most puzzling aspect of Star Trek is that humans can economically interact with species who have fundamentally different ideas of value, work and economy: Humans have not somehow grown less inclined to participate in amusement and frequent the establishments of other species as they do in Deep Space Nine's casino "Quark's". Quark is primarily known to value one thing above everything else: gold pressed latinum. This alloy cannot be replicated, is incredibly rare throughout the universe and therefore meets his criteria of an intergalactic currency. Quark is certainly not interested in giving the federation anything for free. He finds its economic principles appalling, immoral and haphazard. However his bar is filled with humans, moreover federation staff, all the time. And their appetites and fondness for drink have neither diminished in the case of a very Irish engineer nor in the case of a very young and sensual doctor. You think I have too much time on my hands? I am by no means the only one to ponder that question. So how do we imagine commerce between cultures that are so fundamentally different, have had no time to agree on a common currency or do not have a powerful and wealthy organization they both trust (or are forced to trust)? One way would be to simply assume that they physically barter or that one side has access to payments despite saying they don't need them. This is certainly the case in a many episodes where technology and resources are exchanged.
Another way would be to assume that the federation can transmit economic information not only by means of physical currency, money, which is really only a system of physical signifiers, symbols, to denote economic value and its transfer. Instead they can transmit information digitally or even in a post-digital way. Computer systems dubbed "isolinear" that resemble the new 5D optical data storage developed a couple of years ago, which Microsoft wants to use for long time storage of all public GitHub repositories, are already becoming obsolete in Star Trek. We must assume the federation is very good at storing and processing unbelievable amounts of information. What sense does it then make to rely on physical currencies in everyday transactions unless you are dealing with aliens from the other side of the galaxy (who may be living on planet of the alloy or element you believe to be so precious). Wouldn't it make more sense to simply exchange the information of the deal in a non-material way and then balance accounts and books in regular intervals depending on what parties actually need and how closely their economies are intertwined? If we look at currencies from the perspective of a historian, then the only reason why they were physical in the first place was because all transfer of information was oral or depended on analogue ways of encoding and reproducing information: casting/chiseling, minting and molding and finally printing. But with the advent of digital technologies and mathematics this was no longer necessary. Suddenly banks who were traditionally either in charge of producing money or distributing the money produced by authorities started digitizing this exchange of information. Value and its communication were embarking on a journey of perpetual abstraction from cattle and barter towards transfers of information little more complex than phone calls.
The next logical step of technological abstraction, in what appears to be a two-fold abstraction of value and its communication, may have already set in. Interstellar message-money would be the utilization of communication techniques that would not depend on electric circuitry but even faster electromagnetic communication. Speed is important in order to be able to do trade in an economy spanning many light years. The existence of subspace communications in Star Trek suggests that all communication is happening nearly in real time and processing adds only little more time. But nearly instantaneous money-messages can be sent over circuitry on a planetary scale. So a development before interstellar communication is likely. I believe a possible next step could be the abstractions of the information of the value message itself. While wire and crypto transfers have become nearly instantaneous they continue the trend to abstract from physical properties like mass to more abstract mathematical properties like the numeric amount in relation to circulating supply, bonds and exchanges. The most likely next abstraction step would be the abstraction of monetary credit and debit to credit/debit as means of payments itself within socially established and acceptable rules and boundaries. This is already happening on this planet in the form of credit cards and loans. But these forms of payment are still tied to the actual possession of money-messages the creditor is probable to possess in the future. And this is where I believe the concrete utopian aspect of Star Trek economy reveals itself: an economic system where universally acknowledged credit can be granted to anyone granted that he has credibility, be it in the form of possession, good standing and reputation or because he has debit. The problem with most contemporary economic systems is that you cannot be economically active if you are not in possession of money or if capitalist institutions do not believe that you will be in the future. In this respect economies atrophy the very qualities that they claim to promote with buzzwords like "homo oeconomicus": the economic activity of the individual. Instead we chain all human economic activity to the rocks of property and some notion of labor that can be exploited by others. So what system could be devised to break the chains?
Let us imagine entering Quark's: I walk to the counter and order an ale. I am a Starfleet ensign (knowing my attitude I would never make it higher in any hierarchy). Quark registers the ale in some way and creates an entry in his book that increases his debit towards me and grants me credit. Quark can choose what measure of value he wants to be paid in (gold pressed latinum of course). He can decide when the payment will be due and he decides how public this deal is, especially if there is third party regulation. Somewhere in the process of drinking my beer, my communicator picks up on the transaction and confirms Quark's debit by registering credit in my book (primarily to deter fraudulent claims). My book on the other hand is tied to a whole network of books of people that are both creditors and debitors. Maybe I only have an account that is backed by all the other accounts in the book of my city, planet or interplanetary organization as long as I don't misbehave too much? Since I live on a space station with Quark and maintain pretty much everything I can exchange this service, the collective service of my whole civilization on his space station, against pretty much anything he would be willing to sell, providing I have a certain amount of debit from my services or credit from other people's accounts and provided that my purchase, if it is performed by using other people’s credit, does not violate some rules that we have laid out in advance be it collectively or bilaterally. We are in a world of connected books. We are bookkeeping. We have an account of information, maybe even in the form of precious stories about how we interact(ed) economically. Or as Jean Luc Picard would say: "We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."
This blog post will be the first in a series of blog posts revolving around the future of commerce and trade. Stay tuned for more on federated bookkeeping and probably less on starfleet but not less on Sci-Fi.