Dude’s getting a lot of Reddit love for this video:
He seems to think Star Trek is a fully realized and unproblematic vision of a possible human future (bear with me); a supposedly possible future he’s innovatively called “2,” presumably because numbers are impressive. Problem 1 (I can use numbers too!): The Star Trek universe is not a fully realized and unproblematic vision of a possible human future, nor is it intended to be.
In the Star Trek universe, it’s given that we’ve transcended the will to power as a species, which is attributed to a combination of a memory of the trauma of brutal eugenics wars (see that episode where Q puts humanity on trial) and a wonder and humility rooted in first contact with an alien species (see “First Contact” — the second of the Star Trek movies starring the TNG gang). …Really, Kaku? You REALLY think that’d work? How long was it after the horrors of WWII that the Cold War picked up?
And even in Trek, you needed to actually have first contact with a technologically superior alien species. It was a necessary condition. What’s dude’s plan if that deus (alienus?) ex machina doesn’t end up materialising? (Side note: I grew up loving TNG (=”The Next Generation,” or “The one with Patrick Stewart”). It was my favorite show from age, like, 6 to 12. I still nostalgically enjoy the company of those characters, and I’m sure the show defined my moral intuition to a far greater extent than I could even really say.)
The point, tho, is it’s not a very credible vision of the future of humanity. But, as I said above, it was never supposed to be. The point of Trek was to be a soap box for Gene Roddenberry to declare on contemporary problems (like racism, greed, torture, technology, etc.) abstracted from the reality of our world (in which they exist) and from an angle of absolute humanistic moral authority.
If Roddenberry was genuinely interested in laying out a full vision for how society might work, he wouldn’t have just given it to us that money has been abolished — he would have gone into far greater historical detail as to what that process looked like, and how whatever resources are still scarce are managed and distributed. The answer is quite clearly implied: a strong, central bureaucratic authoritarian body. This is clear, for example, in how prime assignments on prime starships, like the Enterprise, which were certainly scarce, were distributed. They distributed on the basis of a highly formalized system of academic testing designed to reduce you to a comparable commodity manageable by the centralized bureaucracy. Assignments come from a “Starfleet Command” whose internal dynamics and politics are only vaguely gestured towards. We’ve seen this political-economic form before. How the Federation has managed to overcome the ultimately socially dominating dynamics that we saw emerge in almost every society that adopted that model is never specified. Presumably it has something to do with the elimination of the scarcity of life essentials — food, shelter, etc.
Problem 2: It seems to me that all of the most important indicators are telling us we’re heading into a period of increased, not reduced, scarcity:
The marginal gains in food production from technological advancements in food production are diminishing just as demand is increasing at a far greater rate than just the increase in our population (thanks to ethanol and the increased demand for more resource intensive food products by the growing middle classes in countries like China, India, and Brazil), and soon we’re going to to run into a serious water shortage thanks to our widespread over-taxing of depleting aquifers (all this is summarize here).
Energy innovation will have to make incredibly dramatic and sudden leaps forward if it’s going to pick up the slack in a post-peak-oil world (I’m more optimistic here than I am about food, but not by much. Thorium is pretty exciting, but there are plenty of very good reasons to be skeptical that it’ll ever get the kind of government support it needs to get fully off the ground (various lobbies for one, and for two, its unweaponizability in a global context of scarcity in which, any realpolitician worth their salt will tell you, it’s going to be all the more important to make sure you’re the one holding the biggest club — remember, we haven’t kicked the whole will-to-power thing yet and really shouldn’t rest on assuming we’ll be able to in time, even if we can imagine we might do it eventually.)
And then there’s population growth and climate change which, according to the IEA’s latest projection, will likely bring civilization-ending temperatures before the century is out. An important point to be made about climate change is that, as a species and scientifically speaking, we know exactly what we need to do to pull ourselves back from the brink. We just can’t make ourselves do it. Why? Because our social/political/economic system is a machine run out of control.
The problem this poses isn’t a scientific one, it’s, d’uh, a sociological/political/economic one, and there was no substantial engagement with it, as such, in Kaku’s little talk whatsoever.
