This entry is part 3 in the series Putting The SF Into Sci-Fi

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In part one, I looked at techniques for extrapolating from the world of today into a future world where technology has changed. These techniques have served me well in both fiction writing and developing sci-fi oriented game settings. In the second part, I examined some core technologies that everyone engaged in anything sci-fi really needs to make uniquely their own. In this third and final part of the series, I’m going to study the ways in which the technologies developed in the previous parts would actually shape the world around the characters, whether they be protagonists in a fictional work or PCs in a roleplaying game. Which is rather tricky to do in the abstract, but let’s get started and see how we get on…

The Human impact

The most immediate type of effect to look for and document – especially given that we started from a domestic technology foundation in part 1 – is on the day-to-day lives of the ordinary citizen. What does it enable people to do that they couldn’t do before? How does it impact the daily routine? What irritations and annoyances does the technology do away with?

Sometimes, where a new technology makes a daily event more efficient – faster and/or cheaper – the old technology forms the basis of a luxury or recreational activity. The less-efficient technology becomes associated with leisure. This possibility has to be assessed in terms of the societal imperatives of the culture; modern Australian society, for example, seems built around the philosophy of “work hard, play harder”, which means that if Star Trek’s Sonic Showers were invented today, “old-time” water showers would not necessarily become routinely associated with bathing in luxury and at leisure. On the other hand, the current bathing style – luxury bathtubs – might well be supplanted, the pace of a water shower updating the concept of what luxury consists of to something more appropriate to that “work hard, play harder” philosophy.

But the first flush of human impacts are only going to be the beginning of this story, the most direct impacts. The more profound consequences at the human level will be reflections of more substantial effects.

The Social impact

What are the impacts on society? What will be the impact on employment? What types of job will be made redundant, what new types of job will be created, and what existing jobs will be transformed? What will happen to pay scales?

For example, viewed in the broadest sense, the work of a clerk hasn’t changed since the 18th century. It’s still about creating, checking, maintaining, and filing documents. But when you look at the details, the job has changed several times over the last 160 years or so. Typewriters and biros replaced quills and fountain pens, the secretarial functions were split off into their own profession. That didn’t mean they could take it easy, though; changes to society resulted in a substantial increase in the amount of paperwork, and paperwork that was once done by other clerks shifted from service providers to customers. There was a time, for example, when bank clerks took care of money-counting and filling out of records; it was somewhere in the mid-20th century that standard account numbers and deposit slips that bank customers were expected to fill out were introduced. The early 20th century brought in faster, mechanized transportation systems and the telephone, enabling tasks that would once have been handled by letter or by an extended trip to be handled immediately and remotely. Fax technology came and went. Electronic document production and exchange, and scanning, and email; modems and internet banking. One of my duties at a job that I held in the 90s was to fire up the state-of-the-art 16 baud modem and query the bank account balances every morning to track the clearance of checks and verify that payments had been received. It took 10-15 minutes – just to get four account balances. Now throw in mobile phones with cameras, and the ability to edit and retouch images, and the job of some clerks, in fine detail, has changed again.

Vice

Does the new technology lend itself to any existing vices? Does its proper use lend itself to the creation of new vices? What are the symptoms of indulging, and overindulging, in those vices? Are there any social strata restrictions on the capacity to employ the technology as a vice? How does society react to this new vice, and what are the consequences of those reactions?

Abuse & Legal

So far we have only considered the social impacts of the technology when it is used properly. If there is one thing that’s for certain, it is that if there is a way to abuse the technology for a profit, people will find it. But there’s more to think about: Does the use of the technology open up new avenues for fraud or deception? Does it facilitate any existing criminal behavior? Are there consequences for the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime? Humans are fallible – what happens when the technology is misused through ignorance?

Medical

Are there any new diseases that arrive as a consequence of the technology? Are there any impacts on the treatment of existing diseases? Is there anything that goes from the incurable to the curable or at least treatable as a consequence?

Secondary Flow-on effects

What are the flow-on effects from these primary social effects? The more connected society becomes, the greater the spillover impact on other occupations. Again speaking of clerks, every other occupation in modern society has dealings with them. Builders order materials, dealing with clerks; who dispatch deliveries, dealing with the clerks at the delivery company or arm of the company. The builder deals with bank clerks, council clerks, architects and their clerks, and on and on and on. Change the way those clerks deal with the paperwork that comes with their jobs and you change the way all these other occupations interact with the clerks and therefore with each other.

