The Technology Trap

Recently, I read some reader book reviews of a science fiction novel and came across a thread that surfaced in several of the reviews, usually in a critical context.  I realized, if belatedly, that what I had read was an underlying assumption behind much science fiction and something that many SF readers really want.  The only problem, I also realized, is that what they want is something that, in historical and practical contexts, is as often missing as present.

What am I talking about?  The impact of technology, of course.

Because we in the United States live in a largely technology-driven, or at least highly technologically supported, society, there is an underlying assumption that technology will have a tremendous impact on society, and that every new gadget somehow offers an improvement to society.  I have grave doubts about the second, but that’s not the assumption I’m going to address, but rather the first, the idea that in any society, technology will triumph.  I’d be the first to agree that one can define, to some degree, a culture or society by the way in which it develops and uses technology, but I’d have to disagree on the point that developing technology is always a societal priority.

Imperial China used technology, but there certainly wasn’t a priority on developing it past a certain point, and in fact, one Chinese emperor burned the most technologically advanced fleet in the world at that time.  The Chinese developed gunpowder and rockets, but never developed them to anywhere close to their potential.  As I’ve noted in a far earlier blog, the Greeks developed geared astronomical computers thousands of years in advance of anyone else… and never applied the technology to anything else.  Even the British Empire wasn’t interested in Babbage’s mechanical computer.  And, for the present, at least, western civilization has turned its back on supersonic passenger air transport, even though it’s proved to be technically feasible.

Yet, perhaps because many SF readers are enamored of technology, there seems to be an assumption among a significant fraction of readers that when an author does not explore or exploit the technology of a society and give it a significant role, at least as societal background, he or she has somehow failed in maximizing the potential of the world depicted in the novel in question.

Technology is only part of any society, and, at times, and in some places, it’s a very tiny part.  Even when it underpins a society, as in the case of western European-derived societies in our world, it often doesn’t change the societal structure, but amplifies the impact of already existing trends.  Transportation technology improves and expands the existing trade networks, but doesn’t create a new function in society.  When technology does change things, it usually does so by changing the importance of an existing structure, as in the case of instant communications.  And at times, as I noted above, a society may turn its back on better technology, for various reasons… and this is a facet of human societies seldom explored in F&SF and especially in science fiction, perhaps because of the myth — or the wish — that technology always triumphs, despite the historical suggestions that it doesn’t.

Just because a writer doesn’t carry technology as far as it might go theoretically doesn’t mean the writer failed.  It could be that the writer has seen that, in that society, technology won’t triumph to that degree.

10 thoughts on “The Technology Trap”

  1. Derek says:

    I’ve never thought of it this way before, but it makes perfect sense.

    Technology like instant messaging follows a very logical societal construct, the need to communicate with others… It could easily be reflected in a sort of supply and demand argument.

    Alternative energy on the other hand… Even though there are new developments, the focus on these technologies is not as strong within the U.S. because we as a society are still reliant on an existing trend or structure, oil. Solar/Wind/Nuclear power doesn’t carry quite the social demand as text messaging on an iPhone.

    Rereading your blog entry, it seems like it should be obvious, but it wasn’t to a kid like me enamored with space operas in galaxies far, far away…

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    All tech is inherently limited by the imagination applied to its uses, and demand is driven in large part by convenience. In Derek’s example of energy infrastructure – the relatively high population density of temperate climes shows no social demand. HOWEVER – if say, telepresence tech eliminates reduces the density needs for social interaction (asimov’s robot novels and the rural setting for the lead in Adiamante), the ‘off grid’ aspects drive demand. I have a friend w/ relatives in rural Colorado – Solar, wind, and geothermal are a BIG plus when buying/selling a home that is off the grid. Socially and economically they don’t make sense in Boston or Chicago, but the further out of ‘normal’ you go – the convenience is boosting demand. A farm that has every roof solar and wind backup could (w/ good batteries) never have to fire off a generator unless there is extended bad weather or unusual loads.

  3. Sam says:

    There are two technological advances I see as conceivably being on the horizon that I believe could have a significant impact on society and not neccessarily for the better.

    The first is an advance in medical technology to the point where those who can afford it could have their lives extended indefinitely. Lifespans counted in centuries may not be outside the bounds of possibility.

    The second is a major breakthrough in AI/robotics. Even if true artificial intelligence is not realised robotics may very well advance to the point where most jobs performed by humans today would be able to be done by machines better than humans are able to perform them.

