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Star Trek and Self-Publishing

Yes, there is a connection.  As I’ve been writing about recently, the impulse to criticize self-publishing seems seriously misguided.  At its core, self-publishing is a way for everyone – everyone – to be able to freely express themselves.  That the output is mostly bad (which you can’t determine unless you read thousands of books) is mostly a non-issue.  It may be unfortunate that self-published books get diluted by work that’s not very well-conceived, but self-publishing is a system where every single person has a voice, no one’s disenfranchised.  That is something to be celebrated – not repeatedly attacked.

“Star Trek” is based on a utopian premise that after the devastation of World War III, humans rewrote society so that it wouldn’t be profit based and humans (miraculously) become non-violent.  Let’s focus on the economics side.  The economics of Star Trek are revealed in the new movie:

The scene comes early, when a pre-pubescent Spock is undergoing the formidable educational process inflicted on all Vulcan children. We see and hear him say the words “nonrival” and “nonexcludable.”

The Salon piece on the economics of “Star Trek” is fairly complex, but the gist is that the “Star Trek” model of economics is based on the work of Paul Romer. Economics are separated into non-rival and excludable goods:

A “nonrival” good can be shared without losing anything. An apple, say, is a rival good: If one person eats it, the other person can’t….Knowledge is different because, to use Romer’s term, it is an example of a “nonrival” good. Two people can’t eat the same apple or farm the same plot of land, but they can both listen to the same piece of music, or read the same book, or build a semiconductor chip off the same blueprint….

In the long run, suggests Romer and as potentially demonstrated by “Star Trek,” the benefit of expanding knowledge and technological change will be widely distributed prosperity: an end to scarcity, a future where the fundamental challenge of providing for our basic needs has been solved.

Self-publishing is the result of technological breakthroughs – the development of print on demand and ebook technology.  Expanding knowledge and technological breakthrough are vital for the progress of civilization.  Of course there’s bad knowledge and bad technology, but on the whole we improve as a species when there’s new technological development and new additions to our knowledge base.

One could make the argument that badly conceived writing could actually limit our knowledge base by adding a lot of misinformation.  True, but this is censorship to say these people shouldn’t have a voice, and to say that any executive class in each generation should be the sole arbiters of what should or shouldn’t be read.  By excluding certain knowledge out of the equation, you’re also potentially excluding “good” knowledge.

In the “Star Trek” universe, they have the benefits of replicators, so food is abundant and no one needs to spend countless hours working a factory line.  Because we’re able to leave the planet and colonize other places, earth never gets too crowded with population growth and there are no problems with resource wars because everyone has plenty.  When you break it down, “Star Trek” is a DRM parable – only it’s not music or PDF’s that are being shared, it’s everything.

Self-publishing is a small taste of that utopia – I mean it.  A new technology leads to increased access and a new nonrival system.  Art should be shared – and every single person should have the access to share it.  It seems we really are on the edge of a “new frontier” in publishing, and many of the critics of self-publishing are holding to older models and targeting the wrong things: the quality of the books being published.  Perhaps this could have a good result in that it will make people more careful about what they release – editing, proofreading, etc. But I rarely read anyone saying, “Self-publishing is a great development: Free expression!”  The criticism basically says self-publishing is a mistake.

I know this is far-fetched – self-publishing is one of the hallmarks of a utopia – but at its core, self-publishing is about access for everyone. And increased access is one of the hallmarks of a civilization’s progress – whether that access is to food, water, shelter, or art.