In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, the Enterprise if flung back in time to the year 2063 and has to return home. They quickly realize that this is a very important time because it is the moment that the Earth made first contact with Vulcan, setting up the entire universe as they would all come to know it. The great abundance, the wonder, the adventure all hinged on this one moment.
There was one problem, however. Earth, at that time, still used this thing called “money.” The great abundance had not yet kicked in and the crew of the Enterprise had a lot to learn about how to get things done if they wanted to get home.
It’s a great movie for many reasons, generally starting with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard. But this vision of the future, made at that moment, is particularly compelling. Abundance so great that money isn’t necessary? It’s one vision of the future, certainly. But is such a thing possible?
The world has been on the cusp of significant change for a long time. Futurism, or visions of the world to come, have increased along with the rate of change. Today, this is practically a field unto itself with many predictions about how we might live our lives coming days circulating at any given time.
But how are they going to be realized?
Granted, along with utopian visions of abundance and no money there are many visions of dystopian hell. They generally revolve around our ability to destroy ourselves, but a fair amount of “robots will take over” or the closely related “society will become mechanical” are very common. The difference between the two is presented as a matter of choice.
In the middle, we have the better business of futurism, the practical extension of what we already know. This is where things like Industry 4.0 come into play. Still, however, we have the question – what will it take to make it so?
While there is no doubt that great power in the wrong hands can easily enslave the world, there is always reason to believe that things will go more the Star Trek way for one simple reason – we are aware of the problem. One of the things which defines our world, though not usually obvious, is that any problem which we are aware of is generally a problem which can be solved.
The best example of this is Y2K. For those of you who don’t remember, the prediction was that computers running everything would crash because the date format, encoded as two digits, would roll over into oblivion once the year 2000 hit. People were scared and stocked up on canned meat in preparation for a potential disaster – which never came.
Why didn’t it happen? Because we talked about it, somewhat relentlessly. Everyone panicked just a little bit, checked their code, and if necessary hired a programmer to patch it. Problem solved.
This particular problem, with dire social consequences, was not really solved by government. There was a lot of money to be made at the time fixing the problem, and many people sallied forth and learned a wee bit of COBOL for the purpose of taking care of business. That’s pretty much all there was to the situation. The problem was solved largely by talking about it – and throwing a bit of money at the problem.
Not all of our problems are like Y2K, of course. Climate change is a much bigger problem that will take a lot more effort all around, including some regulation. But the bulk of the problem wll be solved by people who, having been involved in the discussion, will realize new ways of making a lot of money. Refitting the entire energy infrastructure is going to be expensive and slow, which is to say it has the potential for lifetime employment for millions.
This is a good thing in so many ways.
But does that mean that a coming time of abundance, as envisioned in Star Trek, is at hand? Not necessarily, but renewable and possibly cheaper energy from distributed sources more subject to market pressures than easily monopolized fossil resources has tremendous potential. And it’s likely one piece of a new world that functions very differently than our own.
The first step to any of this is to simply lay out what we can call a SWOT analysis – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It requires us to be realistic about what might happen in our future, good and bad. Strengths and Weaknesses are the good and bad in the current system(s) while Opportunities and Threats are the externals. Time spent literally brainstorming every possibility is time well spent simply organizing what the future may indeed hold.
Out of this can come a realistic vision of the world, once it’s all in one place.
Visions like those in Star Trek did not necessarily come from such an analysis, but we can see that many things which were once considered scarce simply are not. There is enough food to feed everyone. Energy is becoming cheaper all the time. Capital required to create production facilities is raised much more easily than every, anywhere in the world. There is only one thing which limits our ability to realize a new vision:
Imagination. Well, imagination and skill, the ability and drive of the people to realize what their imaginations can dream. So that’s two things, but they are two sides of the same coin.
What limits us today are not resources but the minds of people. A coming time of abundance? It’s all about what’s in our minds – and how they go about making it so.