The future as it looked in 1967

The Star Trek Tech I Really Wish I Had

ctually, there’s a whole lot of Star Trek tech I wish we had. Clean energy generation via dilithium crystals, nice. Transporters, very nice. But the thing I was actually thinking about was that seldom-mentioned medical instrument, the Dolorimeter. It could measure — actually quantify — pain and suffering. I suspect the Star Trek version was conceived as measuring purely physical pain, as in neurological activity; but this is fantasy, so why stop there?

How I wish I had millions of them, billions of them, all networked, installed all over the world, reporting and geotracking and aggregating their data in an Internet of Pain. Total Global Teledolorimetry. With documentary correlation to human activities: mining, manufacturing, commerce, and trade…

In other words… every food we eat, every piece of clothing we wear, everything we buy and watch and generally consume or even window-shop, comes with a big, boldface, large-print tag on it telling us precisely how much pain and suffering it cost. In International Standardised Units, whatever they would be called: agonyads, kilopenthes… heck, maybe just dolors.

We do try, feebly.

At the seafood counter my grocery store may label the fish with red-yellow-green dots, from least to most “sustainable.” I can buy “free range” eggs. I can buy “fair trade” coffee. I can buy grass fed meat, organic vegetables. I can buy a battery and a light bulb and a solar panel that are all labelled “green.” But do I really know what those labels mean, despite the best efforts of certifying agencies? Is my green rechargeable battery made by suffering sweatshop labour?

The World Wide Dolor-Index Web could tell me this accurately, even on a case-by-case, box-by-box basis. Two pieces of brand-name PRC-made electronics next to each other on the shelf might actually come from different factories. Maybe one comes from a plant run by a kinder management team, where the workers maybe don’t cry themselves to sleep at night in cheerless barracks six to a room, or struggle with bursting bladders to make it through to the allotted break time. I want to know that. I want to buy that one, not the other one.

The WWDIW could quantify for me the anguish of that last orangutan clinging to a dead tree in the midst of a brutal clearcut. And that of all its vanished kin. The system could sum and assign that suffering accurately to each litre of palm oil from the industrial plantation that replaced the rainforest. And the convenience foods made from that palm oil.

It could account also for the forest defenders killed trying to preserve their homes, and the grief of their families. I would know just how much blood is in a blood diamond, and how much less bloodier the “responsible” one really is. I would know how many sick farmworker kids are included free of charge in my basket of California industrial-farmed produce.

I want to know these things.

The people who run our systems — finance, commerce, advertising, entertainment — would tell me I really don’t want to know these things, that I’m better off not knowing these things. But they’re wrong. Not knowing is making me deeply unhappy. I want to know.

The global dolorimetry web could tell me whether the suffering of the CAFO salmon crammed together, swimming tight and pointless circles in their net pens, is greater — or less — than the suffering of the wild salmon on the hook, hauled in and whacked over the head. How much do hungry orcas suffer, when we fish out their waters? How much do people on southern coastlines suffer, when their subsistence catches dwindle because factory ships have vacuumed up all the fish (perhaps to feed them to farmed salmon)? What does a tin of sardines cost in dolors, or a bag of farmed shrimp?

The system could tell me whether the shirt or the shoes I’m about to buy were made by someone desperately exploited, loathing every minute of their working day, sexually harassed, suffering from work-related illness… or someone respectably employed, gossiping and singing at their sewing machine and proud of their work. When I buy that cell phone, how many dolors did the minerals in it cost in near-slave conditions for miners, child labour, crippling injuries, resource wars? Did the fur trim on those mittens come from a cat that was boiled alive?

What share of that suffering do I now own? I know what I’m worth in dollars; but how long is my Marley’s chain? What am I worth in dolors?

The Star Trek tech of my dreams could tell me whether the aggregate suffering involved in my brick of tofu — made from soya from clear-cut Amazonian plantations? — is greater, or less, than the same ounces-worth of suffering of a young steer on its brief journey to and through the slaughterhouse. Is the big factory packing plant that turns out shrinkwrapped, corporate meat for the supermarket more, or less, humane than the family-operated one in the next county that serves the farmers’ markets?

How about the suffering of dairy cattle whose milk goes into my cheese? But if I eschew dairy and eat cashew-milk cheese, are people going hungry in far-off lands where the cashews grow — because the landowners make sure that all available land is used for exported cash-crops… to make them rich, and to make my “rich and satisfying” vegan cheese-alike? How many dolors per pound? I want to know this.

I want to know what happens to that electronic gizmo when I virtuously “recycle” it — is it actually going to some apocalyptic burning techno-midden in Southern Asia where starving children breathe carcinogenic smoke? My ignorance is appalling. Our ignorance is appalling.

There’s so much more that could be labelled. Everything should be labelled.

What if the entertainment industry had been properly labelled, all those miserable decades before #metoo ripped the veneer off? What if the liner notes, the title roll, the awards ceremony had been obliged to label their product— in accurate standardised units —with the pain and rage and tears of raped and coerced and humiliated women? Would one director’s films have cost less in dolors than another? Would one studio have scored lower on the Index than another? I wish I’d known that before I bought my theatre tickets, my albums. I’d have had some choices to make.

And when our politicians tell us that they want to invade a country and bomb its cities and kill its people — for a very good reason of course, isn’t it always? — I want to see proof, absolute dolorimetric quantified proof, that the suffering prevented by having this war is actually, substantially greater than the suffering it causes. Because the last few wars, you know, the math doesn’t look good to me.

The same goes for all their decisions. When they crow over “reducing my taxes” and expect me to be grateful, I want to know how much they just also increased my share of national suffering — the other price tag, the price tag we never talk about. Did they just boost my net worth in dolors?

These are things I need to know. Sure, I’m grateful for labels that tell me how many calories and vitamins are in my food, how healthy it is for me to eat, whether it contains this or that chemical, is vegetarian or not, has this percentage of fat. We struggled long and hard for the right to know these things, and I value that knowledge. But I want so much more. I want a whole new dimension of kosher: I want a reduced-suffering diet, I want to count pain-calories.

I want to know what everything really costs, what everything costs in pain, suffering, misery, despair. I want to know the price in dolors, not just dollars. Only then can I make informed choices that have a realistic chance of reducing the sum total of suffering in the world.

While we’re dreaming here, I’d like my dolorimeter network to include forecasting. I’d like an unimaginably complex neural network to predict the future dolorimetric trail of my choices today. I’d like the inconceivable suffering already being generated by climate chaos to be extrapolated forward as well as recorded up to the purchase point — and added to the dolorimetric price tag of every litre of fuel, every plane ticket, every pipeline — and every solar panel and wind turbine and run of river installation too, because these are the comparisons that matter.

Because what things cost us in dollars… is the least of what things really cost.

So I want to see the state budget, and the national budget, and the UN budget, expressed in dolors; I want analysts and policy wonks to tell me how best we might spend dollars to save dolors. Because the way we’re accounting for things now makes no sense.

Thump, back to reality. We don’t have the technology… and even if we did, I doubt we have the will to look so honestly at what we do and how we do it. So I’ll have to muddle along doing the best I can, making choices based on incomplete and inaccurate information, trying to use my moral compass to find a way through a maze sprinkled with neodymium magnets… but it’s not good enough.

In my dreams, we account for ourselves in dolors and sense.

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.