Post Modern is a podcast contemplating the future of technology. Listen to the episode above or read the transcript below.
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Today’s episode is about replicator technology. You might know it as the microwave on Star Trek: The Next Generation that could make literally anything appear. Including Captain Picard’s signature drink.
In science fiction, replicator technology is a matter converter, something that can rearrange subatomic particles to create just about anything. On Star Trek, the replicator is used to make everything from food and water to medicine and tools. On SpyKids, it’s used to order a Mcdonald's Happy Meal.
If the replicator of the sci-fi world feels far-fetched, elements of it are already in use today. Maybe you’ve heard of nanotechnology, or 3D printing? Theoretically, we could gather everything on the periodic table and then re-arrange them into whatever we need.
“How many elements are on the periodic table? It's like over 100 and less than 200. And, frankly, most things that we use are made out of a small small subset of those. So the intuition is that you can really make almost anything we want out of a small number of parts.”
That’s Ben Reinhardt, founder of Speculative Technologies. His organization funds technologies that are too out there to be a startup, but too visionary to not explore. Think of it like a venture capital firm for companies that won’t be profitable for a very long time, but are worth working on anyway for the advancements they’ll have for humanity.
One of the companies in his portfolio is working on molecular additive manufacturing, something he says could lead to space elevators, airplanes made out of diamonds, self-healing and self-cleaning materials, and manufacturing tools that are essentially replicators.
“All of them are very, very far away from a fully generic replicator, but you could squint really hard and see how, if draw the trend lines out, we might be able to use some combination of them to to do that.”
If we were able to create it, Reindhardt says it won’t look like a microwave. It would probably look more like a vat of liquid that things could emerge out of. And it’s filled with a billion microscopic robots all carrying atoms where they need to go. But they’re so microscopic that there wouldn’t be any moving parts that we could see. Even still, it would be difficult to keep every element stocked.
“If it were going to be fully general, it would need every element that goes into everything that you use. So in some ridiculous situation where we're still using cell phones that look exactly the same as the c ell phones we have now, the replicator would need gold because there are gold contacts on some of the circuits.”
Far more important than a technology that can make anything, is the economy that technology would create. On Star Trek, the replicator is a metaphor for a post-scarcity economy. And here I must consult Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek.
“The replicator is a thought experiment of what life would be like under conditions of terminal abundance. And in the sense that the replicator in Star Trek, as a thought experiment, makes the necessity to work irrelevant.”
Star Wars projects a post-capitalist worldview. The United Federation of Planets has made the replicator free as a public good—like libraries or parks. The result is that people never need to buy things, or even work to produce things. All production is automated by machines that can make whatever we want whenever we want. As a result, we don’t need companies that do that.
“ , the cost of luxuries but also the cost of necessities will converge to zero. And the labor needed to produce these things will also converge to zero. And therefore, suddenly you have a society of leisure and people have to find meaning for themselves outside of the possession of goods, because goods and material things have no value.”
Captain Picard’s crew explores the galaxy for the benefit of humanity. And for the benefit of one another. Everybody who exists in this worldview is equal. Because everyone is just as capable of owning something as everyone else, there is no keeping up with the Joneses. Consumerism is effectively ended.
“Imagine a society where everybody is born winning the lottery. And everybody around you has won the lottery as well and has so much wealth that there's no longer any meaning to purchasing things. So that's the mindset.
Early show writers decided to make the Federation utopian, they had achieved economic success and prosperity. But to maintain interest in the show, they had to come up with conflict. As a solution, Star Trek isolated that conflict to external factors, alien races, and less than utopian societies. And the replicator is placed in stark juxtaposition as a symbol of both.
“On the bridge of the enterprise, there is no conflict. Everybody's sort of like a little Buddha—they're all even-keeled and rational and empathetic and really nice people. And that portrayal is actually very impressive because it's a portrayal of what people could be under conditions of abundance or post-scarcity.”
If the replicator is used by the Federation for post-capitalist purposes, the technology is also used for capitalist purposes. On Deep Space Nine, we see replicator technology used by an alien species called the Ferengi. Saadia calls them old-school capitalists. They act as a sort of caricature of the American businessman.
“The bar owner on Deep Space Nine is a Ferengi and he operates a replicator—to serve bar food and bar drinks. But he operates a replicator and makes you pay for it. So the replicator, for the Ferringhi, is a license to print money, essentially.”
This contrast between abundance used for the prosperity of all vs. hoarded for the prosperity of a few is one early Star Trek makers were keen to make. But it came with a tradeoff.
”Star Trek, it is utopian, but utopia is boring. Fundamentally, nothing happens. That's the point. All the things that happen were very personal and internal.”
If early Star Trek writers were post-capitalist thinkers, modern ones are much less so. When Michael Chabon began working on Star Trek: Picard, he shared on Instagram that though he had read Saadia’s book, he was going to take the show in a different direction. A world where there is no conflict and all of the economic problems have been solved? Useless.
“Star Trek, as a result, because it's a TV show produced under capitalism and it's an industry, they have to make it exciting because they need people to come back every week and to watch the ads. So that's the business model.”
The economic model drives the plot, of Star Trek and many other series. That’s probably why we’ve seen so much of the entertainment industry turn away from the idealistic shows of the 1990s and 90s to the dark and gritty ones of the 2010s and 2020s. Back then we had Friends and Seinfeld and Lois and Clarke, now we have Succession and White Lotus and Severance. As it turns out, dark and gritty is a moneymaker. We need everything to go wrong. We need perpetual turmoil. We need a cliffhanger. We need to not wrap things up until we get to the very end.
“We're in capitalism, so you need people to buy the subscription. You need to save the universe at the end of the season.”
If I can admit there are challenges to capitalism, I’m not convinced post-capitalism is the solution. In the case of the former, it’s companies that do all the innovating, in the case of the latter it’s the government. The private sector might spur innovation but it comes at the expense of public goods like parks and libraries. The public sector might give us public goods like parks and libraries but it comes at the expense of innovation. We need both the public good, and a way to fund it and innovate toward it. And it is that combination that funds Speculative Technologies.
“Philanthropists spend almost as much as the NSF on science every year. So it's not insane to look at some combination of government funding and philanthropic funding to build these technologies.”
It is because of both parties that Reinhardt is even able to entertain the idea of replicator technology, and to work on developing it. And maybe that means the replicator might be funded by capitalism but used as a public good. Maybe we will still arrive at a post-scarcity economy, if not in the way Star Trek once proposed.
“I'm skeptical about it completely replacing capitalism because you still need he raw inputs for a replicator—you can't necessarily find everything that you need just by going outside. But, it certainly would change the structure of the economy.”