Big Echo

Critical SF

 Away Day: Star Trek and the Utopia of Merit

by Jo Lindsay Walton

 Mark Baum: Cynthia wants me to quit. […] She says, this job is making me unhappy.
Vinny Daniel: But you’re happy when you’re unhappy!
Mark Baum: I am happy when I’m unhappy!
The Big Short [1]

 I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!
— Dr McCoy [2]

Work in Star Trek

The influential Star Trek franchise (1996–present) might best be approached as a critical utopia. That is, Star Trek doesn’t offer a detailed account of its ideal social system – a strategy which would risk remaining trapped within the very social imaginary it sought to replace – but rather gathers contradictory glimpses of utopias, shares protean utopian impulses, “preserves radical action,” and “creates a neutral space in which opposition can be articulated and received” (Moylan 50). Star Trek does not offer recipes for radicals, but rather framings, tools, provocations, and a certain dance of affect which we inadequately summarise as ‘hope.’

These utopian energies are concentrated in the society at the centre of the show, the Federation. In principle, Federation citizens enjoy an existence of great material abundance, guaranteed by “[f]ree and plentiful energy, pervasive automation, artificial intelligence, and replicators.”[3] Money has explicitly been abolished, and all labour is apparently freely given. Peter Frase suggests that we could even call the Federation “a communist society, in the sense that Marx used the term, a world run according to the principle ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”’ (48).

Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (2016) is a long-overdue study of the political economy of the Federation. As our own global economy is transformed by AI and automation, the economic themes of science fiction grow considerably more visible in everyday political discourse. Saadia’s book, written with warmth and energy, is a welcome bridge between those conversations and science fiction studies proper. Trekonomics also seems underpinned by a deep and detailed knowledge of its primary sources which this essay cannot hope to equal.[4]

Nonetheless, in this essay, I want to depart from Saadia’s analysis of one economic institution in particular: work. First I’ll look at Saadia’s remarks about how work is represented in Star Trek. I will try to situate such representations within a more broadly-horizoned possibility space, by bringing in a few basic ideas from economic anthropology. I also situate work in Star Trek in relation to some other modern and contemporary SF, such as Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017), which is critical of what I’m calling ‘techno-meritocracy.’ Drawing these strands together, I’ll then then try to discover within Star Trek the rough sketch of a functional techno-meritocracy or perhaps even a ‘utopia of merit.’ For the conclusion, I will briefly mention a small anomaly in work’s workings, which could be fruitful for future study, and turn over to a neural net to finish the work of this essay.

Get a Job, Utopian!

In a society of plenty, why would anybody work? Not everyone sees work as an accursed burden. “A man perfects himself by working,” writes Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present (1843). Work, for Carlyle, can offer a psychological integrity and solace that is even more profound than happiness itself. “The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was, happiness enough to get his work done.” Carlyle, presumably, would work even if he didn’t have to. But what about the rest of us? And if so, how would such widespread voluntary work be different from what now constitutes work? Would work merely be an enlarged and elaborated version of the labour that is currently woven into leisure — such as planning a party so you can have a party? Or might work be of a fundamentally different nature?

Of course, we don’t have to answer these questions. If we can muster the political power to make it happen, we can just try it and see. Meanwhile, it might be fun and maybe even useful to speculate a little, with the help of Picard et al. In the Star Trek movie First Contact (1996), Captain Jean-Luc Picard reveals to a curious party, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” The generally uncluttered accommodation and unassuming hobbies of most Starfleet officers supports this sense that they are not mesmerised by material accumulation. Earlier, in ‘The Neutral Zone’ (1988), Picard explains to an arch-capitalist who has awakened after centuries of sleep: “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”[5] When the awakened man asks, “What’s the challenge?” Picard responds that it is “to improve yourself. To enrich yourself. Enjoy it.” In the Deep Space Nine episode ‘In the Cards’ (1997), the human Jake is sassed by his Ferengi friend Nog: “It’s not my fault if your species decided to abandon currency-based economics for some philosophy of self-enhancement!” Jake responds with the same phrase Picard uses – “We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Truthfully, Nog himself seems somewhat taken by this same philosophy; in ‘Heart of Stone’ (1995), Nog rejects the hypercapitalist traditions of the Ferengi to work for free in the Federation: “I want to do something with my life … something worthwhile!”

In his Trekonomics, Saadia assembles such scattered clues into an account of work in Star Trek. He explores honour and reputation as motives for work, and also sketches parallels between Star Trek and crowdworker projects such as Wikipedia. The section I want to focus on, however, discusses work as a social bond. I want to unpack three aspects of this analysis, before moving on to offer an alternative.

It is almost a paradox to state it this way, but in a society where nothing is scarce and consequently where work is no longer a prerequisite for survival, finding good reasons to work becomes paramount, the defining existential question that everyone has to ask themselves. Why work at all if it’s not necessary? Because learning, making, and sharing is what makes life in the Federation worth living. Work, no longer a necessary burden, is the glue that holds the Federation together. It is the social bond and the social contract that impart substance and significance to life. Work, its life-affirming power, is why aliens and artificial life-forms are so eager to join the Federation.

