The value of gifts (or ‘What Star Trek taught me about capitalism’)

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

I got into Star Trek The Next Generation over Christmas. Being stuck at home for a month and idly switching over to Sky One on cable at 5pm. I used to like this series but found it quite dated a while back. I still dislike the first series and it only really gets going at the end of season 2, with ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ when they nick the ‘Cybermen’ from Doctor Who and call them the Borg.


Earlier this week they showed ‘Data’s Day’ which is a quite amusing episode from season 3. It’s a ‘ship in a bottle’ show, which means one where they basically set the whole thing on the Enterprise and keep effects shots to a minimum so they can fund the more expensive installments.

In this episode we follow Lt Cmdr Data (whose name is pronounced the English way, but whose rank is pronounced the American way – i.e. ‘loo-tennant’, not ‘left-tennant’) during 24 hours on board the Enterprise.

I won’t bore you with the details of the plot as there isn’t much of one really. But there is a little sequence in it which I found myself pondering.

Data is participating in a wedding and realises he has to get a gift for the happy couple, so he goes to what must be the Enterprise’s ‘shop’ where he bumps into Mr Worf who is doing the same thing. The scene opens with the two characters chatting while in the background a mother and father are using the replicator to produce a teddy bear or something for an excited child who grabs it, and they walk off like the all-American family they are (I think this is ironic – or at least I hope it is).

Now that was the first thing to grab me. This child has just seen a cuddly toy replicated out of thin air by the miracle of modern science at no cost to him or his parents. Presumably he can have all the toys in the world if it’s so easy, so why is he so excited at getting this one? And if it were so easy, wouldn’t he expect something a little better than a bloody cuddly toy?

Then we focus on Data and Worf who are browsing some sort of online catalogue (this is in the days before Amazon so it’s all very futuristic, remember) trying to choose something. Data says something along the lines of ‘I do not understand the human ritual of giving gifts’ and Worf says ‘I have noticed the gift is supposed to represent the personality of the person giving it’ – actually I may have got them mixed up but you get the point.

The gifts on offer are a bit naff – the sort of thing you see on display in seaside bingo halls that you can win for a line or full house. ‘Souvenir of Blackpool’ type stuff.

So this is where it started getting weird. The universe as imagined by Gene Roddenbury is one in which poverty is a thing of the past and in several episodes characters mention how the Earth no longer uses currency. So here we have characters who are choosing gifts that are going to be replicated – they’re not made by anyone, not the product of toil or artistry, and they’re not being paid for or in other words exchanged for the characters’ labour. So what value do these gifts have?

I’d say they have no value at all. In Marxist terms there’s no exchange value and no use value – in the following episode the happily married couple are eating ‘home made’ replicated food from each other’s heritage (Irish and Japanese) and Keiko (for it is she) expresses shock when Chief O’Brien says his mother used to handle real meat with her own hands. So here we have Keiko trying to introduce her husband to authentic, replicated, untouched-by-human-hands Japanese cuisine with all the pride in the world, and O’Brien reciprocating with potato casserole straight from the matter transporter – it makes no sense.

Back to the wedding gifts. Presumably at the reception Data and Worf whip out their presents and Keiko and O’Brien force grins on their faces as they say ‘oh a fake replicated bit of starstuff in the shape of a Lalique vase that cost you nothing to buy and only a few seconds of your time to choose from the on-board Argos catalogue. You shouldn’t have’.

I don’t see how it can work. I don’t see how the economy could work because, essentially, no one has to work – I mean, why join Starfleet, train for years, only to be given the ‘Red Shirt of Certain Death’ when you could stay at home and burn out your replicator on fast food and sex toys? I can get that some people would be motivated by the desire to explore or find purpose but altruism only goes so far. Why get promoted and take on stressful roles without proper compensation?

There’s no sense that people are paid in replicator credits or holodeck privelages – in fact those only come in when Voyager is trapped in the delta quadrant and energy is at a premium (whoops- showing my geekiness there!) so we can assume the Enterprise doesn’t run on such an economy.

Gifts, of course, have a status all of their own and I was pointing this out to students recently. I suggested (and I can’t remember if I read this somewhere or came up with it myself) that the more that somebody means to us the less useful or valuable the gift can be.

For example, I am about to post a packet of Cadbury Mini Eggs and a packet of Haribo ‘Tangfastic’ sweets to my friend in New Zealand. She’s a very important person to me, and we used to have a bit of a private joke about Haribo sweets and Tangfastics in particular (they make my tongue sore but she loves them); and she had a bit of a fetish for mini eggs last year. So these sweets, which cost less than it’ll cost me to post them to her, have no financial value and no use value but I know that when she opens them she’ll invest in them exactly the same meaning that I did. In technical jargon, she’ll decode the encoded message accurately.

And then she’ll eat them cos she’s a pig like that.

The value of the gift is the meaning, not the cost or the use. And the more someone means to you the more you are able to use ‘meaningful’ gifts as a sign of that person’s value to you.

Jean Baudrillard points out that objects move freely between four ‘values’ – as a commodity, a utility, a status symbol and as a gift. But a gift need not be financially valuable, is what I’m saying, and indeed the less financially valuable it is, the more value it can have as a gift. We use the word ‘token’ for such things.

However, many gifts are simultaneously financially valuable and act as a status symbol: an engagement ring, for example. And there is a certain economy of gifts I think in which the gift’s value lies not in its representation of the value of the relationship between giver and receiver, but its value as a symbol of status as ‘rich boyfriend and provider’ or ‘girlfriend of rich boyfriend’ (to use a couple of mysoginistic examples). Other gifts are given as investments – an heirloom is essentially a saftey deposit against hard times in the future or a down payment on a house, car or holiday. It’s a politically correct way of giving cash without being so vulgar (cash, of course, being a promissary note in the same way).

So where does this leave poor old Data and Worf? For them, the process of giving gifts is literally alien. It’s not part of their culture so they do it to fit in – in other words it’s an imposition (I once went to a wedding where a friend and I had to choose gifts from a wedding list that was written, we suspected, more to communicate the couple’s social status than anything else – I mean, a croquet set?)

The gifts Data and Worf chose were not useful and were not the result of a sacrifice. In turn they would have been an imposition on the receivers as they’d have to have them on display whenever the giver popped round for tea (or maybe they could simply have programmed the replicator to sense the giver’s presence at the door and beam the appropriate gift back into existance? I can see that catching on).

The tradition of buying wedding gifts is one that allows a couple to accumulate the things they need to set up home together. Remove that need and you remove the need for a gift – the last wedding I went to cost me a few hundred pounds to attend and I know my friend realised that me being there was my gift (I just realised how that sounds! You know what I mean…)

The gifts that Data and Worf gave cost nothing, meant nothing, and were not wanted or needed. I can’t see how a currency-less and compensation-for-labour-less economy would continue the gift-giving tradition except in the tokenistic but meaning-filled way, like with the sweets I bought my friend. Similarly, a gift I received last year from departing students meant a lot to me – a children’s book of spelling exercises, a joke about my proofing of their dissertations – because of the meaning invested in it, not the expense or the use.

Friends, colleagues and intimates sharing a private joke or a memory – these are the real value of gifts and, I think, as we become more affluent, this is the future of giving gifts. For Data and Worf, for O’Brien and Keiko, and worst of all for the poor kid receiving the cuddly toy fresh off the replicator, there was little positive, but much negative, associated with the activity of valueless gift giving.

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