Who cleans the toilets on the Enterprise?

Monday, April 29, 2013

I see a lot of talk on the Internet lately about the wonders of our coming ‘post-scarcity’ world, mostly because so many people are unemployed and can’t see how they can possibly work again. In this brave new future, everyone will be able to have whatever they want, no-one will have to work and we’ll all be happy and fluffy.

Except it will never happen.

There will never be enough resources for everyone to have as much as they want without scarcity. Even if I was the only being in the universe, I could easily use more resources than are available to me. For any amount of resources you can think of, I can think of a use for more. If I want to turn the solar system into a Dyson Sphere all of my own, then no-one else can have it. If I want to turn every galaxy into a giant super-computer to calculate prime numbers, you can’t use it for running your super-complex MMO game.

This is an example of what you might call the ‘Who cleans the toilets on the Enterprise?’ problem. I’m not sure that Star Trek has ever claimed to be a post-scarcity world, but a number of trekkies have claimed it is. Yet somehow, people are still found to do all the boring, dirty and dangerous jobs on the Starship Enterprise, rather than demanding starships of their own. If there’s no scarcity, why would anyone choose to clean the toilets on the Enterprise?

The problem with the whole ‘post-scarcity’ idea is that it mostly comes from people with little imagination. They’re happy to live in an apartment with a cat and a TV, and anyone who demands entire galaxies for their own use is just being silly. The reality is that the ones who are happy with very little are being silly; one person who wants to own galaxies and spawns off numerous copies of their personality can use up the entire universe and leave nothing for the ‘sensible’ people.

Pretty soon they announce that there must be rationing of the ‘post-scarcity’ resources to ensure people only use them sensibly. So you’re suddenly back to scarcity, this time artificially created a ruling caste. Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are a good example, a ‘post-scarcity’ world where the synthetic intelligent Minds ensure that humans only get whatever scraps the Minds feed them. Fortunately, as in much left-wing fiction, the ruling caste is almost entirely composed of altruistic philosopher kings, so everyone is happy.

In the real world, of course, the ruling caste would get their Zil space limousines, while the rest would live in caves and fight for the rulers’ favour. When resources are power, the very people most attracted to power are the least likely to give any of it to anyone else.

But let’s suppose for a moment it did work. The wondrous philosopher kings can amicably share all the resources of the universe so everyone is happy and everyone has everything they want and no-one has to work for a living. Then what?

Well, we all sit around being pampered with no reason to do anything. And, being bored, we start having kids. Pretty soon, the population of pampered, unproductive people is rising much faster than the resources available to sustain us. Oops.

Then we’re back to square one. The ruling caste is now telling us how many kids we can have, and ensuring we can only have a ‘sensible’ number, even if we want millions.

So whenever anyone tells you about the glorious new ‘post-scarcity’ future, what they’re really talking about is their new ‘post-freedom’ future where everyone must behave ‘sensibly’, even if they have to force you to do so.

One Comment

  1. Evan Connolly says:

    Hello, I was thinking that they probably would use some sort of robot for cleaning the floors, kind of like the RoboVac. Either that or they would use nanites. As for the W/Cs, they would probably have developed a self cleaning model.

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