First, there the point about work’s “life-affirming power.” Here I understand Saadia to mean not merely zoē, but a more qualified kind of life. That is is, what work affirms is the life of persons, or what we could more riskily call – albeit in an enlarged sense to accommodate the “aliens and artificial life-forms” who flock to the Federation – human life. Certainly, across a wide and various body of thought, work has frequently been associated with what it means to be distinctively, properly, or fully human,[6] and Saadia plays into this tradition by invoking work’s reputed power to humanise, to normalise, to realise some kind of inner nature. There’s also an implication that this inner nature is as collective as it is individual: that to work is to be affirmed as a mature, established, and respected member of a cosmopolitan community of workers. In this way, work promises to provide a new basis for for humanity which does not involve biological fetishism. “We’ve grown out of our infancy,” claims Picard; it’s like homo sapiens and homo economicus have sublated into homo faber.[7]

This celebration of work comes with a faint hint of threat: the threat that when we are not held together by the glue of work, we might instead regress to more juvenile and dangerous cohesion, forming ingroups based on biological essentialism, or religious and ethnic nationalism. Such groups tend to dehumanise outsiders and presumed infiltrators in order to justify persecuting them. These themes play out, for example, in Melinda M. Snodgrass’s episode ‘The Measure of a Man’ (TNG: Season 2, Episode 9, 1989). Captain Picard is stumped as to how he will demonstrate to a court that Data, an android, deserves to be treated with the dignity afforded sentient beings. The bartender Guinan gently points out that the court is on the brink of making a Data a slave, and her wording centres the work of slaves: “Well, consider that in the history of many worlds there have always been disposable creatures. They do the dirty work. They do the work that no one else wants to do because it’s too difficult, or to hazardous.”

Second, there is the question of “finding good reasons to work.” Here Saadia is deliberately echoing John Maynard Keynes’ ‘The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren’ (1930), which imagines the end of “the economic problem” of scarce resources. Keynes’ famous essay is, in many respects, a YA text, insofar as its first draft was a talk delivered to an elite boys’ boarding school.[8] Within it you can trace the outlines of a didactic ritual composed for such an occasion: a charm cast upon young artists and poets to give them courage, and a geas upon future captains of industry not to utterly forget the gentler aspects of their rounded education in the brutal rush for profits. In the course of this address, Keynes also seeks to surface and to dispel certain fears. Might a world without scarcity prove to be a world without work? And might it therefore also prove to be a world without purpose, meaning, distinction, innovation, transformation, and virtue? Keynes’ argument is ingenious: he embraces the claim that it would indeed be terrible to run out of challenges. But then he argues that we can never run out of challenges, since we will probably usually have a great diversity of non-economic challenges, and we will always have at least the challenge of challenge-seeking itself.[9] Saadia replicates Keynes’ elegant manoeuvre, when he speaks of “the defining existential question that everyone has to ask themselves” (q.v.). That is, in the Federation, you may not have to work, but you will always have at least the work of wondering if you should be working.

Third, we have to notice that Saadia’s passage is not only about work. It is also, more quietly, about the second extraordinary difference between Federation society and our own. Why does it feel so right to position work as something which connects and integrates people – to describe it as “glue,” “bond” and “contract”? Partly because it allows work to fill the space of what once carried out these functions – money.

Work, Market Exchange, and Reciprocity

Pre-monetary barter has never really existed quite as it is popularly imagined.[10] When we’re not using money to distribute goods, we use rich mixtures of non-market practices captured under the umbrella term reciprocity. Many forms of reciprocity involve gift-giving, and – as influentially theorised by the Marcel Mauss – gifts are marvellously complex social objects, which always come with strings attached. Innumerable times throughout human history, we have woven little societies from the gossamer strings of our gifts. Might we one day weave a big one? And what kind of cat’s cradle is the Federation?

When Saadia describes what work is like in the Federation, he also implies that the resources that pour from the Federation cornucopia are allocated by some system of reciprocity.[11] Just by itself, this claim doesn’t tell us much – there are so many different kinds of reciprocity! But Saadia narrows it down by (quite reasonably) emphasizing the more informal, forgiving, and egalitarian forms of reciprocity. That is, he emphasizes mutual aid, where what is paramount is the care and respect for one’s neighbours (or for those who might one day become one’s neighbours). Gift‑giving is focused on greatest need, and over time the accumulating networks of storied obligations fulfil an emergent function, gradually cultivating a discerning, generous, and fiercely cohesive community. Mutual aid has associations with anarchism – for instance, in Ursula Le Guin’s classic critical utopia The Dispossessed (1974) – but Saadia doesn’t go that far; the Federation does have laws and regulations!

There is nothing particularly odd in choosing to work for free (by “free” I do not mean coercion or slavery, of course). Even today, we often get to practice our skills and share their fruits freely. We volunteer to clean up beaches or to chaperon kids at school, we help out friends and neighbors, we share our experiences and knowledge online. We already make a ton of things out of passion, that is, without expectation of a financial reward (this little book being a good example).[12]

On the other hand, I think Saadia is downplaying other, more hierarchical forms of non‑market economic interaction that also exist, and that also could be used as a lens onto Star Trek. Such mechanisms – things like central planning; like heroic largesse; like tribute owing to rank; like expropriation and enslavement; or like more competitive forms of gift-giving, where regular losers get gradually reduced to dependants or lackeys – also constitute a kind of “social bond” or “glue.” It is not always nice to be glued to somebody else.

