Putting Technology Ramifications into Your World Building

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2012
prepared for LTUE 2012
Power Point slides here


Science fiction can be about new worlds, new aliens, and new ways of doing things. And Golden Age science fiction -- SF of the 1930's and 40's -- was some of the best at exploring new ideas. If you want to write the equivalent of Golden Age science fiction nowadays, in the 2010's, what do you have to do?

You have to explore carefully the ramifications of the hot new concept you have come up with.

How to do that is what this presentation is about. The goal of this presentation is to help you write about something new, and not have your story about this hot new item come out sounding like the same old stuff.

First question: What is your story about?

The first question in any story telling situation is: What is your story about?

The answer most of the time is, "It's about people, the characters in my story in particular." There can be exceptions, but they are rare. So the next question is, "What do people have to do with my hot technology idea?" And this is where you have to do the heavy lifting if you want to write about a hot idea. Helping you mix characters and neat ideas is what we will be spending our time on. There are many other discussions about building characters; this one is about building a world those characters can move through.

First suggestion: if you're planning to emphasize a concept, expect to write a short story, not a novel. Familiar characters in familiar situations and settings can be complex enough to sustain tens of thousands of words. But if your story is mostly about a neat new idea it will develop and conclude much more quickly. Plan on a short story for your first exploration of the concept.

That said, lets talk about how to think about inventions. These following concepts will help you transform a hot idea into a believable and consistent world that you can then populate with interesting characters.

Concept One: How to think about a new invention: commodity use and surprise use

When something new is invented it will be used in two basic ways.

o The beginning use will be the "commodity use". It will do what an older technology does only faster, cheaper and better. This use is what gets investors interested and allows a product to transform from "wondrous idea" in someone's head into something real that many other people can use.

Once the new idea has proven itself as a commodity and has demonstrated some value, then the second category of uses will show up.

o The second category is the "surprise use". This can best be categorized by the inventor and investors saying, "Oh... You can do that with it, too? Neat!" or "Uh-Oh!" if the surprise use seems abusive rather than useful.

If an invention is memorable -- as in, story worthy -- it will be because of its surprise uses. But keep in mind that there must first be a commodity use. If there's no commodity use to introduce the concept, it falls in the "mad scientist" category, and the story becomes quite character-oriented and probably pretty conventional.

Some real world examples

Here are some real world examples of commodity and surprise uses of inventions.

o Audio recording: Thomas Edison, the inventor, felt the first profitable use for audio recording would be to replace transcribers -- people copying down what other people were saying real-time. He thought it would be a great way for people to leave wills and testaments. He knew it could record music, he did music demos, but business use would be the money-maker. Surprise!

o the commodity use for electronic digital computers, way back in WWII times, was calculating social security benefits and artillery trajectory tables. These were deadly computational drudgery, and obscure niche markets. But it was servicing these kinds of niche marketplaces that allowed computers to show their worth and got IBM established in the business.

o And to show just how far and wide this concept can be utilized. Think of language as an invention. People can use language to say, "Danger!" faster, better and cheaper than animals can. That's the commodity use. The surprise use is teaching. The even more surprising use is parents telling their kids who to mate with -- arranged marriage.

(For more on this concept see my book Evolution and Thought.)

Concept Two: Birds and Boeings

This has to do with the relation between the imagination that fires people to slave over a hot idea and the reality of what comes out. The two are usually very different. I call this the Birds and Boeings concept because of the relation between the human imaginings that started mankind on the road to flight, and the final outcome.

Humans wanted to fly like birds, and the flight visionaries, such as the Wright brothers, studied them closely. But harsh reality intervened and to make something that could both fly and carry a human at the same time called for some serious departures from the ways birds did it. It was hard to accept, but flapping wings had to go.

When enough tradeoffs away from bird design had been made, mankind ended up with useful jet aircraft. They fly, but that's about all they have in common with birds. They have different propulsion systems, different materials, different flying characteristics... so much is different!

This holds true of the relation between the dream and the reality of most human inventions. Here are some more examples.

Robot Butlers: The earliest vision of robots centered around the robot butler. Think of Robbie the Robot in the movie Forbidden Planet (1956). It acted human, looked human, and did human-like things. We have lots of robots these days, but still no robot butlers.

