I saw the original Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders” last night. It’s about a city in the clouds populated by artists and thinkers who devote themselves to their pursuit of beauty. It sounds pretty awesome at first, but it comes out in the episode that the reason they are able to do this is because they have a population of people who are effectively slaves doing all the hard work for them.
The plot resolution in this episode was confusing–it was one of the weaker episodes, in my opinion–but it was certainly an interesting concept. It reminded me of the Oscar Wilde essay in which he laid out his scheme for fixing the world:
The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.
Wilde wrote that in 1891, and poverty and class-inequality have still not been abolished despite massive advances in technology. Of course, the people in the Star Trek episode had even less technology than was available in Wilde’s time, let alone what they ought to have in the 23rd century. The slave people in the episode were mining some mineral by hand. How they had created a floating city with powerful anti-gravity technology but not yet invented the shovel, I don’t know. Perhaps it was a make-work project.
But it’s still an interesting idea, inconsistencies aside. Wilde knew it took work to build civilization, and that somebody had to do the unpleasant bits. He was hoping to put that job off on machines, since it’s not cruel to make them do it.
This leads to another point. Last week, Ross Douthat wrote a column in the NYT entitled “A World Without Work”, where he claims that it’s no longer as vital for people to work because of the nation’s great wealth. As he writes “the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.”
Douthat is worried that this, though, because he fears that the very absence of having to work, being freed from the daily toil, will be harmful to people’s well-being. It’s possible. Perhaps the very material security which is supposed to be the catalyst for civilization could instead bring about its stagnation, making people into idle dilettantes, who do nothing but write about science-fiction shows and generally have their heads in the clouds.
(Hat tip to Freddie DeBoer for the Douthat article.)