Some such mechanisms fall firmly under the umbrella of reciprocity, whereas others may spill out ambiguously from its edges. The latter category includes patriarchal mechanisms which extract unpaid reproductive labour from women – for example, housework and childcare – and which are often intimately connected with policing the boundaries of public and private, and of market and non-market. At the edges of reciprocity, I’d also place various quid pro quo arrangements that are more formally specified – “if you do this, I will do that.” Such arrangements start to shed the creative and improvisational character of gift-giving, and the reliance on memory, narrative, norms and mores, and interpretation. They may avail themselves to varying degrees of representational technologies (from tally sticks to smart contracts), and may become networked with a variety of enforcement mechanisms (from village elders, to digital reputation metrics, to laws and courts and prisons).[13] If they are elaborated into grand bureaucracies, they may start to shade into planned economies. If debt relations grow more transferable and more ‘general purpose,’[14] they may start to shade back into market mechanisms and money-forms.[15]

But we are now in a position to notice another zone – much less well-mapped – lurking in the midst of these possibilities: a zone of economic possibilities which are not quite markets, nor bureaucratically-planned economies, nor systems of informal reciprocity. This zone is important because it has been the locus of intensive utopian thought and, recently, the target of ferocious critique, caution, and satire. I’ll designate it ‘techno-meritocracy.’[16]

Work and Techno-Meritocracy

According to meritocratic ideal, social advantage should be distributed on the basis of merit, against a background of substantive equality of opportunity. Merit is, among other things, what should determine who does what work. Different offices offer the worker different affordances to develop and demonstrate merit, and thus to become mobile within the social order as regards work, responsibility, and power and other rewards. In practice however, the label ‘meritocracy’ has often been used to legitimise unjust hierarchy and unaccountable power. For example, merit can be rigidly and narrowly defined, arbitrarily disadvantaging individuals and groups.[17] Meritocracy can even be invoked – surprisingly – to undermine affirmative action, and other efforts to attempts to oppose racial, gender, and other injustices, and establish greater equality of opportunity. The large network of lackeys which radiate from the hyperrich, praising whatever they happen to do as meritorious, further shows just how manipulable the concept of ‘merit’ can be. 

Might techno-meritocracy, then, mitigate some of these flaws in the meritocratic ideal? In other words, might various modern and/or future technologies be used to gather and analyse data about what is being done badly or well, and might such data supplant the crude interaction of supply and demand in determining how work is divided and distributed? Markets have proved incapable of pricing everything in ways which reflect its real social value. But we live enmeshed with emerging data networks that track, quantify, calculate and anticipate our lives in ever greater detail. So might such networks, or their ancestors, be capable of delivering the ideal of a meritocracy? Might they be capable of assigning advantages and rewards with exceptional accuracy, at a fine grain, whilst keeping vigilant against emergent perverse incentives, and whilst maintaining a true orientation to social justice and the common good? In short – assuming we keep it well-fed on our data – could some kind of Artificial Intelligence replace and improve on money?

Much recent SF says no. Whether AI nurtures its own concept of what is best for us, or tries to aggregate and reflect our desires back at us, the results are not good. For example, in the episode ‘Majority Rules’ of Star Trek homage The Orville (2017), the crew visit Sargus 4, a world governed by a universal reputation metric. A clip of Lieutenant Commander John LaMarr dancing goes viral and accrues a huge amount of downvotes, attracting the attention of the authorities, and putting the navigator in danger of neurological correction. Reputational governance has been explored several times in Black Mirror (2011-), most notably in the episode ‘Nosedive’ (2016),[18] in which all interactions (digital and IRL) are rated by participants, and social class is a function of one’s average rating. Black Mirror’s own Star Trek homage, ‘USS Callister’ (2017), revolves around narcissistic abuse, insinuating something of the spirit of the Marquis de Sade into its starship bridge. Scott Westerfield’s Extras (2007) explores the psychologically corrosive aspects of a universal gamified popularity contest. Tim Maughan’s ‘Zero Hours’ (2013) imagines how the platformization and gamification of low-skilled work could be used to drive wedges into worker solidarity. Matthew De Abaitua’s If Then (2015) pictures data scapegoats expelled from their community by predictive analytics; it foregrounds the opacity of the algorithmic processes supposedly capable of aggregating our diverse appetites, opinions, and affordances.[19] Adam Roberts’ By The Pricking of Her Thumb (2018) imagines a rather lethal form of smart money.

