Friday, August 22, 2008

More about Technology

After my post yesterday about technology, fotsgreg and Bill Moonroe made some very interesting comments. Fotsgreg talked about how computers might develop in the future - and how their development might interact with human cultural development. Bill Moonroe mentioned how Hawaiians had developed quite deadly weapons made of wood and shark teeth when they had no metal of their own. These comments put me onto some other technology-related thoughts: specifically, the question of mature versus developing technologies, and the question of how cultures make use of existing technology and materials.

fotsgreg brought up the example of a plow to talk about mature technologies, the kind that have been developed to such an extent that their function can't be further enhanced. I agree with the plow example, inasmuch as the plowshare itself hasn't changed (though the vehicle propulsion connected to it has gone from horse to motor). The other example that leaps to my mind is eating utensils: knives and forks and spoons. We have shellfish forks and salad forks and dinner forks; forks made of wood, metal and plastic, but the basic shape of the fork hasn't changed in a long while. Similarly with knives and spoons - and with chopsticks. Again, lots of styles and materials, but the objects and their function are very mature.

That is a huge contrast with things like computers, for which the function keeps developing along with the form. Computers are a lot more complex than forks, of course. I'd say that makes complex things more likely to continue developing, because more different elements of them can be changed and improved. But with most technologies, there will come a point of slowdown in development - and probably, this point of slowdown will have a lot to do with people's perception of the role of that object in their lives. As fotsgreg mentioned, there's a point in the development of computers where it gets Frankensteinian, the interface of the computer with the organism/brain. Is this where the development stops? Maybe - but it depends on the resilience of the technology and its potential benefits, and how people perceive those in contrast to its ethical disadvantages.

In terms of worldbuilding, I think technology is a lot freer than people think. Take Bill Moonroe's example of the shark-tooth weapon, or the weapons of the Aztecs that my friend T.L. Morganfield uses in her work - wooden swords with cutting blades made of obsidian. Of course, if you are starting with technology as it exists today and extrapolating into the future, that does place some constraints on what you can do. On the other hand, even the technology that we use today is not fixed in its significance or its utility.

When I first visited Japan, I had the naive idea that Japanese technology involved lots of cool black boxes for audio and video - natural, I guess, since I'd seen a lot of such things that were made in Japan. But when I got there, it took me more than four months before I met anyone who had a sophisticated audio system. Technology in Japan has different areas of slow and fast advance because of the nature of the environment. Here are some examples.

1. Ovens

Very few people have ovens in Japan, because the cuisine there doesn't call for them. Only someone interested in making Western-style food would own an oven. My first host family didn't have one at all; my second family had one, but never used it. Ovens are also prohibitively big for most Japanese homes. When I lived in my own apartment I had an oven, but it was the smallest oven I had ever seen - you could just fit a whole chicken in it. A countertop toaster oven would be far more practical for most people.

2. Dishwashers

The lovely couple who lived upstairs from our apartment in Tokyo had a dishwasher. It sat on their countertop, and looked almost like a toaster oven, but larger - literally, the thing was just large enough in height and depth to hold a single large dinner plate. Theoretically, it could contain eight or twelve dinner plates in a row. You would of course have to run it for those and then for the glasses separately. And then the pots and anything else particularly large would be cleaned the normal way, in the sink.

3. Audio equipment

As I mentioned above, not everyone in Japan has audio equipment. The fact that I was surprised by this is probably a testament to my naivete more than anything else, because of course not everyone can afford an expensive sound system. On the other hand, Japan has a culture of frugality that might make people less likely to spend precious money (and space!!) in this area. I'd be interested to hear about sales of iPod-like technology there.

4. Mobile/Cell phones

When I was living in Japan in 2000-2001, already everyone had cell phones. They were unbelievably tiny, and you could type into them in Japanese characters by using combinations of keystrokes. (They called texters the "oyayubizoku" or "thumb tribe.") And you could use cell phones to go on the internet, at a cost of 3 yen per click. Super-advanced! Here in the US we're only seeing quite recently what I was seeing in Japan back then - because cell phones are extremely well-suited to the Japanese environment. High density living, no space for a large computer (home desktop computers are much less common there), and to top it all off, no street names! All of these factors combine to make internet-ready cell phones an ideal technology. Before we left, it was possible to take a cell phone, go onto the internet, and ask it to tell you the location of the nearest 7-11 convenience store, with directions on how to get there.

So, what about if you're worldbuilding? I guess my first thought would be as follows: when you pick technologies, make them fit together in an ecologically and culturally natural set - but don't get bogged down in the assumptions that are natural to our own ecology and culture. Considerations like space and money can make big changes in the use of an existing technology set, and some environments will encourage the fast development of specialized technologies, like the cell phone in Tokyo. Free your mind a little bit, just for fun, and play around with the basic parameters of the environment, asking yourself exactly how such considerations might influence the use of technology. Then you'll be in for a lot of fun.