Consider another technology from Star Trek: they hardly ever put things in writing, they voice-record them. That requires an efficient means of storing them (or massive increases in storage capacity), for one thing. One means of achieving that is to take a leaf from an older technology, MIDI-based music. With Midi, the sounds of each instrument are pre-recorded note by note, and the music consists of a series of instructions to turn a particular note from a particular instrument on and off at the right time, just like a piano player roll. If you could find a standard way of “recording” the voice and pronunciation patterns of an individual with recording every word, you could then employ speech-to-text software to compress lots of speech into quite a small package. Instead of recording the voice speaking the entire log entry, you gather and encode a sample of the voice and use that to render the text.

The advantage of this approach is that text is searchable and can be cross-referenced quickly and automatically, so that you can find an entry that is relevant to a particular subject quickly and easily. The alternative – having the computer system actually understand the language and what it is communicating – requires a fully-functional artificial intelligence, and that’s a lot harder to get right. It’s quite clear from their interactions with their shipboard computers that the systems of The Next Generation are not AIs, and yet they can search log entries as required. This sort of encoding technique mandates the way the people in Star Trek actually use their technology.

If people are more used to having to organize their thoughts and speech in order to communicate with the strictly-logical machines that they use, that should also be reflected in greater efficiency in their communications with each other. Casual conversations aside, dialogue should become more purposeful and directed at communicating quickly and concisely. In modern times, we tend to associate those characteristics with militaristic communications – minimal superfluity, with precision and purpose to every statement.

Is there a difference in the affordability of the technology? Is there a difference in the way that large businesses and small businesses employ it? Are there any benefits or consequences that only manifest when considering economies of scale?

Tertiary Flow-On Effects

Having identified any direct social impacts as a consequence of the technology, and then pursued and identified the consequences of those impacts, it’s time to think a little about the effect that those consequences and the reactions to them will have. Some of these will be immediate, others will manifest as new social trends that will accumulate over time and reshape the society, sometimes in unexpected ways.

It used to be considered that technology would reduce the size of the working week, and for a while, that seemed to be true. Many jobs are far easier, physically, than they used to be. But technology has now begun to connect the worker with the workplace with far greater facility and ease, and the emerging consequence of that has been a blurring of the dividing lines between work and non-work time frames. More and more, people are expected to be on-call.

We’re only starting to see the impacts that this is going to have on 21st-century society. Rising stress levels and attendant health issues, the beginnings of efforts by employers to aid the employee in dealing with these issues, and a greater need to get completely away from it all when on vacations – these are just the tip of the iceberg. The more people are required to subordinate the private lives to the demands of their occupation, the more people will demand that their occupation make room for those private lives, and the more people will demand that their occupation will be something that they genuinely enjoy doing. The farther removed from those ideals that a job becomes, the greater the compensatory factors that employers will have to employ in order to recruit good staff. Stock options, workplace gymnasiums, recreational facilities, and childcare places – these are just the beginning. Some of the family-oriented activities that were a hallmark of the mid-20th century are almost certain to make a comeback – employee picnics and the like, employee sporting leagues, etc. The workplace will need to become a little more like a home, and will need to become a little more flexible than the clock-in, clock-out structures of the past. It seems only a matter of time before employers begin using their financial resources to underwrite insurance and home loans (or at least contributions to such), perhaps pegging the interest rate to on-the-job employee performance evaluations.

The implication is that it will become harder and harder to recruit people for the jobs that no-one wants. As early as the 1970s, it began to become more difficult to hire sanitation officers, for example. Being a garbage-man is a difficult, dirty, and increasingly undesirable job – but it’s also an increasingly complex and essential one. The only solution: to improve conditions enough to counterbalance the negative impacts. We have not yet reached the point of garbage men receiving fully-funded subsidized higher education through their employers (at least to the best of my knowledge), but that may eventually have to happen – work for 8 years as a Garbo and receive a fully-funded Master’s at the end of it that qualifies you for a mid-level position elsewhere. This is a strategy that the military have had to employ to an increasing degree in order to recruit the best, and I suspect that they are simply leading the way where others will follow. Labor shortages in specific fields will be ongoing and recurring problem for most of the 21st century. Conditions will be improved in one, only to drain recruits from another; five or ten years later, there will be a new crisis in employment.