SF does have a few more optimistic (or at least ambiguous) portrayals of techno-meritocracy, or at least some of its ingredients. I might point to Karen Lord’s Galaxy Game (2015), Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist (2005) and to a lesser extent his Culture works, and (more tenuously) earlier works such as Eric Frank Russell’s ‘And Then There Were None’ (1953) and perhaps even Jack Vance’s ‘The Moon Moth’ (1961). The stand-out example is Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), in which money has been replaced by a marvellously perceptive reputation system, Whuffie, which “can disambiguate every object in the universe” and “can know what you’re feeling and what you’re feeling it about” (Doctorow 2010).[20] Whuffie, as the objectification of spirit or mind, thus offers a broadly Hegelian solution to the conundrum of liberal state neutrality. That is, Whuffie does not impose one particular version of merit, plucked out of the air. Instead, Whuffie grasps individuals according to their concrete relationships with one another, uniting individuals in a universal body yet without flattening out their differences, and thus reconciling inner freedom and outer freedom.

However, Doctorow’s follow-up Walkaway (2017) firmly rejects the miraculous techno-meritocracy of Down and Out, as well as its more technically feasible cognates. As part of this rejection, Walkaway consistently lingers on forms of pleasure which are relatively low-tech (usually) and resistant to quantification – pleasure like friendship and conversation, having sex, sharing delicious food together. More explicitly, Walkaway stages a battle between two utopians. Limpopo, who is a believer in informal systems of reciprocity, and whose egalitarianism is influenced by disaster socialism in particular, squares off with Jackstraw, who is a proponent of technologically tracking and rewarding work performance. Limpopo does advocate the technological transformation of work, but via tools which ease and disperse hierarchies and enable collaboration, not tools which create formal competitive hierarchies. This battle’s outcome is decisive:

[…] Limpopo tore Jackstraw a comprehensive new asshole. She called him on every crumb of bullshit, found crashed projects where gamification had run wild, so financialized that every incentive distorted into titanic frauds that literally left structures in ruins, rotten to the mortar. They were existence proof of the terribleness of his cherished ideas. She pointed out that getting humans to “do the right thing” by incentivizing them to vanquish one another was stupid. She found videos of Skinner-trained pigeons who’d been taught to play piano through food-pellet training and pointed out that everyone who liked this envisioned himself as the experimenter – not the pigeon.[21]

Saadia’s Trekonomics, I think, invites Star Trek to join the satirical zeitgeist of Walkaway, If/Then, ‘Nose Dive’ et al. It offers the Federation as a society of abundance co-ordinated by egalitarian mechanisms of reciprocity. It recognises the close relationship between work and reputation in the Federation, and discerns immense informal social pressure to pursue status and success. At the same time, it supposes, forms or aspects of labour which traditionally have been difficult to automate – care work, emotional labour, creativity, teaching, “learning, making, and sharing”[22] – take on enhanced significance in the Federation, softening this pressure. Pre-Fordist craft is offered as a point of comparison: “the organization of work in the Federation resembles older, preindustrial forms of arrangements.”[23] Furthermore, “work in the Federation fulfills the deep human need for belonging and recognition. Work is another way to love and be loved and to express one’s unique sensibility.”[24] Saadia’s Federation is certainly not primitivist! – its technology generates its abundance, and is instrumental in distributing it – but it is an attack on both contemporary capitalism and on the seductive nostrums of techno-meritocracy.

Indeed, an important discovery of SF’s satire of techno-meritocracy is that the distinctions between contemporary capitalism and techno-meritocratic ‘alternatives’ are often quite blurred. As finance and information technology systems have interpenetrated, from the mid-C20th onward, money has started to look more and more like a complex and lively data structure.[25] As a character remarks in Adam Roberts’s By The Pricking of Her Thumb (2018), “After all, money isn’t coins and notes any more. It’s data, it is programs.”[26] What’s really telling is that (as is often the case with digital transformations) the emerging paradigm also turns out to be retrospectively applicable. In other words, maybe money has consisted of data and algorithms all along. We should certainly be careful of exaggerating the extent to which money has ever been an impersonal, fungible, purely quantitative medium.[27] The work of Viviana Zelizer, for example, theorises how money becomes freighted cognitive and emotional significance – ‘earmarked’ according to its source and purpose – in ways which influence how it fractures and flows.

Perhaps a clear and provocative way to sum this up is to say that money has always been a form of AI.[28] Insofar as this is convincing, the question, ‘Should AI replace money?’ gets dissolved. This means that it’s exciting times for SF’s critique of techno-meritocracy. Its target turns out to be much larger than it has often recognised. Market-based societies might be understood as just one subset of unsuccessful techno-meritocracies.

It’s also an unsettling thought. The target of satire turns out to be so huge, it may even be encroaching on the proposed alternatives. Even systems of reciprocity are not completely incompatible with hierarchy, nor even with exchange in formalised media. That is, we romanticise reciprocity if we identify it solely with mutual aid and forget about tribute. We romanticise reciprocity if we consider only gift-giving that creates equality, and not gift-giving that creates hierarchy.

Given the fluidity of basic economic interaction, our task becomes to understand in much greater depth and detail why some so-called ‘informal’ patterns can accomplish what the carefully designed formal techno-meritocracy often fails to do. What is preventing their operations from being technologized? How can they cultivate space within themselves for the kind of reflexivity, self-fashioning, and agency which so often appears wanting from formal techno-meritocracy? And SF might, perhaps, be equal to this task. But I’m not convinced that Star Trek is. We have come finally to the point where I part ways from the reading offered by Trekonomics.