I pointed this out on Reddit (+5 upvotes, -4 downvotes), and got the following reply:
Pretty sure he is in a much better position to predict the future of civilization than the average sociologist. (+5 upvotes, 0 downvotes)
But back to Kaku: All Kaku gives us, socio-politically, is a vague gesture at “fundamentalism.” But fundamentalism isn’t the problem. Fundamentalism is a symptom. It’s an irrationalist response to the less and less avoidable rational conclusion that there’s no metaphysical grounding for a universal system of values around which we can all eventually unite; the conclusion that the universe itself isn’t rich with external-to-us sources of existential meaning, which brings me to another thing the Star Trek universe allowed its characters to take for granted that we simply can’t: Almost all of the episodes derived their interest through their engagement with fundamentally humanistic (not scientific) problems — an encounter with a new and mysterious source of consciousness or system of values that’s at odds with some until-then unproblematized aspect of the system structuring the humans’ interpretations of themselves and the universe.
And even when it did focus on science, the process of scientific research was never represented realistically. Huge and dramatic problems were soft-balled to be dramatically batted out of the park in some grand deus ex machina brought to us by, more often than not, Gene Roddenberry’s Mary Sue — the transcendently genius but also handsome, unpresupposing and relatable young acting-ensign, Wesley Crusher. And the solving of these problems never only resulted in a publication and researchers light-years away labouring to come up with ways to make practical use of the discovery. Wesley’s solutions always had immediate, dramatic impacts on his life and the lives of the crew.
Sorry, but that’s just not how science works. The process of science, truth be told, is almost always pretty fucking ponderous and dull. Full of null findings (not many of those in Star Trek either).
But back to fundamentalism: Fundamentalism is a symptom of an exploitative global political-economic system that structures civilization through subordination of all qualitative values to a fundamental quantitative value (read: capital). The very same system that’s made it possible for elites around the globe to buy mass-manufactured, pseudo-luxury products like Chanel bags which — no, Kaku — are not in themselves any kind of cultural advancement over the luxury handbags of previous decades (or centuries) any more so than the global ubiquity of manufactured pop bullshit like Akon and Transformers — when I was backpacking I heard Akon fucking everywhere, and saw Transformers in a packed theatre in Seoul — represents a cultural advance from the Beatles or the Godfather or Shakespeare or Aeschylus (blockbuster artists of times past). They’re signs of the emergence of a vapid global monoculture.
And the steamrolling of the English language over something like 100 languages per year in its march to global linguistic hegemony (another encouraging sign, by Kaku)? If you know another language, you know to what degree it can let us access meanings or perspectives on things impossible or tremendously awkward in English. It really is a fucking tragedy, all the ways of seeing the universe that we’re destroying forever. Werner Herzog speaks to this here (most relevant bit begins at about 5:20):
And the idea that it’ll all be great once we can just “Play around with” the earth? Kaku, what–the–fuck is our game gonna be? Dodgeball? Does he seriously imagine GLaDOS happy?
We’re at a point, right now, where there’s a major crisis of value — where we really have to work (whether we do so consciously or unconsciously) at not being nihilists — the recourse of many, as mentioned, being denial through fundamentalism.
What games do nihilists play? None. Because there’s no point. Inert, they’re carried by the current, biggass waterfall (read catastrophic food and energy crises and warming-caused mass extinction) on the horizon or no.
What games do fundamentalists (irrationalists) play? SCARY ONES.
Michio Kaku is a fundamentalist. The end.
/drunken doom-prophetic rant
Update: A Redditor has kindly pointed out that Kaku didn’t invent the “1, 2, 3″ typology of civilizations. Wiki:
The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring an advanced civilization’s level of technological advancement. The scale is only theoretical and in terms of an actual civilization highly speculative; however, it puts energy consumption of an entire civilization in a cosmic perspective. It was first proposed in 1964 by the SovietRussianastronomerNikolai Kardashev. The scale has three designated categories called Type I, II, and III. These are based on the amount of usable energy a civilization has at its disposal, and the degree of space colonization. In general terms, a Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its solar system, and Type III of its galaxy.
Interesting, but how exactly Kaku makes the jump between the consolidation of our exploitation of all of the potential energy resources on the planet to the idea that we’ve achieved some kind of utopia, I have no idea. Presumably he’s conjecturing that if we’ve lasted long enough for technology to advance that far, we must’ve figured out how to get along. Maybe. And maybe if Aristotle had imagined a future society that had progressed to the point where it was able to harness the atom, he’d've made the same assumption. I doubt it though. Aristotle was many things, but incautiously naive wasn’t one of them.