Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Voyager Scarcity

Had a smol think about (post-)scarcity again the other day. "Scarce" technically means "limited relative to requirements" rather than limited per se. Scarcity is always about the relationship between resources and the various things that might be done with them. Scarcity is never about whether those resources are finite or infinite.

Science fiction probably ought to try to keep that in mind, because it implies that (post-)scarcity can never apply absolutely to any setting or story whatsoever. (Maybe there's some weird example that can prove me wrong there?). Rather, (post-)scarcity is always one of those "it depends how you mean it" kind of things. Any resource is always scarce in some ways, but not scarce in others, depending what you happen to be counting as a requirement.

(That's not to say that science fiction shouldn't also be interested in infinity and finitude as well, of course. Just that that problematic is slightly offset from the post-scarcity problematic).

Some (post-)scarcity science fiction gets very interested in the idea of social connectivity as a kind of intrinsically scarce resource. "Alas, all my material desires are fulfilled, and yet all I want is for senpai to notice me." Maybe that's why you often see a funny kind of pettiness appear in some self-consciously post-scarcity settings.

In Look to Windward, Iain M. Banks equips Culture characters with an idiom for when something is especially desirable: “[t]hey’d reinvent money for this” (ibid.). When the Culture’s particular brand of plenitude is compromised in an apparently trivial way, some Culture characters do reinvent money.

A one-off music concert is set to take place in a limited-capacity venue, and everyone wants to go. Concert tickets become a kind of money. What do they buy and sell with it? Don't they have everything already? They buy and sell commodities arising from a division of affective, sexual, reproductive, and performative labor. Or in other words, they buy and sell aspects of social relationships. "People who can’t stand other people are inviting them to dinner [...] People have traded sexual favours, they’ve agreed to pregnancies, they’ve altered their appearance to accommodate a partner’s desires, they’ve begun to change gender to please lovers; all just to get tickets" (Banks 2000: 276). 

It struck me that Star Trek: Voyager also has a little of this going on: social meaning is its key scarce resource.

In the Star Trek universe, you got your replicators that can synthesize you fancy meals or whatever ex nihilo with just one squirty beep. Maybe even more importantly, you got your holodecks, rooms that can spin you whatever reality you desire to dreamily live in.

Voyager casts one vessel really, really far from home. (I can't remember the premise exactly, but I think maybe in the pilot episode they fall asleep on the space night bus). The same post-scarcity technologies are present, but they don't project the same aura of coziness and security.

And I bet that was part of the point: there's a heightened sense of peril that must be met with careful resource management, else this bucket of bolts isn't going to make it home in one piece. But also, the resource which Voyager brings to the fore as limited and precious are human (and Talaxian yadda yadda) relationships. This is stitched into the fabric of the story. Everything, everything that occurs in Voyager, occurs in relation to the process of people drawing closer together or failing to. Their movement is both literal and a metaphor for social de-atomization. The most estimable treasure that Janeway can win in any episode is to shave time off Voyager's ETA, or to make some kind of Starfleeting contact ...

At the same time, the show seems to think a lot about its domestic production of meaning. It thinks about ways in which Voyager already is home. (That theme often seems to swirl around Neelix, who I think is responsible for "morale").

And I think it does a pretty good job, in that liberal, cosmopolitan, look-the-Borg-is-not-intrinsically-other, look-even-the-hologram-is-not-intrinsically-other, kind of way that Star Trek does. But it also makes me wonder if the general vibe of a more strictly material kind of scarcity is getting rather dangerously applied in ways that ideally it really shouldn't be. Human relationships, after all, aren't actually resources, with alternative uses, resources that require efficient production and allocation to fulfill some requirements although sadly not others. Whatever they are, it's not that. They have their own logic. And for what it's worth, pretending that human relationships are merely precious resources, rather than whatever they really are, is something that goes very neatly together with the nostalgic longing for the homeland, the longing that is ultimately what functions to distinguish friend (including assimilable outsider) from enemy, to distinguish "us" from "them."

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