Replicating irrational exuberance

To follow Star Trek as symptomatic of American foreign policy is a fairly straightforward task. One need only glance at the franchise in terms of its television series: the original series from the 1960s is marked by a Frontierism and is inflected with a unsubtle dose of Cold War politics, where captain and crew went out to find new worlds as one might real estate[2]; The Next Generation’s emphasis on intergalactic diplomacy and unilateral peacekeeping was broadcast against the backdrop of warming relations between the United States and foreign allies; while the perpetually lost Voyager and the exploits of its captain Janeway ends, interestingly, at the beginning of George W Bush’s Presidency.[3] With the exception of the Frontierism of the original series (which made reference to a ‘federation’ as if it were the only speaking of America), Star Trek is generally marked by a mood of post-capitalist federalism, which is to say a demonetised system of interplanetary alliances that loosely resembled the United Nations. And the distillation of this latter mood? The replicator.

A machine able to create food, oxygen, tools and equipment, even spare human body parts, the replicator conveniently appears to eliminate the future problem of scarcity economics. The television series’ utopian vision of a moneyless society is supported solely by this machine, which produces ‘free goods’ and serves one’s unending needs and wants. With the replicator, then, human needs/wants occur not out of the appetite for rarity or ‘incentivised’ by the fluctuation of market forces, but the issue of needs/wants is instead generated and moderated by the individual user, who relies on their own common sense to understand what desire should be satisfied. The replicator, then, is not only a producer of goods, but also a producer of one’s moral sense of need over want, since the latter has been eradicated.[4]

The replicator first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation[5], a series first aired in 1987, and incidentally (or not) coincides with America and Canada’ historic ratification of the first Free Trade Agreement, the Black Monday Wall Street crash, Perestroika, and the first laying of optic fibre communication cables across the Atlantic. Most significantly, however, the replicator featured as a regular component of the television series throughout the concurrent rise of the Clinton administration. Thus the imagination for and Star Trek’s continued development of the replicator emerges from a highly specific form of thinking: namely, the ‘new era’ desire to produce infinite surplus.

The 1990s ushered in the growing economic prowess of America, and the burgeoning technological economy of Silicone Valley cannot be ignored in this regard. While the Star Trek replicator appeared on television week in and out to transform leftover food into fake caviar and lungs, the Clinton administration produced the longest boom in US history, orchestrated in close collaboration with Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. This was the new era economy that had not only expanded by 50%, but also generated enough gross national product to comprise a quarter of the world’s economic output with a staggering budget surplus of $237 billion. As a consequence of the deregulation of the markets and the explosion of the internet, Greenspan’s initial concern that market growth was an ‘irrational exuberance’ (as it failed to create an increase in productivity) was hastily retracted. He attempted to ameliorate the dip in the markets by generating a self-correcting excuse that the newly networked market had ‘invented’ new forms of productivity so complex and diffuse that he couldn’t account for (or, more precisely, detect) their growth implications.[6] Just as the replicator produces a subject who can respond with self-regulated rational desires, so Greenspan spoke of a market that would self-regulate through computerised calculated risk-taking. Both would produce a surfeit of reproducible product; both were different forms of science fiction.

The replicator, of course, is not the first instance of a machine capable of material repeatability. Perhaps the earliest mention of self-replicating machines comes with Karel Čapek’s play RUR (‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’) from 1921, while Primo Levi’s short story ‘Order on the Cheap’ introduced a duplicating machine capable of creating order from disorder in 1966, and the ‘Santa Claus Machine’ surfaced as a debateable future in the 1970s. The earliest example, however, may indeed be the Cornucopia, a horn of the goat Amaltheia that constantly refilled with food and drink. In each instance, the notion of a post-labour economy is presented as Thomas Moore’s utopia, though the mystical action of regeneration is reserved exclusively to that of mechanical technology by the 20th-century.

But let’s look again at the promise of the replicator: infinite surplus. This is an uncomfortable post-capitalism, since capitalism specifically seeks out surplus. Infinite surplus is immeasurable, unaccountable, without season, produced without labour and thus without time. It collapses wants and needs into desire and thus seeks to establish a value that is ethical, not merely quantifiable. But this is not an entirely free economy; the replicator is itself a property of the Starfleet. The production of ethics and products always has its regulator.

This essay is indebted to conversations with artist Danna Vajda, whose project Holodeck and Other Spaces, a collaboration with Willie Brisco, informed the arguments herein. It appeared in Jesse Jones’ publication for the exhibition ‘The Struggle Against Ourselves’, Collective, Edinburgh, June 2011.

[2] Despite the series’ creator Gene Rodenberry insisting on the original Star Trek as a utopian imagining of global politics, the peaceful agenda of Star Trek’s Prime Directive (of non-violence and non-interference) is repeatedly ignored by the original series’ Captain Kirk, in favour of more aggressive confrontations with alien. Further, one cannot fail to notice the Klingons resemblance to a pantomime idea of a Mongol Horde, a species who stand in opposition to the ‘good sense’ of the Federation.

[3] The Frontierism of the initial Star Trek series was not entirely subdued in the later series. It is not by accident, for example, that Benjamin Sisko referred to Deep Space 9 as “the most important piece of real estate in the Alpha Quadrant”, a thinly veiled attempt to convince his superiors to permit an aggressive military offensive.

[4] In contrast to the characteristic philosophical rationale of master tactician Captain Jean Luc Picard, the captain nonetheless undoes the replicator’s supposed eradication scarcity, by keeping a stash of ‘real’ caviar for special occasions.

[5] When thinking of the replicator at large, it’s interesting to consider that despite its long format and drama genre, Next Generation was surprisingly successful in finding first-run syndication, and ran across a variety of networks that could insert advertising at their own choosing. This was in opposition to the deficit financing model of single network loyalty. Next Generation remains one of the successfully syndicated shows in US television history.

[6] Adam Curtis’ recent documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, 2011, BBC, describes Greenspan’s warning and retraction as a key moment for the growth of deregulation that allowed hedging to become commonplace and widely accepted as a form of balancing the markets.



  1. Pingback: 32 Science-Fiction Things That Actually Exist Now | Sharing Interesting Stuff, Updates News & Free Tips

  2. Pingback: 32 Science-Fiction Things That Actually Exist Now | MediaStreet News & Opinions

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