“Shut Up, Wesley”

Saadia’s admirable vision of work in the Federation, as a system of egalitarian reciprocity, is only tenuously supported by the clues we have assembled. When Federation citizens justify why they work, the dominant theme is not care, cohesion, cultivating a shared lifeworld, or socially reproductive labour. The dominant theme is something we might characterise roughly as honour or progress, or some mixture of the two – expressed in phrases like “better ourselves,” “better [...] the rest of humanity,” “to improve yourself,” “to enrich yourself,” “self-enhancement” (q.v.). It is strikingly resonant with contemporary entrepreneurial language. It might even have a kind of competitive or even cutthroat feel to it. There is no horror of individualism in it (or of “egoizing,” as in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed). Sure, Picard and his Enterprise would not, on the whole, fit in among contemporary techno‑libertarians and their enterprises. But his remarks in themselves would be unremarkable in such circles. Wendy Brown writes of the latest, neoliberal phase of homo economicus that its project “is to self-invest in ways that enhance its value or to attract investors through constant attention to its actual or figurative credit rating, and to do this across every sphere of its existence.”[29]

True, the cutthroat quality of these scattered statements is tempered by the mention of “the rest of humanity” … although such anthropocentrism, in the context of many-specied Star Trek, might simply be construed as the competitiveness of a vast ingroup with its rivals. We might even hypothesise that each Federation citizen works to “better […] the rest of humanity” primarily through the example, and the competitive spur, of their own personal Nietzchean will to power. And while Picard’s phrase “to enrich yourself” may carry connotations of cultural enrichment, and thus necessarily a germ of communitas, his choice of words carries a subtle put-down. Picard’s twinkle-eyed rebuke to the awakened capitalist mocks the man’s impoverished conception of enrichment. What is the challenge? Explicitly, he offers freedom and enjoyment. But the subtext says: We thrust ourselves up above one another, and trample one another underfoot. Don’t worry, things haven’t changed so much.

But setting aside how Federation citizens describe their work, there is pronounced tension with how this work is actually depicted. Check out this exchange from Frank Abatemarco and Ronald D. Moore’s ‘Chain of Command’ (TNG: Se6, Ep10-11, 1992). Captain Jellico has taken charge of the Enterprise and summarily announced deep-reaching changes to working practices. Here he confronts his second-in-command Commander Will Riker:

Jellico: Is there a problem with delta shift, Will?

Riker: There is no delta shift yet, sir. I have spoken to the department heads about changing from three shifts to four, and they assure me it’s going to cause us significant personnel problems.

Jellico: So you have not changed the watch rotation.

Riker: I was going to explain this to you after the ceremony, sir.

Jellico: You will tell the department heads that as of now the Enterprise is on a four shift rotation. I don’t want to talk about it. Get it done. Now that means delta shift will be due to come on duty in two hours. I expect you to have it fully manned and ready when it does. Is that clear?

Riker: Yes, sir. If you’ll excuse me, sir.

A little later, Jellico visits Engineering with another tall order:

Data: I believe that is also an attainable goal. If we utilise the entire Engineering department, there should be sufficient manpower available to complete the task.

LaForge: Sure, if everybody works around the clock for the next two days.

Jellico: Then you’d better get to it, Geordi. It looks like you have some work to do.

Admittedly, Jellico is presented as an especially despotic and controlling leader. But Jellico’s personality, or his management style – versus the more sporadic despotic outbursts of Captains Picard, Sisko, Janeway et al. – is not really the point here. The point is that Starfleet norms and institutions accommodate and enable leaders like Jellico. The workers on the Enterprise have no mechanisms with which to check Jellico’s power. A Chief Medical Officer can relieve a captain who is not fit for duty, and that appears to be about it. Unions are a significant lacuna. But then, if we work “to better ourselves and the rest of humanity,” perhaps we have no need of unions?[30]

Even though Federation citizens are apparently equally empowered individuals, who enjoy material abundance, exercise their own definitions of freedom and pursue their own forms of virtue, their working lives consistently appear spartan and regimented, with few opportunities for vocational exploration, experiment, or self-expression. Whereas Trekonomics recalls Keynes’ notion of the ineradicable problem of problem-seeking, the workers of Star Trek are assigned their puzzles according to their roles and the strategizing of their senior officers. They do the same jobs day-in and day-out, and these jobs are embedded in a strict hierarchy, where authority is revered and commands are slinkingly obeyed. There are quarterly crew evaluations (as shown in TNG episode ‘Lower Decks’ (1994)). Junior officers must ask permission to speak freely. We can suppose that the Federation’s advanced technologies might afford them many opportunities to switch roles, or radically reshape the nature of those roles. But there seems to be little evidence of such flexibility. Given the comparative omniscience of the ship’s computer, life aboard a starship is not dissimilar to life within a surveillant assemblage, with data gathered at every turn. The capacity to put workers through bespoke simulations allows for detailed and intimate monitoring of performance. Ultimately the society is a carceral one, and workers who resist authority can be put on report, confined to quarters, thrown in the brig, or sent to the rehabilitative institution on the nearest Federation world. Whereas Trekonomics hints that work might be a humanising dynamic, within which a latent nature can flourish, Star Trek limits such flourishing to formal progression through the ranks, and for the mass who do not progress the rule seems to be domination and submission – sometimes, degrading and dehumanising submission.