    I could conceive of a situation where society will be divided down a line of technological haves and have-nots. The have-nots will be impoverished and scrounge to survive while the haves will live for centuries and live on vast luxurious estates where all their needs will be catered to by machines.

    1. kidder says:

      Hey Sam,
      I disagree with your points for many reasons. However, i’ll just focus in on one.

      The belief that medical technology could extend lives indefinately, or for long periods of time, is very prevalent. Even so, i feel it is very misguided.

      Genetic damage has and always will occur at every moment of our lives, and in every part of our body. Even with the removal of the inevital malignancies, and the theoretical replacement of tissue with cloned samples, once the brain deterioates you as a person die.

      Although i might admit that slightly extending lives is feasible, i doubt your vision will ever occur.

  4. hob says:

    If we define Tech as Tools–specifically Human tools, then I understand your point about different cultures dictating indirectly their uses and their potential refinement.

    But, could not one say that a story is a form of culture, and western culture specifically has been using stories to bring about tool refinement by showing a change of culture fictionally and then cementing in real culture by introducing tools from the fictional culture? I point to Sherlock Holmes and modern criminal investigation techniques as an example.

    Why would readers not be upset by stories that show future cultures but leave out the very tools that real cultures need to effect cultural change?

  5. Derek says:

    I think there is a difference between mentioning a tool that reflects a culture and ‘hovercar’ being every other word in a story.

    Cultural change isn’t dependent on tools, but can be accelerated thereby. If a new form of cheap transportation were to be introduced that made a 15 hour plane flight into a matter of five minutes, it would accelerate cultural change. From marriage to employment, you’d see sweeping changes. But it wouldn’t be necessary to mention this change every five seconds in a science fiction narrative, most of the changes would be assumed in the story itself without it ever having to take a central role or be mentioned, ‘leaving it out’ of the story.

  6. hob says:

    There is a world of difference between a current human story set in the future and future human story dealing with new/old situations with new/old tools in new/old ways in the future.

    I think you also have to accept that what makes a story enjoyable differs for people. Mr Modesitt was pointing out a pattern in the reviews held by some people, not all, in the Sci Fi genre.

    In the example you are offering, no the story would not need to mention the cheap transportation every five minutes–but will that story merely place our current culture in the future or place humans in a new culture in the future? How would one define the two? If the story is set in the future, in my opinion the focus/description of Tools/tech would be one key method based on our current cultural assumptions about the future. Mr Modesitt is highlighting the illusion of those assumptions, and I’m pointing out that those very assumptions are created by Sci-fi and cemented by Sci Fi Fans in the real world causing everyone else to hold those assumptions to varying degrees.

    Why should people who hold that tech should be focused on more in Sci-fi be incorrect? Because our current cultural assumptions and written history will always be correct?

  7. To add to Mr. Modesitt’s premise, another aspect of this tech ‘blind spot’ is the often-observed assumption — by SF fans — that society is on a perpetual up-slode of ‘progress’ towards a fuzzily-defined but generally rosy future where a) all material need and want is satisfied via miraculous technology and b) all medical problems are similarly satisfied by miraculous technology. Ergo, the “future” is a place where everyone can be happy and live forever, in a society which no longer requires work because the machines will do all our chores for us.

    Granted, such a future sounds enticing and exciting for those of us marooned in the early 21st century. But is such a future inevitable? Even probable?

    Or is it all just wish-fulfillment writ large?

    Larry Niven has been quoted as saying that the fun is in the limits. That a world of limitless possibility is also a boring world, because there are no problems to solve nor any obstacles around with we must strive. Certainly in fiction the ‘limitless’ or ‘perfect’ future proves problematic. Where is the conflict? Towards what goal must a protagonist travel?

    Call me old fashioned, but I’d almost be afraid of a limitless future with miraculous technology. We’re already an idle and self-obsessed society. Imagine everyone sitting around sighing and wondering what to do with their lives when all their physical needs are instantly met, and they have an unlimited amount of time in which to accomplish whatever they want, with ease. One imagines a human race so thoroughly bored with itself, that art-suicides become fashionable. Parties are staged as people lavishly take their own lives, because eternity is just too much for them to contemplate?

  8. Brian says:

    In your last paragraph, it sounds like you are restating the plot of an animated movie. The one about a robot on a planet full of junk. 🙂

  9. Within a few miles of me you will find hundreds of wind turbines. Even when the wind is blowing they may be not using them. They sit idle. Their significant propellers just doing nothing. All they have done is increased our utility bills. I just got my electric bill and there is really a “surcharge” for your these monstrosities. They have crews that go close to and pick up the dead and injured birds that fly to the blades.

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