At the same time, we have an expectation of increased staff turnover being built into the social system. There are very few places indeed where it can be considered normal to have the same employer throughout one’s working life. Most employees no longer progress through vertical promotion within a company, instead taking a sideways-and-upwards step to another employer, and only staying there until the next opportunity comes along. There was a time when each company had its own way of doing things, and this diversity left some better-placed than others to cope with any change in economic or social circumstances, either positive or negative. This cross-migration of employees means that techniques are passed from corporate entity to corporate entity, the good ones becoming general and standardized, while the bad ones get replaced. As a result, economic cycles can tend to be deeper and sharper, and affecting a broader segment of the economy. Boom-to-bust cycles used to take decades; these days, they seem to take months. Two or three poor recoveries in succession can have a compound effect. There’s still a bust for every boom, but sometimes the two are disproportionate.

Society In A Nutshell

Ultimately, society is about human interactions and the regulation of those interactions. It comprises everything from social graces to employment opportunities. Ideally, one would be able to summarize the society that is being postulated as a consequence of the march of progress and technology. The better you can generalize the patterns of the society that results from your postulated technological changes, the better you are able to apply that generality to other areas and situations within that society that you may not have considered at the time. This subtracts from the need to have everything worked out in advance and shifts the effort to an as-needed case-by-case basis.

The Economic impact

You can’t have social impacts without these being reflected in an economic impact, so we’ve already touched lightly on this subject in a number of ways. Now it’s time to look more deeply.

Does the technology rely on some key piece of infrastructure? Does it rely on some exotic material? Does it produce anything as a by-product for which a use can be found? Are there hidden costs to the technology, such as environmental factors? Does the technology impact on personal transportation, centralizing or decentralizing populations? Does it make certain types of land more valuable by overcoming one of the existing negative factors associated with that terrain? Does the technology reduce the need for high-density accommodations, or does it encourage denser population clusters?

The more fundamental the technology, the greater the economic impact of the valuation of the commodities apon which the technology is based. We may one day do away with the internal combustion petroleum engine, either through necessity, evolving social patterns, or technological advance – but that doesn’t mean that some new commodity won’t immediately become the critical economic factor in place of oil.

Which sectors of the economy gain from the technology? Which shrink? What are the requirements? What are the consequences? Which existing businesses will oppose the technology, and what will the reactions be? How will the laws change, and what will be the unanticipated consequences?

Consider, for example, file sharing technology and all the kerfuffle that this has caused over the last 15 years or so. This technology led to redefinitions of what you legally could “own” and what you could do with what you “owned”. It reshaped the music industry in ways that are still being explored and analyzed. Apple are now one of, if not THE, biggest consumer electronics companies on the planet. Would the iPhone and everything that’s come with it exist if iTunes had not been such a rousing success? The company was reportedly in serious financial trouble just before then. ITunes was followed by the iPod and then the iPad and then the iPhone – and here we are.

Or we might turn a speculative eye apon the rich resources of our solar system. There are enough hydrocarbons in the atmosphere of Jupiter to fuel society at current usage rates of petroleum for millions of years. What would be involved in creating the technological infrastructure to solve the oil shortage forever, or close to it? We would need some means of obtaining the raw fuel against the steep gravity well of a gas giant. We would need some means of converting that raw fuel into concentrated form on an industrial scale. We would need some means of transporting the resulting fuel to earth on a routine, reliable, and (once again) industrial scale. We would need a way to get it down from earth orbit and distributing the concentrated fuel to the refineries that complete the refining process. Skyhook technology holds the promise of solving both the orbital problems, though the proximity of the asteroid belt and the relatively close-to-the-surface orbit of Jupiter’s Moons pose additional complications. The concentration problem requires at least one significant increase in industrial petro-chemistry and another one because we are talking about microgravity or “zero-G” industrialization. We would need the wherewithal to construct enough ships to establish a daily shipping cycle, with redundancies because accidents will happen when you have to cross the asteroid belt every day with a BIG spacecraft. A breakthrough in space travel is needed in order to ensure that the transportation of large masses of concentrated fuel is economical. New maintenance and repair technologies will probably be needed, and these also have to work in zero-G. We need the capacity to manage about 400 spacecraft in flight at a time – a “space traffic control system” analogous to existing air traffic control systems. We need breakthroughs in crew psychology and entertainment formats and health related to sustained zero-G, though we have a fair start on these. Of course, it’s one thing to build a skyhook that’s capable of getting a spacecraft weighing perhaps 100 tons into orbit and quite another to build one capable of handling a billion tons of explosive cargo on a daily basis. There are at least half-a-dozen major breakthroughs on that list – but none of them are completely out of reach. Perhaps, 50 years from now, such technology might be possible, and the price of petroleum will have risen enough to make the plan economically viable.

