Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inventions: Strange; Feared; and Yet-to-Come

Science / speculative fiction often deals with technology, and how it affects people, culture, and society. Less often, the idea that people affect technology is explored.

I've seen quite a change in attitude towards technology, over the decades. Tales of Future Past, a remarkable collection by David S. Zondy, celebrates the days when:
"...our future was supposed to be a sort of technocratic, atomic-powered, computer-controlled, antiseptic, space-travelling Jerusalem that would at last free us from the curse of Eden and original sin. We expected some how, some way that we would be on the road to being freed from the human condition. We expected a sort of bloodless, benign French Revolution with Hugo Gernsback as our Voltaire and Carl Sagan as our Robespierre. And what did we get? The City of Man with Tivo. The fact is, science fiction and popular science had set the bar so high that only the Second Coming with ray guns would have satisfied...."
(Tales of Future Past)
I watched that view change to the 'and we're all gonna die' belief that technology was evil. Or, for the more up-to-date: polluting; dehumanizing; depersonalizing; and humanity is doomed anyway.

Beware the Demon Technology and Other Silliness

My guess is that some circles still see technology as a sort of secular demon bent on reducing humanity to a deplorable state of ungrooviness, Although the post-apocalyptic future of mutant frogs (Hell Comes to Frogtown) and armored dune buggies has a certain panache, I really don't think it's all that likely.

Humanity somehow survived agriculture.1 If we can do that, we can take on just about anything.

Although some technologies are more dangerous than others, I don't think that anything human beings mess with is, strictly speaking, safe. That's because of some assumptions I have, about the nature of reality.
  • Some people aren't generally
    • Nice
    • Competent
    • Careful
  • Technology is most dangerous when it's used by people who are
    • Not nice or
    • Not competent or
    • Not careful or
    • Some combination of the above
I also don't think that any technology makes people do things. Yes: it's easier for people to travel, for example, now that we've got automobiles and airplanes. But people had been traveling for years before the automobile was invented.

People are People, Tools are Tools: There's a Difference

What we do can be done on a larger scale if we've got tools: but it's the human mind directing the tool; not the other way around.

Buck Rogers and the Temple of Doom

Technology can be part of the background, or it could be a central part of the conflict.

Take the early days of the industrial revolution, when people who didn't like the new technology sabotaged it with their wooden shoes. Or, didn't. Makes a good story, though. (Merriam-Webster Inc. has a pretty good discussion of where the word "sabotage" comes from.)

The point is: that's conflict, centering around technology.

A few short references to technology can place a story in history - or quickly establish a setting. Mention blowguns, poison darts, and a dugout canoe, and many (most, I hope) readers will fill in the rest of the setting from their own (more-or-less accurate) knowledge. Talk about a disrupter, shield generators, and a landing pod and you've evoked a very different setting.

Show your readers someone donning a space suit, getting into a dugout canoe, and dodging poison darts on the way to a shield generator - and you've either hooked or confused the reader.

All of which leads into another list of posts. This set deals with inventions: strange; feared; and (in the case of the warp drive) yet-to-come.

Unless otherwise noted, these posts are from Apathetic Lemming of the North.And, this decade's 'it's gonna kill us all' invention, CERN's Large Hadron Collector:
1 Agriculture may have been the single most dangerous technology humanity has come up with yet. It took us thousands of years to recover from the devastating effects of its use. ("Agriculture as a Mistake" Apathetic Lemming of the North (October 29, 2007))

2 This isn't a perfect world. Sometimes not-nice people do naughty things; and won't stop even when they're asked nicely. Which leads me to this set of thoughts:
  • War isn't nice - things get broken and people die
    • This is not good.
  • Diplomacy can lead to mutually-acceptable compromise
    • This is good
  • War is not nice
    • But sometimes it's better than the alternative
(I value individual freedom, even for people who don't agree with a country's dominant culture. I'll admit to having a rather counter-cultural attitude on this topic: which I discuss in Another War-on-Terror Blog.)

What's pertinent to writing in the science fiction / speculative fiction genre(s) is that 'dangerous' technology isn't
  • Always a weapon
  • Bad by itself
Think LP gas, computers and movable type. (Discussed in Individual Freedom: a Treasure, Another War-on-Terror Blog (June 27, 2008))

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