Saturday, June 18, 2011

Star Trek economy - part 1

I was a kid watching the fantastic operations of NASA as the first humans set foot on a ball of rock that wasn't Earth. At the same time,there were a few tv shows that were along the lines of humans exploring space, Lost in Space and Star Trek being the most notable.

OK. So the robot in Lost in Space terrified me and I found Mr. Smith beyond creepy. The show's writers had succeeded from that aspect.

But Star Trek was a wide-eyed, gee whiz, ride. Humans were in contact with other species and they displayed, both the humans and the aliens, often the best and worst of "humanity" (quotes required as the aliens actions don't qualify as human actions).

As I got older I absorbed all forms of Science Fiction, books and movies were the dominate media, with the occasional radio play (HHGTTG!) and came to a realization: there's no way to build a space-going species with the dominate economic systems. The domination of profit motive is just too self-centered to allow for such a tremendous investment of resources as to do the science and engineering research required to allow humans to live indefinitely aboard a vessel that can travel between solar systems with a human lifespan.

Star Trek, however, had shown an alternative way of looking at resource allocation (which is really what economics is all about - not just money). In Star Trek, and in fact all of the stories in which there was a successful, large scale presence of humans in space, at some point in time, usually associated with a calamity, the humans had devised a new economy that was not centered around the acquisition of 'things' but the betterment of the individual.

A transition from an economy based on acquiring things to an economy based on non-tangible human achievement will be fought against viciously by those who gain the most benefit from the current version. And the people who measure their personal worth by the things they buy will also be devastated. A reasonable first step in this will be to address the merits of cooperation versus the consumption costs of competition.

Competition is the free market buzzword in our current environment. Two or more organizations consume resources to produce similar products. Each tries to be better than the other but is barred from directly copying the best of the other by current patent and copyright laws or lack of knowledge through secrecy. So each creates a less than ideal product. Since the product is not the best that it could be, the purchaser must revisit the same buying process at a later time in a futile attempt to get the best product for the need. Thus both producers have expended resources to make a less than desired product and the buyer has a less than fully capable product.

In the process of a cooperative production, resources are consumed in the design phase evaluating the capabilities of proposed solutions and then in the negotiation of divided tasks but the end result is fewer tangible resources consumed when otherwise competing producers cooperate.

Is that really accurate? Doubtful. It's difficult to accept, though, that two companies that both make mass-production items, cars or power drills for example, could not collaborate and produce not two or more lines of competing products but instead a single line of best of breed products. Could Ford and Toyota both benefit from collaboration on hybrid cars and work trucks? What about Makita and Milwaulkee power tools?

We have real-world examples of a hybrid approach being successful. The NASA-led space program is a blend of competition (companies bid to run production) and cooperation (after bidding the same competitive adversaries collaborate on the production). Similar hybrid competitive/cooperative processes also take place other large-scale, high-risk (usually government funded) endeavors like military vehicles and helicopters and commercial airliners.

But is the economic hold-up to putting humans across our galaxy really as simple as cooperation versus competition?

Monday, July 5, 2010

From here to there

For many people, science fiction is about space ships and ray guns and technology that doesn't yet, or can't, exist. I don't see it that way. Sure, I like the spaceships and the other world stuff. But what I see is an experiment where people are in a condition we can't explore in current life and then they are tasked with how to survive, or grow, or overcome some obstacle.

It's always about the human condition.

So I am intrigued with the process of how we as a species can transition from the way we are now to become a space going race.

  1. What will we need to change to have humans living on other planets?
  2. Are we willing to make the changes?
  3. How do we start to make the changes?
  4. How long will it take?
  5. Where do we go?
  6. How do we get there?
  7. What do we take with us?
  8. Why do we do it?