Fifty years of trending toward alternate fuels probably means that the problem will no longer be relevant by the time it can be solved. Or will it? A huge part of our chemicals industry, which produces everything from plastics to lipstick to pharmaceuticals, derives raw components from the petroleum industry – and at the moment, there is no substitute. We might not need the oil for petroleum, but we might still need it. But even if we assume that we don’t, simply having solved all those problems will have dramatic consequences – can anyone seriously suggest otherwise? The ability to reliably orbit satellites for a hundredth the current cost of doing so alone will reshape the world we live in. Cheaper, faster, more reliable drive systems will have made space flight routine, and potentially have paved the way for a manned mission to a neighboring star. Such a drive system might entail new ways of shifting energy around – which would have its own flow-one effects for a modern society.

Once you have a theory about what makes your future-tech go, you can start to assess the infrastructure needs that are required to make that technology widespread and commonplace. Those requirements cannot come into existence without economic impact.

Let me paint one more hypothetical scenario for your consideration before moving on. Biogenetic research in the western world is largely hamstrung by ethical and safety considerations, and – to my mind – rightfully so. It follows that in some countries where research is not constrained in this manner will probably produce results faster. The result is likely to pose a new ethical dilemma for the rest of the world: is it ethical to utilize a safe and practical treatment for a disease that has been developed by unethical means? We have faced this problem before, in considering what to do with the vast amount of experimental data obtained by the Nazi “Scientists” of the third Reich in the course of barbaric experimentation on unwilling subjects, but for the most part were able to set it to one side because no new medical treatments of value resulted from the perversions of science that were practiced. The problem could safely be ignored until it went away, in other words. In the course of doing so, we squandered the opportunity to establish ethical principles that could guide us when this more difficult problem manifests itself. It will happen, almost certainly. If we, as a society, stick to our moral high ground, the treatment will become a black market commodity available only to those with wealth and/or power. If we do not, are we not condoning the research because of its benefits? Could it not be rationalized that we are ensuring that some good came out of the unethical research? Is it ethical to withhold a viable treatment because of the process of its discovery and development? I would expect this issue to be at least as socially and politically divisive as the development and legalization of safe birth control in the 20th century – something that we are still arguing about, 40 years after the Roe v. Wade decision. What if the effect is not a cure for disease, but an anagathic or Longevity Treatment? More horrifying still, what if the treatment cannot be produced artificially, but requires that another person’s life be sacrificed to produce the serum – or worse yet, what if the process of extracting the serum doesn’t kill the subject but simply leaves them mindless or insane? We’re well and truly into a modern take on the vampiric theme here – would we view the prolonged life as being “stolen” from the victims?

The Political impact

When you’re talking social effects and economic effects, they can’t fail but to manifest as a political impact. But there are all sorts of other technologies that could have direct political impact as well as these secondary ones. If minds can be preserved by downloading them into a computer, do those minds still have the right to vote? If someone develops a soft drink that makes a hard life seem more tolerable, but which instills a level of suggestibility, does that impact the right to vote? Can nanotechnology rewire a specific portion of the brain to make one less empathic (and hence, less prone to liberalism) – and if so, what would be done about it?

Can technology change the way we vote? Can it change When? Might we end up in a future in which computerized voting makes it possible to vote for or against specific policies, making the people we elect closer to general managers – free to use their own judgment when an emergency or a new situation crops up, but in general elected to implement the specific will of the people? Perhaps political parties might offer a choice – “If you elect us, you can either have (a) a tax reduction or (b) increased spending on “X” – please indicate your demand below”. Perhaps elections would become more like internet shopping: “I’ll pay for policy A costing $B for the next three years, but I don’t think we can afford policy C” with the funding pie split amongst the different policies according to the popular vote?

Politics is about decision-making, and contentious social issues, and the services provided by the government, and about the definition of citizenship. A lot of technologies can impact on one or more of those issues.

The Politics of Technology

There is also the other side of the coin: Decision Making and Social Issues can decide questions about what technological advances are distributed to the population and how, and hence can themselves shape the impact of those technologies. Politics is supposed to be about enacting the will of the people, but all too often it is actually about imposing the will of a vested interest in opposition to the best interests of the people. If enough people get burned by those decisions, there may be a change of government, and hence a change of policy. If the people are uncertain whether a change of government will actually result in what they regard as a desirable policy shift, you get frustration and rebellion and counter-cultures, some of which are likely to turn violent – domestic terrorism is the ultimate consequence of a government that is viewed (rightly or wrongly) by extremists as being nonresponsive to the demands of the populace. Regulation drives and produces additional social impacts that also have to be counted amongst the consequences of a technology.