All this is putting it pretty strongly. It is perfectly possible to treat the simultaneously egalitarian and hierarchical Federation as an inconsistent mish-mash, derived from different formative phases of the show’s history. The original 1960s Star Trek drew on tales of nautical adventure such as C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series (1937-1967), and on military SF such as Robert Heinlein’s Space Cadet (1948).[31] In this phase the principles of a meritocratic hierarchy were firmly built into the Star Trek universe. As the franchise evolved in the 1980s into movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation, a post-scarcity egalitarianism was layered on top. We might also choose to assume that within the Star Trek universe there is a necessary trade-off between meritocracy and egalitarianism, and that one or the other gets the upper hand at different points in history, and in different parts of the Federation. To some extent, Starfleet is certainly an exception to the Federation’s presiding spirit. The glimpses of the civilians onboard – for example Ben in René Echevarria’s episode ‘Lower Decks’ (s7 ep15, 1994) – do suggest some greater degree of liberty. We can confidently assume that civilians elsewhere enjoy greater freedom still.

So Star Trek invites us to assume that characters we grow to know best are very unusual Federation citizens, who have freely traded away their autonomy, in return for prestige and the chance of exotic and exhilarating experience, to perhaps the highest degree possible within that society. Of course, it is never clear how easy or difficult it is to disentangle oneself from such commitments. In Rick Berman and Michael Piller’s ‘Emissary’ (DS9: Se1, Ep 1-2, 1993), Commander Sisko is “investigating the possibility” of refusing an assignment:

Picard: I have been made aware by Starfleet of your objections to this assignment. I would have thought that after three years spent at the Utopia Planitia yards, that you would be ready for a change.

Sisko: I have a son that I’m raising alone, Captain. This is not the ideal environment.

Picard: Unfortunately as Starfleet officers, we do not always have the luxury to serve in an ideal environment.

Sisko: I realise that, sir, and I’m investigating the possibility of returning to Earth for civilian service.

Nevertheless, it is striking how very little of the Federation’s vaunted liberal and egalitarian spirit has found its way into its military institutions. This also raises the question of how many other institutions in the Federation consider themselves justified exceptions, and require participants to sacrifice autonomy and submit to hierarchy. Some? Most? All?

On the basis of this reading, the Federation shows greater resemblance to some kind of techno-meritocracy, than to a system of egalitarian reciprocity based largely on informal mechanisms.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the techno-meritocracy is not an object of sharp satire, as in Walkaway, Black Mirror, and the other works mentioned earlier. The techno-meritocracy pleads to be reconciled with the franchise’s deeply hopeful (and often holier-than-thou) temperament, and with the proficiency and patience, and the contentment and devotion of its dramatis personae, most of whom seem to have discovered a certain sweetness in disciplinarity. So pace Saadia, I propose that the way work works in Star Trek is by articulating – in the usual way of SF, imprecise and gestural way, making use of lacunae, estrangement, and allegory – a utopia of merit.

The only trouble is, I’m not quite sure what that means. The Federation is a society far more concerned with refining and redeeming hierarchy, and making hierarchy inhabitable and hospitable, than with mitigating or disintegrating hierarchy. I do mean for this to be an uncomfortable and even dangerous idea. Meritocracy is quite obviously an ideological instrument of the worst kinds of capitalism, and to attempt to make a space to think through a radical and redeemed version might just be totally naïve.

So I won’t attempt here to substantially reconstruct the Federation’s utopia of merit – which may or may not be a utopia for our time. One intriguing model might involve multiple interlocking spheres of value (and the cultivation of value), such that subjugation in some hierarchies is reliably associated with mastery in others. Another thread to tease at would be a small anomaly in the way work works in Star Trek: the landing party or away team, and its curious mix of senior and junior personnel, often apparently unsuited to the task at hand. Could the potentially richly storied nature of this labour be playing a role in how merit is construed? And why do the Captains and First Officers of Starfleet so frequently beam down directly into the inner jaws of death? Might we see their foolhardiness through the lens of the anthropology of kingship, broadly conceived, and the association of some kingly offices with sacred status, special restrictions, and violent demises? Or are these outings perhaps just nice opportunities for redshirts to get to know more senior personnel?

But for now at least, I will leave ‘utopia of merit’ as an empty placeholder. Whatever fills this placeholder, it should not be an egalitarian utopia organised primarily by informal reciprocity. That is, it should not be a society whose inexhaustible reserves of freely-given care and creativity work constantly to dissolve hierarchy. Rather, it should be something that elaborates upon Star Trek's striking hierarchies and its celebratory deployments of phrases such as “better ourselves,” “better [...] the rest of humanity,” “to improve yourself,” “to enrich yourself,” “self-enhancement” (q.v.). Yet at the same time, it should be something that absolutely rejects the hodgepodge of hoaxes that pass for merit under contemporary capitalism.