Computers: One of the fascinating blind-sidings of Golden Age science fiction writers (those of the late 1930's and early 1940's) was completely missing the boat on what computers would do. Their vision was of being a robot brain and thus being part of the robot butler, or something massive, stationary and centralized. The activities of communicating on a massive scale and coordinating machines with data flow were pretty much completely missed.

Biology and Genetics: The dream of genetic engineering is cloning -- making better babies and adults. The reality is going to be quite different. It's likely to center around making new kinds of proteins, plastics and replacement organs.

Keep Birds and Boeings in mind as you design the world around your hot concept.

(For more on this see my essay Birds and Boeings.)


Concept Three: Tattoos and T-Shirts

Concept three is about how a replaced technology disappears. The instinctive first guess it that it goes out with a whimper, ala buggy whips. The reality is more complex. Some go out fast, ala buggy whips, but some replaced technologies seem to go on being used forever, long after there are faster, better, cheaper technologies that have long ago replaced their commodity uses. Here are some examples

o Tattoos are a way of decorating one's skin. T-Shirts are the high tech replacement. They are faster, better and cheaper. But tattoos haven't disappeared. In fact, in the US they have thrived over the last decade.

o Horses and wagons are a form of transportation. Cars and trucks do it faster, better cheaper. Yet there are more horses in America today than there were during the 1930's. These horses are used for recreation, for personal expression, not commerce.

The Tattoos and T-Shirts concept: An old technology endures when it carries with it a lot of personal expression.

This explains the enduring of mechanical watches and musical instruments.

Kodak and photographic film are a question mark. Digital is so much faster better and cheaper that it's going to be a toss-up how well film-based photography can thrive. But... there's a lot of personal expression in photography so it's likely to endure in some form.

(For more on this see my essay Tattoos and T-Shirts.)


Structuring Society around Technology

Who Gets It, Who Doesn't?: Social Justice and Entrepreneurship

The final step in developing your hot new idea is figuring out how it will change the community that adopts it. Specifically:

o How will government change

o How will social relations change

Figuring this out is a tricky, but necessary, step. If you don't bother with this then your society is not going to be consistent or credible. You may still have a compelling story, but it's parable, not hard science fiction, and your readers will not be gaining any insight into our future, or your hot concept.

The most obvious real world example of how society and government have been affected by technology is the Industrial Revolution and the upheavals it spread through Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Think from the French Revolution through the Berlin Wall.

In a literary world: If you have magic, who besides kings and priests will have access to it? Who is going to engage in magic trade? Who supplies? Who consumes? Who gets rich? Who gets jealous? What laws will regulate it? Who is going to take advantage of the surprise uses?

All this gets complicated. But if your story is about a hot idea, not hot characters, you must give these elements some thought. One simple solution is to contain your story in some fashion -- make it happen in a world made small by some form of isolation, such as being in a space ship rather than in a big city on Earth.

(To see this concept in action see my Tales of Technofiction books.)


Good and Bad examples

The movie In Time (2011)(my review) is an example of posing an interesting premise, but then blowing it when it came time to show what difference it would make. The interesting concept was that time was literally money, but what came out was a rather conventional parable on the evils of social darwinism -- the movie did not show us any interesting surprises of this time is money technology.

Limitless (2011)(my review) and Moon (2009)(my review) were two movies that did a much better job of exploring the ramifications of a new technology. Limitless shows us a person exploring changes that come with taking mind-enhancing pills, and Moon shows us an interesting way that cloning might be used to operate a distant mining colony. In both cases people are doing things in different ways because they have access to a new, exciting technology. In "In Time" people were doing things the same old ways in spite of having access to the new technology. The characters were crafted and worked through the story as if they were in a Dicken's London.

In Time was moralizing, not exploring. Sadly, in my mind, it's a common style of SF story telling and a popular one. Sad because it's not saying anything about the future, it's editorializing about the present.



This isn't an easy way to write a story. You have to do more than a lot of research. You have to do a lot of thinking about implications as well.

The reward for doing so will be a very different style of story, and you will be a visionary.


--The End--