London in Star Trek's futureNilofer Merchant, in a TED guest post from 2014, described his belief that the technological world of Star Trek has largely overtaken us (obviously, we’re not visiting other planets yet)… and the best news of all, that we should expect to reach the social world of Trek within 30 years.  And how could we not want to achieve Gene Roddenberry’s dream of a utopian Earth and bright, bright future?

Yet, there’s one thing that Nilofer neglects to mention, and it only happens to be the one absolutely non-negotiable thing that we on Earth must accomplish, or we won’t see Roddenberry’s utopia in 30 years, 300 years or 3,000 years.

In short, we need universal guaranteed minimal living conditions.

Key to Star Trek‘s vision of the future was that everyone on Earth—and supposedly, throughout the entire United Federation of Planets—was that everyone, absolutely everyone, lived comfortably, did not get cold or go hungry, and did not even need money on a daily basis to survive.  Yes, there were people in the Federation who chose to do more than simply exist: Some of them became merchants, created art, or explored the stars.  But though it was never shown on the TV series, it was presented in many of the books written in the Star Trek universe: If you didn’t want to do anything, you didn’t have to do anything… and you still had a good roof over your head and three squares a day to keep you sated.

Today’s economists are now spreading the word that about one tenth of a percent of the world’s population holds about ninety-nine percent of its wealth.  More than a few suggest that, if that wealth was evenly distributed among the world’s population, we could enjoy a universal living state, living wage and social services enough to sustain everyone on Earth (not to the standards enjoyed by much of the developed West, I’m afraid, but yes, sustainable).

getty labyrinthAnd so people are asking: What would it take to evenly distribute that wealth?

That is the social, political and financial revolution that would be required to achieve Roddenberry’s utopian Earth.  And it will probably take nothing short of a global calamity to kick something like that into motion.  Because, of course, the one-tenth percent like their lives and fortunes, and have no plans to give them up.  In order to be willing to give them up, they would surely want a guarantee that they’d continue to live well, like they do now… which, by definition, wouldn’t happen.

And even beyond that one-tenth percent: Imagine you, a relatively comfortable urban or suburban Westerner, were told that you could have a guaranteed minimal living condition and wage… and it would be roughly analogous to living in a smallish motel room and your fair share of veggies and mushrooms to fill your tummy?  Most Westerners wouldn’t be too keen on that idea, either.  Everyone wants steaks in their penthouse.  How could you get them to settle for less?

So, short of a calamity, like an asteroid strike or World War III, that would force absolutely everyone (and probably smaller numbers of them) to start over from scratch, it’s pretty hard to picture the future Earth’s utopia.  Most of the new governments and social systems humans have developed over the years were as a result of financial, organizational or political upheaval that demanded new systems to be conceived to move forward.

On the other hand… Roddenberry’s Star Trek did predict that the world would suffer two additional major wars (World War III and a Eugenics War) and resultant societal collapse, and the utopian future would result from the efforts of recovering from those events.  And Roddenberry’s ideas reflected the concepts H.G. Wells envisioned in Things to Come (a movie that came out when Roddenberry was a teen, and which certainly inspired him).

Change is a-comin’…

So, great… we need a global disaster. And the thing about disasters is, they’re usually pretty hard on the populace.  That means we may just get our utopia… but a hell of a lot of us won’t live long enough to see it.  Could we get there any other way… say, by a global consensus of political leaders, working together to redistribute resources and create the new utopia?

I hate to say it… but I’d put my money on the disaster.

Well, okay, okay: There is one other thing that could do it.  A single, incredible technological development could elevate everyone on Earth to a comfortable—even modern Western—living standard, and remove the need to work for a living.  Maybe this is what Nilofer believes we will manage to invent within the next 30 years.

Star Trek replicator technologyReplicators. 

Those cool devices that can, through some inexplicable manner, turn raw energy, miscellaneous atoms and stored matter patterns into food, clothing, tools, art… probably sex robots… anything you desire.  If we could develop replicators, we could start churning out anything for anyone, and quickly have us all living the life of Reilly.  And now that we’ve started on 3-D printers, and are learning how to combine more complex elements in the printing process, we’re on the road to replicator technology by 2045!  Right?

Well, we’ll see.  And I guess we’ll see which gets here first: The replicator-produced future utopia; or the asteroid strike.