A possible microinvalidation on a Star Trek panel

A post not about my time in China, but instead about a panel of nerdy people, including some minor celebrities, talking about Star Trek. Given that I’m breaking one rule (China blog) by writing not about China, let me break a few more (short, descriptive, and pictures) by being long-winded, interpretive, and texty.

Paul Krugman (a famous liberal economist), Brad DeLong (a less famous liberal economist), Annalee Newitz (a science/science fiction/culture journalist and founder/editor of a couple Gawker web sites), Felix Salmon (a journalist), Chris Black (a Star Trek screenwriter), and Manu Saadia (author of a book about Star Trek economics) discussed the post-scarcity civilization depicted in Star Trek.

The source material for this post is a transcript of the panel discussion provided by Izabella Kaminska (a journalist) here:


As a fan of Star Trek and a reader of DeLong’s and Krugman’s blogs, I enjoyed reading the transcript of the panel discussion. One thing that stood out to me is a quasi-interaction between Krugman and Newitz that could be interpreted as having a sexist microinvalidation. My reading of this is based on assuming that the transcript linked above is given in chronological order. If it’s not in chronological order, then everything I write here is wrong.

The first leg of the quasi-interaction is a statement by Newitz about the rights of advanced machines. Newitz raises the issue that having very smart machines (indeed, machines that appear to think and act like people) working for humans without being given rights may be a kind of slavery. Here is the quotation (bold font emphasis mine):

ANNALEE: One of things I find interesting about Star Trek is that it does try to imagine a post-scarcity economy with no money, people don’t work because they have to but because they want to, but there are all these hints that we get — especially in Star Trek the next generation, my favourite series — that there’s a lot of ways that the post scarcity economy is supported by other types of economies.

Economies that we might consider to be part of the past, and that’s why one of the most interesting episodes to think about is “measure of a man” from the second season of Next generation where the question comes up whether Data, our favourite android with a positronic brain, is actually his own person or is in fact property. And this is a question which comes up again in Voyager when the holographic doctor who is unquestionably an autonomous human being is also considered property and he writes basically the communist manifesto, and encourages all these other holograms which are being horribly oppressed and enslaved to have a revolution. And this is going on at the periphery of Star Trek all the time.

Any time you get off the Enterprise, the wonderful utopian Enterprise, which did in fact inspire me to become a Marxist as a student because I did believe “wow, we really could get to a world which was better than this one” – we are constantly being reminded that there may be other systems of labour, like slavery or things that are closer to wage-slavery, which are supporting this wonderful life that the Federation enjoys and which Picard and team enjoy on their really clean ship. So that’s one of the things about Star Trek is that it allows us to have that kind thought experiment of what would it be like if we did get past capitalism?

Or if we did have a system of capitalism which was more restrained by government and regulation — whatever the hell the Federation is, the government, UN — but at the same time, forced to recognise that there are these differences in what people have access to, and intense labour they perform and some of them are being treated like property. Some of them are chattel. So that’s always the good part of the thought experiment?

Slightly later in the panel discussion, Krugman makes a similar point about smart machines (bold font emphasis mine, italic in original):

PAUL: I watched the original series and a bit of the next generation and then dropped off. I’m more of an Asimov guy, what can I say. But, the question is… do we accept the premise of a post-scarcity society? First of all there’s a long history of people saying, we’re much richer than our ancestors were and if you go just a little bit further you’ll get to the point where there won’t be any economic question, post scarcity. Keynes wrote an essay about that saying that if the world got as rich as it is right now there would no longer be money, and John K Galbraith wrote that in a new industrial state that the standard of living of the average American would be so high that it’s basically only propaganda that would make them want more, to which Robert Solow responded, well it doesn’t look that high to me but maybe those things look different from where Galbraith vacations.

So, in Star Trek they have a replicator that can make any thing you want. But it makes any thing you want. Even now, we spend only 30 per cent of our income on goods the rest is for services, and the replicators won’t help with that. We have fewer manufacturing workers but lots and lots of nurses, so. So that’s the point. We can imagine a world where all services are provided as well. We have robots or something to do the services. But in order to do the full range of stuff we want they have to be very intelligent things in which case aren’t those then people? So the actual issue is that a world where you have servitors of some kind who will give you everything you want is a world where it’s very hard to tell the difference between servitors and slaves. So I think there’s arguably a dark side to the abundance theory.

The other thing to say, there’s this great section where Picard lectures a man from the 21st century, saying we’ve moved to a world where people don’t seek money they seek reputation and honour. Well Brad and I live in the academic world, where pretty much that’s how it works….

Krugman’s language “it’s very hard to tell the difference between servitors and slaves” is close to what Newitz is getting at when she talks about Data and the Voyager Doctor. Notice that Krugman doesn’t at all acknowledge the similarity of his point to Newitz’s. This quasi-interaction maps very closely onto the the archetypal “subtly sexist boardroom meeting” in which a woman says something and is ignored, and then a man says the same thing and everyone listens. It is not clear from the transcript what the audience response was, but it is very interesting that Krugman does not appear to recognize how similar his point is to Newitz’s, even though he says it only shortly after Newitz finishes speaking.

This interaction has many of the hallmarks of a microinvalidation. Krugman, a man, repeats what Newitz, a woman, says, without credit. There is no indication that Krugman intended to slight Newitz. There is no indication that Krugman is a sexist (and, based on what he’s like in his column and on TV, I would imagine him to be consciously anti-sexist).

More than that, there are many other possible explanations of Krugman’s failure to mention Newitz’s comment. Maybe Krugman doesn’t know who Data and the Voyager Doctor are because he doesn’t know Star Trek very well (he explicitly says that he isn’t a big fan of Star Trek, though this might make one wonder why he’s on a panel about the show). Maybe Krugman was tired or sick and was having a hard time paying attention to other people in general. Krugman is a famous person, and maybe famous people ignore what less famous people say, so maybe he ignored Newitz not because she’s a woman but rather because she’s not that famous.

This is the nature of microinvalidations — the reason they’re “micro” is that they’re not intentional, they’re very subtle, and they’re not 100% verifiable. However, if this kind of thing happens to repeatedly (which reportedly it does to women), it makes one wonder…

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