So finally, just to sketch a few shapes within this empty category, I will ask Adam King’s neural network Talk to Transformer for its thoughts. What follows is the neural network's (very lightly edited) responses to certain drafts and notes, now deleted, which attempted to interpret the Federation as a desirable techno-meritocracy: that is, as a utopia of merit:

I define a utopia of merit as a society in which, in some cases, all interests can be balanced according to needs, but there is no hierarchy. So when the society is divided into classes, or divisions into areas, or when it divides into classes, it is only because of the desire(s) to find the balance—to find common space among the different classes based on what it is they do and what they are in competition with, not what they look like (the only thing that matters is how well they act, not how much they look like or whether they have skin like Superman).

I'm not suggesting that this is a good or terrible idea. I think it all matters to those who serve: that we continue to cultivate this notion that we are superior, that we stand at a distinct evolutionary endpoint at which we are still at a distance to all other groups – especially in our own species – and are still fighting the battle between our and their superiority. It would be nice if we could stop treating aliens as being the last of our kind. They do face all of these challenges.  

And then those subject to such divisions will be divided into the two categories: those who would wish to see a utopia of equal merit and those who would wish to see a utopia of a certain sort. If our understanding of utopia is that equal merit is a utopia, then the Federation is an utopia (at least by our understanding of utopia) of equal merit. It is an order of domination that aims to make equal merit the ideal. Its goal is a goal (the Federation's goal will also be its ideal, but its ideal will not be its goal). Its goal is that equal merit should be made the foundation on which any future order of domination depends by creating a structure that will give equal merit to unequal aliens.

I define a utopia of merit as a world in which desire is unified by the unification of various rationalizing and steering functions into one action-context. That is, I assume a world free from conflict between desire and the utopia as such.

A utopia of merit is a kind of a utopia in which all of the rationalizing functions are unified in one action-context. I am not making this assumption by way of further empirical demonstration, this is just one idea as to how I think utopias will evolve. The main reason is that I feel that if I am trying to define utopias in such a simple way, then I will end up with no clear sense, what I like to call the black box of understanding.

If I am trying to go deeper, for instance, I may become aware of several more interesting conceptions associated with utopias. I will call these, the black box of understanding (BSUE), the central question of utopia, and the key conceptual idea as a point of divergence from the basic ideas of utopia itself. I have now decided to go deeper into this idea of utopia, and I think it's not without some problems. In a later article I will provide a brief review of the key conceptions and problems associated with utopia. Let me get on with it.


[1] The Big Short (2015), directed by Adam McKay and written by McKay and Charles Randolph. It is an interesting film for SF Studies, with its concern with technology, its use of classically Brechtian defamiliarization, and its touchingly determined efforts at communicating expert knowledge to a lay audience.

[2] Star Trek: TOS, Season 1, Episode 25, ‘The Devil in the Dark’ (1967). Written by Gene L. Coon and directed by Joseph Pevney.

[3] Saadia, Manu. Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek. Kindle Edition. (Locations 694-695).

[4] For the record, my own familiarity goes in roughly this order: TNG, Discovery, Voyager, the reboot films, DS9, TOS, Enterprise; this essay likely reflects this bias. It is also weighted toward a discussion of the post-replicator portions of the Star Trek historical timeline. As I write, the second season of Discovery is just getting started. It’s perhaps worth noting that Captain Pike’s first significant decision, upon assuming command of the Discovery, is to lead a hazardous landing party through a debris field to investigate a crashed spaceship which is, in all likelihood, lifeless. The redshirt trope is lampshaded here: Pike directs Commander Nhan, “Get your redshirt into an E.V. suit.” Star Trek: DIS, Season 2, Episode 1, ‘Brother’ (2019), written by Ted Sullivan, Gretchen J. Berg, and Aaron Harberts. In the event, Nhan is the only member of the team to make it to the asteroid without incident.

[5] Star Trek: TNG, Season 1, Episode 26, ‘The Neutral Zone’ (1988).

[6] We might think of the social and psychological benefits of the division of labour as described in the ancient Chinese Guanzi; of the character-forming significance of life cycle service in early modern Europe; of Karl Marx’s account of the interdependence of productive labour, human consciousness, and species-being; and even of the vicious moral engineering emerging in Victorian workhouses and asylums.

[7] Infancy is an interesting choice of words, when it might have been childhood. Perhaps Picard is being a little modest, and leaving room for the possibility that, within his chosen metaphor, humanity is still far from fully grown. [8] Keynes was in his mid-forties. [9] Keynes is very likely to have been familiar with E.M. Forster’s short story ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909), which portrays “a totalizing administration that ‘mechanizes’ every dimension of daily life (from the organization of nature and industry to the standardization of the person” (Moylan 2000: 111). In this “strange artificial ambience […] fragmented into billions of small metallic regular cells,” every cell is a “protective and impenetrable receptacle that contains one individual ensuring him or her an easy existence, free of worries and need” (Caporaletti 1997: 34). Forster writes: “Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine” (Forster 1909 xx). Even the ease and freedom from worry is ambiguous: in fact, characters are busy with endless apparently trivial intellectual and social endeavours, and are plagued by irritation and anxiety. It is a kind dystopia of plenty, in which machine domesticated humans are caught up in a perpetual frivolous storm of polemic and shallow intellectual investigation. Keynes’ clever move involves reversing this association. It is scarcity that forces us to engage in trivial, meaningless struggle, and plenty which would allow us to make truly meaningful decisions.

