The forces that move us

the invention of the wheel might have been a big deal, but it was its use to haul things to market that led to the rise of civilisation

Have you ever wondered how ants have achieved such incredible social stability? Ant hills have been around, essentially unchanged through major surface and climatic variations, for hundreds of millions of years. More interestingly, have you noticed the common factor between ant society and the 24th century as seen through the eyes of Star Trek's creators?

Money; or, more precisely, the absence of it.

Money has interesting properties, the most obvious being its role as a way of storing value despite being almost completely decoupled, these days, from the barter system underlying earlier coinages such as gold Krugers, 15th century gold sovereigns, or treasuries drawn against the vaults at Fort Knox.

So how does the absence of money explain the stability of ant society? Remember that seductive communist doctrine: "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs"? That's what ant society does, and the reason it works is simply that there is no means of exchange for information or work. A worker ant, is a worker ant, is a worker ant: the ant hill gets from him according to his abilities, and gives to him according to his needs -and there's not a thing he can do about it.

But we're not ants, and we do have a means through which to exchange value with strangers. Indeed, look back at what we know of human history and you could see the main epochs for each major civilisation as both resulting from, and caused by, changes in the barriers to exchange among unrelated parties.

In other words the invention of the wheel might have been a big deal, but it was its use to haul things to market that led to the rise of civilisation.

So what will ebay and ubiquitous electronic messaging lead to?

I don't think we'll see Star Trek's money free world - in fact, I think Star Trek's creators got this one about half right, half wrong.

Ever notice that Star Trek never tells you what the peons do? - we see society's winners in every episode and every spin-off, but where are the ordinary people who must out-number them by millions to one? Next Generation made a valiant effort to equip a few people with peasant pasts but, for the most part, dropping money from the social equation forces the episode writer to cut the crew off from society - effectively limiting the viewer's vision of the ant hill beneath to the colorful rustics celebrating in the one town square on every human planet the crews get to.

Why? because without a safe haven for exchange value, i.e. money; we'd be back to the barter system and that simply doesn't support a complex society.

So I think Star Trek got the end of money wrong and the more likely evolutionary path is the one we're on, in which money becomes both more and more a figment of the collective imagination, and more and more useful as distance and knowledge barriers to inter-personal exchange disappear.

And what history tells us is that the easier exchange gets, the more opportunities can be seized, the freer and more motivated people will get, and the better off we'll all be.

In that sense, therefore, what look like largely unrelated internet phenomena - ebay, google, sourceforge, slashdot, blogging - each with its own roots and its own agendas, can be thought about as early attempts to extend communications to exchange -and whether that's for information, services, or products doesn't matter.

Google's successor, for example, is likely to act only as a route controller in a peer to peer information exchange, thus obsoleting ebay and making exchange even easier and cheaper than it is now.

What's particularly nice about this as a kind of barely sub-orbital vision of what's going on, is that it shows so clearly what moves us forward: not money -that's merely a means to an end- but the opportunities for personal change that arise from trade and interaction between groups of people.

And that's both something the ants don't have, and something Star Trek got right: when the real star ships go out, they'll be looking for people to talk to, people to trade with, people whose ideas we can make our own through communications and exchange.