The Military impact

Can a new technology be used as a weapon? Can it be used to improve an existing weapon, for example making it more mobile? Can it be used to create an improved defense against existing weapons? Can it be used to gather intelligence, or improve the analysis of the technology?

Whenever I consider this subject, I am reminded of a subplot within Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. The Russians are using camouflaged positions to conceal where their units are. Satellites and recon flights show convoys when they are on the road but not where they are going to or from, and its vital for the Americans to locate the targets they need to strike. Someone gets the bright idea of recording the recon results on their VCR and playing it back at 2x or maybe 5x speed, which enables patterns to be discerned that were occurring too slowly to be visible. The VCR thus became an essential tool of military intelligence and analysis.

Militaries generally have the funding to pump into any research with the potential to yield a military dividend. Sometimes that dividend fails to materialize but the research turns out to have non-military applications. Sometimes, technology developed for non-military applications will transform the military. Human beings have the same basic physical needs whether the individual is part of the military or not; it follows that developments in food technology or water purification may have spin-off impacts on military capabilities. Even something as simple as a more efficient engine may yield military applications in the distribution of supplies.

Consider the impact of a Star Trek -style teleporter on the capacity to lay a minefield or bomb a target from a remote location – without exposing a delivery vehicle (minelayer or bomber) to the enemy forces, never mind the obvious capabilities for insertion of combatants into a forward area without having to fight your way to it.

Heck, even a more efficient technology for administration and clerical work can have military applications and implications.

Targets

Another subject to consider: does the technology bring about a reassessment of military targets? Does it decentralize something that used to present the military with a nice, juicy, central target? Does it create a new category of military target? Does the technology create a new cause for war?

The more closely-related a technology is to the creation of raw materials, the broader the impact, and the greater the significance in a military targets sense. Consider for example all the technologies that aluminum has been involved in – from aircraft on – since the Hall process made it affordable in 1886, or all the things that Carbon Fibre is used for, which I used as an example in Part 1 of this series. In any serious modern war, carbon-fibre manufacturing facilities would be key aerospace industrial facilities and therefore military targets.

The Global impact

There aren’t many technologies that will have a direct global impact; most often, these effects will be secondary in nature, the consequences of a change in some other field of assessment. But there are a few that potentially could have direct impacts. Weather control comes to mind. New manufacturing processes. Green technologies, and technologies that permit industries to run ‘cleaner’. Global infrared imaging by satellite as a means of monitoring global warming.

But there would also be global impacts from Political and Military considerations. Consider the global impact of the oil industry, or the space race. Or the impact of global satellite imaging. Or of modern communications technologies. ’nuff said.

This Begets That

Wars seem to trigger massive strides forward in technology, for three reasons:

  • Funding becomes available that would otherwise not be forthcoming. Scientists that might otherwise be engaged in non-military research tend to get recruited into high-priority military projects. Victory is priceless, and governments spend whatever is necessary to achieve it, because defeat is a worse fate. Every other consideration is regarded as secondary. In peacetime, this enabling desperation does not apply to anything approaching the same standard; peacetime governments have other priorities. The same is also true to some extent of aggressors in military encounters; they lack the desperation to throw absolutely everything into the quest for survival. Does that mean that the aggressors will always lose a protracted modern war? Not necessarily, but given parity in resources and initial capabilities, it begins to look a lot more likely.
  • Restrictions on research are relaxed. Red tape tends to get bulldozed out of the way. The greater the desperation, the greater this effect.
  • Research in wartime tends to be focused into areas that seem most promising of short-term success. Actually, I must correct myself; the priority is the probability of success in a given timeframe multiplied by the magnitude of the military advantage that will be achieved by such a success. Research that will take longer, or be less likely to succeed quickly, may still get accelerated funding and regulatory assistance if the eventual benefits are promising enough, while even research that seems certain to be of short-term benefit may be ignored if the scale of those benefits is trivial enough.

The combination of these three factors – focus, regulatory concessions, and resources – produces a dramatic rate of progress.

And yet, this is a relatively inefficient approach to research. It succeeds by throwing resources at the problem, but the priority is to get answers quickly regardless of any increase in cost that might result. What’s more, the results tend to focus on one or two applications of immediate military value; significant outcomes that do not contribute to the military objectives tend to get shunted aside. The research may be more focused, but it is also more narrow-minded.

