Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The APEEmath vol 3: Antony Davies Visits NCC 1701-D

Spivonomist's Log Stardate -308719. We are in orbit of APEE 2014. Professor Antony Davies presents some of his work on the economics of science fiction worlds, culminating with this photo, which instantly joined the ranks of the Greatest Things Ever Seen At An Academic Conference. Enjoy.
The Campbell's Condensed version of his thesis is something like this: in the Star Trek universe, material scarcity has been overcome, but this does not and cannot overcome the key scarcity problems we analyze using the tools of economics. Choice still exists, as time and attention are scarce. The Enterprise can only seek out and explore one new world or one new civilization at a time.

Extend this idea to other genres, and we're still faced with unavoidable scarcities of time and attention. One of the vampire tropes is that despite being immortal, they end up bored of their dreary, repetitive existence. Thanks to immortality, the frantic pressure felt in a fleeting, brief life is gone, replaced by ennui and tiresome internal politics. Or something. Davies (obliquely, in his presentation) argues against this trope, noting that an infinitely long life does not grant a non-omnipresent entity access to more than one experience at a time. It does grant them copious wealth thanks to compound interest, but that's another matter entirely.

The only creatures in the Star Trek universe who've successfully overcome the economic problem are The Q, and this tends to be played as writer-indulgent pathos-cum-comedy. More frequently, the extensive use of applied phlebotinum means that the writers get to explore themes of racism, environmental degradation, international[planetary] relations, and in the guise of the Ferengi, greed, as if material trade-offs can be ignored or hand-waved away.

Of course, omitting trade-offs entirely is deeply unsatisfying for an audience. There is no dramatic tension without the principal characters having to make hard choices. Hence, the Prime Directive is often more a weak suggestion than the foremost organizing principle of Starfleet. A drama without conflict isn't that dramatic. Come to think of it, that's probably why Darmok is so resonant, particularly with its explicit acknowledgement of the source material (the Epic of Gilgamesh is the source for both this episode and for the thematically identical Dennis Quaid vehicle Enemy Mine).

It was interesting to see how the different series (read: different writers) played with notions of exchange from S1 of ToS (1966) to the close of Enterprise in 2005 (I don't count the Abrams reboots in the same universe, mostly because they're straight action films rather than dolled-up social commentary, though that's its own meta-commentary, I reckon, eh?). ToS had interplanetary trade (Cyrano Jones, the trader responsible for the Trouble with Tribbles), though not always presented in the most flattering light. It really wasn't until the later seasons of TNG, a few offhand remarks in ST IV, and the portrayal of the Ferengi in DS9 that the writing staff unleashed what might be considered a truly venomous critique of selfish capitalism. Of course, please bear in mind that what ended up on the screen might be more aptly considered a jab at the studio (recall the 2007-08 writers' strike; these things seldom happen for no reason). Not to defend the series too strongly, but it was Voyager that really made an effort to introduce meaningful material scarcity back into the show. Of course, they might have handled it a little better (inter alia, ahem Jennifer Lien), but the theme fit pretty well with the mid-90s, when it was all parachute pants, optimism, and a bit of leftover giddiness from the End of Communism™.

The point of my rambling here is that fiction is a useful vehicle for seeing how the folks in their specific place and time (in this case, contemporary suburban Los Angeles, usually) interpret commerce in their musings. However, do please remember to bear in mind that these authors may often have axes to grind that have less to do with society at large and more to do with the contents of their cultural bubble. If you're skeptical of this claim, I urge you to apply your own cultural analysis to foreign television.

To choose is to incur cost. So say we all.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?