The Matter of Concern: Replicator as Logistical Utopia

Curator's Note

Star Trek imagines a logistical future that appears to be radically utopian. It is the future of a galaxy connected by starships traveling at warp speed, of planets connected not by roads or by skyways, but by the (supposedly) safe and simple energization of matter from one place to another. But while the transporter might stand as most enduring image fit for this future, I invite the examination of a more mundane object of the show’s logistical world—the replicator. Based (as much as anything in the Star Trek universe) on the logical implications of transporter technology, the replicator offers a site of examination for the show’s strangely unsettling material culture, one where personal possessions are reduced to the potentiality of patterns and the odd archaeological interests of Federation captains.

From the first appearance of pre-replicator productive technologies like the food synthesizers of the original series, the idea of matter materialization has proven amazingly versatile, providing explanations for ideas about the material reality of the holodeck, offering plot points for anything from mysterious viruses to alien artifacts, and (of course) serving as a site for character communication and development. Though its primary purpose seems (on screen at least) to be limited to the production of food, replicator technology comes in a variety of different forms each fit for different purposes—with sizes and specifications appropriate for producing anything from bodily organs to starships. But while there should (presumably) be no distinction between replicated objects and manufactured ones, the presence of an aura attached to "real" (read: non-replicated) materials seemed to become more pervasive as the technology (and the universe) progressed. Not only do characters increasingly claim to be able to taste the difference between the made and the materialized, but spaces like DS9’s replimat and Voyager’s galley come to evoke the nostalgic (but anachronistic) constraints of the sorts of gathering places common to more primitive modes of distribution.

In many ways, the replicator has served as a mirror not only of an utopian optimism for the potential for logistical technologies like 3D printing, synthesized foodstuffs, and automated assembly, but—as it surfaces fears of supply chain contamination through pattern corruption or as it collapses complex histories of colonialism and global exchange into casual demands for instantaneous delivery—deep-seated doubts about what the ultimate implications of those technologies may yet prove to be.


Nicely put--your post opens up some great questions. While the ST universe explores the potential horrors of the transporter, the problems associated with the replicator, as you note, are almost cultural, creating a yearning for a more material past. The transporter might scramble your atoms beyond recognition, but the replicator invokes a sense of nostalgia for the real by creating objects that aren't as "good" as the original. Interesting how that question of the material and desire for the real have replaced what was one of TOS' big worry about tech: that it would malfunction in some way and kill you. Mirroring, perhaps, our own evolution on the problems of technology? One wonders what McCoy would say about that.

The transporter offers a fascinating point of comparison in terms of the logistical technology of the show. Certainly for a rich planet like Earth the transporter must have completely reconfigured the pattern of everyday life, but because of the traditional confines of the Starship setting we rarely get to see this. Even then, no one seems to worry about it, and it seems like it would be very dangerous to question it. The risk of the transporter, even as they are more dramatic and dangerous (the mirror universe comes to mind) seems to be taken as a necessary evil (although when the replicator runs amok in Babel, it is still back to business as usual at the end of the episode). While Encounter at Farpoint describes McCoy, charitably, as a "remarkable" man in the context of his aversion to being transported—the audience knows the truth. He's an inconvenience; a kook. The show even goes so far as to send Barclay to get counseling from Troi. Worrying about transportation is a phobia. Worrying about replication is a philosophy. The replicator is more mundane, and less worthy of worry. But this is what makes it more acceptable to worry about. Perhaps this reflects why it is easy for us to be nostalgic about waning patterns of production, but hard to come to grips with what it would mean to upend the society that is making them disappear.

These are great questions and help to illustrate the importance of logistics and transportation in imperial/colonialist systems (something I'd read a little about in post-colonialist history but hadn't thought about at all with regards to Star Trek). your point about how "personal possessions are reduced to the potentiality of patterns" reminds me about Donna Haraway's "condition of virtuality" - this cultural concept that all things are underpinned by informational patterns. If things are no longer a primary source of value or trade, it would be the patterns or recipes that make objects replicable. We've seen where the replicator doesn't know how to make things, or where characters have created their own recipe (notably Data's feline supplements), but there's also a question of access. Who has the right to duplicate what? In Field of Fire (DS9) we're told that only starfleet officers can replicate certain weapons. If Starfleet is a sort of post-scarcity space communism system, is it really "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"?

There are indeed a few references to certain things the replicator will not produce without appropriate authorization—weapons, Starfleet uniforms—and well as a few things it *can't* replicate (latinum). One would certainly imagine that patterns would have taken on at least some of the same value that used to be ascribed to things, but because the primary lens through which we encounter this universe is through Starfleet and the ship's computer, and because Starfleet doesn't use "money" ("People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of 'things.' We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions."), we don't always get the clearest sense of this value. While a trade in holodeck programs is discussed with some frequency (Quark gets new programs regularly, and several characters in TNG and DS9 talk about receiving programs), a trade in replicator patterns is not. One would imagine that some analogue to Shapeways (even if it is a socialist one) must exist in various contexts both in and outside the Federation. The other example outside of Spot’s supplements that I can think of is the herbal tea blend that Nella Daren programs (and which Picard quickly adopts) in Lessons.

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