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...


  1. Interesting observations.

    You ask the question essentially of "Will computers be the same as we know them now" for future technology. On one hand I'd answer this "Yes", but on the other hand I have to say "Probably not".

    Computers become more powerful and capable every day and researchers are beginning to take steps that will or could have profound impact on computing, computing power, and the way computing is done in the future. Some of those pathways might not be palatable to our delicate sensibilities, but technology has a way of changing those sensibilities. Take, for example, the recent experiments using rat brains linked to electronic devices to control machines. Unpalatable and Frankensteinian most certainly, but an associate of mine a long time ago who knows quite a bit about computers said he did not see digital technology as a way ahead forever for computers. He thought that future computers and computing systems might be more analogue and biologically based due to the limits that digital machines have.

    So, in the future, we might have extremely powerful computing systems that rely on links with organic brains to boost their capabilities. I'm not at all certain that we would recognize such a machine as computing in the way we do today.

    Still, because of our physiology and morphology, computing systems will, I think, tend to have a number of things in common well into the next couple of centuries. We'll continue to see keyboards, push buttons or something like push buttons, power switches, view screens, and stand alone boxes. But these will likely be pushed to levels we cannot foresee today - holographic projections, all-glass offices like the all glass cockpits of today, touch sensitive panels, intuitive interfaces, optically-steered mouses (mice?), and probably a lot more.

    In addition, computing capability will continue to become more and more powerful. Today, it is possible to put together your own mini-supercomputer buying off-the-shelf machines. I have plans on my desktop right now for a mini-supercomputer using 10 desktop machines that can be constructed for under $2k buying machines from Fry's. Ten years from now I see machines that will automatically link their processors with any other available machine on the web to deliver gigantic parallel computing capability thus forming organic supermachines (organic in the manner of speaking in that the machines can link together, change locations, link up again, change locations, links again, etc., etc. using web hotspots or some other form of radio technology - that capability actually exists today in a minor form used by SETI@Home and a few others for high-end, community-based, massively parallel computing).

    Some aspects of technology will never change. A shovel and plow will continue to look like a shovel and plot and will continue to work the same way. After all, it's a proven and mature technology and, without power, there are only a few ways to dig a ditch or prepare a field for planting.

  2. Thanks for the comments, fotsgreg! Really interesting observations on the future of computing. And on the interaction between technology and expectations for it in society.

  3. Is it sort of a chicken and the egg thing, though? Take the Hawaiians, for example. They didn't have metal of any sort until the Europeans showed up. That didn't stop them from constructing some pretty formidible weapons with wood and shark's teeth.

    On the other hand, that makes the question about space travel so interesting, doesn't it? At what point to space travellers stop being heroes voyaging in tin cans to stargoing cruisers? It seems that raising (or decreasing) technology in one area is bound to bleed into others. If the Enterprise can go FTL, the powers that give makes replicators, holodecks and junior officers with their own cabins a reasonable part of the milleu. If, on the other hand, FTL never happens, then continuing to explore space when a return on the investment is thousands of years away, that's a very different society than the one we have today.

  4. Good points, Bill. Thanks so much for your thoughts; I'll try to pick up on them in my next post.