Technology and Writing the Future

Last week, I found myself suddenly without internet service. After contacting my “local” telephone carrier and internet provider and close to half an hour of wading through various voice mail screens which asked me to answer scripted questions having nothing to do with my problem and waiting for a “technical support” person who sounded suspiciously Indian and then waiting for her to check, I was told that I was suffering an “outage.” I knew that. She also noted that it might take 24 hours to restore service. It took 48 hours before I had full service back. I never did get a full answer from the provider, but from the local newspaper, three days later. Apparently, a backhoe operator severed the only fiber optic cable serving the 150,000 plus people of southwestern Utah. The backhoe operator claimed that the line was not marked; the telephone company claims that he had a responsibility to check before digging.

Either way, the simple fact is that one man and a machine interrupted all internet service and much, but not all, telephone service for a large geographic area. While this confirms my skepticism about such “conveniences” as internet bill paying and banking, stock trading, and the like, it also illustrates the underlying fragility of our high-tech/lowest-possible-cost society. Over the past few years, I’ve seen entire malls paralyzed because of power outages. There’s no provision for selling without power to the computerized sales terminals. So much of our society relies on the interface of electrical power and computer-stored information, and yet, access to that information can be so easily disrupted.

All this would seem inconceivable to a businessman or almost anyone less than a century ago. Along these lines, I was thinking about addressing a high school class on the subject of my experiences as a pilot during the Vietnam era, and I realized that, if a former pilot who was the same age as I am now had made an address to me and my high school, he would have been talking about primitive biplanes with fabric wings. Yet there is surprisingly little difference in propulsion, aerodynamics, or even aircraft structure and function today, as opposed to when I was a student. In short, we saw radical change in aircraft and mechanical technology in less than a fifty year period, and we haven’t seen the like since… and I doubt that we will. This slow-down in applied technological advancement isn’t restricted to aircraft; it’s taken place across all areas of society, although it’s largely unrecognized. Why? And what does this have to do with society, culture, and science fiction?

All this has to do with limits.

Human beings and Americans in particular hate limits. They sneak across or under or around borders, tear down fences, trample across private property, exceed speed limits, protest, often violently, the limitations on where snowmobiles and ATVs can travel. And the problem with predicting limits is that most of those who predicted them have turned out to be wrong. Malthus is one example, and so are all those who predicted people would die if they traveled faster than a hundred miles an hour. On the other hand, so far, at least, Einstein’s limitation of travel to less than the speed of light is holding up fairly well — except possibly for tiny distances at the subatomic level.

All that said, the real world does have limits. And so does technology. That doesn’t mean that many accomplishments once perceived as impossible could not be achieved. They just couldn’t exceed certain limitations with the technology of that time. Skyscrapers were impractical, if not impossible, without elevators and higher technology structural steel. Even higher buildings depend on more advanced materials, engineering, and technology, but the taller the building, the greater dependence on technology, and certainly at the moment, at least, a structure extending ten miles above the ground is not possible.

All this technology tends to conflict with the human desire to obtain goods and services at the lowest possible price — and that’s why there’s only one fiber optic cable in southwestern Utah, and doubtless many other places. Despite the fragility of our current system, incorporating redundancy and greater reliability is expensive and often energy intensive, and that’s another form of limitation. Those sorts of limitations are why our entire electric power generation network is literally cobbled together, as is much of our communications system.

Then add to that the fact that, for now, so many more recent scientific discoveries are in the area of discovering limitations and explanations for those limitations. All this makes realistically predicting the future and writing about that future in an intriguing fashion harder and harder with each passing year, because economic and technological limits do in fact exist, and readers want to see characters exceed those limits. Yet it becomes harder and harder for a writer to have his or her characters do so plausibly with each new discovery and each passing year.

Might all this explain the comparative decline in eye-opening science fiction, the resurgence of “space opera,” and the continuing growth and popularity of fantasy?