Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Does your technology form a set?

I made it back from Chicago only to find that my home internet was performing intermittently - and nearly screamed. It's funny to think how much I've come to rely on it.

When I was a kid my dad used to bring home boxes of punch cards that he used for the computers at his university. We had a PET computer in my elementary school, and we had a Victor at home for a while, and I did college on a Mac Classic... I remember when email and newsgroups first started to be a big thing, and started sucking up everybody's time!

Now the internet is established and has developed its own culture, language and dialects - just look at how email language differs from spoken language or from letter-writing, or how texting has given us a whole new way to alter our own language. The Acronyms are taking over! Maybe I should create an alien species to that effect; sort of has a Doctor Who vibe.

All this has me thinking about technology and how it's used in worldbuilding for both fantasy and science fiction. I wonder how many authors, when creating a world, intentionally choose what I call a "technology set." A technology set is a complex collection of interrelated technologies that exist together in a given society. "Bronze age culture" might be one type of technology set - generally within a set the presence of one type of artifact automatically means that others are present as well. A bronze knife depends on the presence of mining technology, for example - but it doesn't necessarily entail the existence of bronze armor, which requires much more bronze, and techniques for creating the armor shape. A matter-transmitter device depends on highly sophisticated computers, and would entail that other types of transmitters exist also.

But that brings me to a question: when are the links between technologies necessary, and when aren't they? For example, does the presence of antigravity transportation automatically mean that computers exist in the form that we know?

The evolution of technology begins with basic ingredients of environment and materials, then interacts with culture - what activities are considered important. As it grows from there, culture and technology inform one another. An example: military tanks were invented as a concept, then built, and thereafter it took a while for military strategists to develop a fully mature way of using them.

I was impressed with the transport doorways in Dan Simmons' Hyperion books because they were used in a way that seemed mature: if you have a cheap way to make a door that opens in one place and lets out in another, then why not have a home that exists in seven different scenic locations at once? (Better yet, Simmons uses these doorways integrally in his plot!)

I don't think it would take much for technology to diverge from our own historical path, and once it diverged, it could head in all kinds of unusual directions. I'm very willing to believe that an unusual technology set will work, provided that each element of it is grounded in solid reasoning - reasoning based on materials, culture, travel, early adoption of technology from other races, exhaustion of resources, etc. etc.

Now I'm hoping my internet holds up so I can get back to my routine with TTYU...