[10] Money has often been theorised as the natural solution to the inconvenience of barter. This is the story told by Aristotle, Adam Smith, William Stanley Jevons, right down to contemporary mainstream economics textbooks. But historical and sociological evidence belies their story.

[11] Or to put it another way, drawing on Jürgen Habermas’s suggestive terminology, the Federation operates through the communicative rationality of a shared lifeworld, rather than formal systems of bureaucratic and market power. Just by itself, this claim doesn’t tell us much – there are so many different possible states for our shared lifeworld to be in!

[12] Saadia, Manu. Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (Kindle Locations 726-729). Inkshares. Kindle Edition.

[13] Eric Frank Russell’s ob ‘currency’ in ‘And Then There Were None’ (1953) is one intriguing SFnal example of a highly formalised gift economy which makes use of writing.

[14] A system irrigated by special purpose money, especially the kind that is used to mark shifting human relations (e.g. marriages) but cannot be spent on material goods, is perhaps closer to a system of reciprocity than a market. See Polanyi; Parry and Bloch; Graeber.

[15] To the extent that they do approach planned economies, these arrangements tend to divulge and entrench their hierarchical nature. To the extent that they approach money-forms, they tend to disguise their hierarchical nature behind a fiction of free and equal exchange.

[16] Other closely related terms are algocracy (see Walton in Davies (2018)) or algorithmic governance. I would suggest ‘mirrortocracy’ as another coinage, insofar as such systems often promise perfectly to reflect our own desires and capacities to ourselves, to allow us to know ourselves and be governed by ourselves with unprecedented accuracy.

[17] In Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017), one character mocks meritocratic pretensions as follows: ““It’s the height of self-serving circular bullshit, isn’t it? ‘We’re the best people we know, we’re on top, therefore we have a meritocracy. How do we know we’re the best? Because we’re on top. QED’” (Kindle loc. 604). Doctorow’s book also explores a deeper objection to the ideal of meritocracy: briefly, that no one should be rewarded or punished for characteristics over which they have no control.

[18] Michael Schur and Rashida Jones

[19] Cf. Megan Ward, ‘The Problem With Feedback’ (The Atlantic, 2018).


[21] Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway (Kindle Locations 1621-1626). Head of Zeus. Kindle Edition.

[22] Saadia, Manu. Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (Kindle Location 702). Inkshares. Kindle Edition

[23] Saadia, Manu. Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (Kindle Locations 857-858). Inkshares. Kindle Edition.

[24] Saadia, Manu. Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (Kindle Locations 870-871). Inkshares. Kindle Edition.

[25] The rise of blockchain-based coins such as Bitcoin is a great example. But even the supply of standard national currencies is almost entirely made up of entries in electronic ledgers. And then there are financial instruments, which are usually not technically classified as money – though perhaps they should be. When we say somebody ‘has a lot of money,’ we don’t really just mean they have a fat wallet or a large balance in their current account. Rich people embody their wealth in diversified portfolios of shares, bonds, commodities, and derivatives, across financial markets which are enabled by and instantiated in digital networks. So the different segments of a large fortune are discriminated from one another. Each appreciates and depreciates in different circumstances, each is accompanied by its own set of limitations and powers. A large fortune is like beach sand, which only looks like an undifferentiated mass at first. When you zoom it, all the pieces are stunningly different.

[26] Roberts, Adam. By the Pricking of Her Thumb. Orion. Kindle Edition. Loc. 4227.

[27] There is a rich critical tradition – including the likes of Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, and Jürgen Habermas – which tends to present money as a homogenous, fungible, impersonal, almost qualitatively featureless medium. This tradition shouldn’t be dismissed. When reciprocity gets replaced by market mechanisms, rich and complicated human relationships get replaced by bland transactions. But we should also take care not to exaggerate the homogeneity of money, and neglect its intricate structure and texture.

[28] Neoliberalism’s greatest philosopher, Friedrich Hayek, had a fumbling grasp of this insight. Hayek liked to portray markets as information processors. Hayek’s mistakes about the nature of markets reflect, with some interesting distortions, certain sensationalistic tropes about the nature of AI. The Hayekian market may seem to be capable of reading your very thoughts, or even the desires you hide from yourself. At the same time, the Hayekian market can be ploddingly literalistic and devoted to surface behaviours.

[29] Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos (Zone / Near Futures) (Kindle Locations 368-370). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

[30] The DS9 episode ‘Bar Association’ (1996) seems to confirm that the Federation’s familiarity with unions is historical only. “O’BRIEN: A union, huh? Good for you. / ROM: You know about unions? / O’BRIEN: Who do you think led the Pennsylvania coal miners during the anthracite strike of nineteen oh two? / ROM: I have no idea. / O’BRIEN: Sean Aloysius O’Brien.”