In terms of overall impact and technological change, peacetime research usually yields more substantial change for a fraction of the cost; it just takes longer. There is a greater willingness on the part of scientists to spend time on pure research and to follow interesting sidelines. The biggest impacts are frequently felt immediately after a conflict, when all those sidelines that were ignored in favor of the military objectives begin to be explored; there is a flow-on effect from the kick-start given by the military research; the military applications don’t change the world half as much as the subsequent non-military applications of the technology developed for military purposes.

Ironically, the more R&D becomes commercialized, the more it comes to resemble the militaristic model, with the substitution of profitable technology replacing the victory imperative. Arguably, the most radical advances in modern times have not derived from this type of research, but have instead resulted from outside research being harnessed by corporate entities. The focus on the profit factor yields improvements in existing products, but rarely results in completely unexpected products. To their credit, many of the largest corporations are well aware of this and sponsor at least some pure research.

Closer analysis of the history of the last 120 or so years of technological development prompts me to offer the statement: Nothing begets technological advance like technological advance. To justify that conclusion, I draw the reader’s attention to three principles:

  • The Bootstrap Effect;
  • Tech Serendipity; and
  • Tech Cascade.

These are my terms for the phenomena; I would be surprised if these were wholly original thoughts, but I am unaware of any other terms for them. Let’s take a look at what each one has to say:

The Bootstrap Effect

Technological develop proceeds in cycles. One such cycle may be summed up:

  • A new Technology is developed;
  • The new technology is packaged into a new Product;
  • The new product creates a Demand;
  • The demand produces a Profit for the producers of the product;
  • Some of that profit is reinvested into further Research into the applications and fundamental theories behind the original Technology;
  • The Research results in the application of the principles of the technology into another New technology, restarting the cycle.

This loop means that a successful technological development tends to bootstrap further developments in that general field.

The clearest example is the computer chip – from Shockley’s first development of the transistor through to early integrated circuits through, step by step, to the modern Processors.

Tech Serendipity

Robert A Heinlein, in one of his novels, defined serendipity as “digging for worms and discovering gold”. I don’t quite mean the term in that sense of the word. What I am attempting to describe with the phrase “Tech Serendipity” is the situation in which an advance made in pursuit of one objective solves a problem with another piece of emerging technology.

Consider the great strides that have been made in engine efficiency within motor vehicles; without the development of electronic engine management systems, these would be quite impossible. By the year 2000, auto engines had processors that were more powerful than those used in the Apollo space capsules. These days, the typical pocket calculator or mobile phone has more computer power than all the computers that mission control used for those same missions. Think about that for a minute.

NASA Mission Control during the Apollo 16 mission to the moon

NASA Mission Control during the Apollo 16 mission to the moon

A lot of people are under the impression that the screens visible in mission control were computer terminals. The truth is somewhat more startling, as revealed in Apollo 11: The Untold Story (unfortunately not available on DVD so far as I could tell); computers ran the status display lights beside those panels, the “monitor screens” simply displayed pre-prepared slides of what the status display should show at the current stage of the mission. The technology was incredibly primitive, which only makes the feats achieved by the Apollo program all the more astonishing.

In short, without Technology “A”, Technology “B” is impossible or hopelessly inefficient. The more the state of the scientific/engineering art is advanced, the more likely it is that a solution has been found to any merely technical problem; it’s just a matter of finding it and adapting it. Quite often, Technology “A” has nothing to do with the reasons technology “B” was invented. As a result, the faster progress is made, the faster progress can be made – provided that it is not constrained into one or two narrowly-targeted focal points.

Tech Cascade

The final principle that leads me to the stated conclusion is something I call “Tech Cascade”. Fundamentally, it states that all technological developments can be viewed as tools and/or as components which have vastly greater potential application than the original purpose. Again, the microchip is the perfect example. These are present in everything from computers to Christmas cards in the modern day. The purpose of the original integrated circuit (patented in 1949) was as an amplifier; these days, the switching capabilities are considerably more important than this function.

In other words, if you invent something new, it will have applications far beyond the original purpose, and many of these will tend to be developed simultaneously as a “second wave” of technological advance; each of which may yield a “tertiary wave”, and so on.

The Implications

Putting those three functions together justifies (to me) the conclusion offered: Nothing begets technological advance like technological advance. That’s why it is so important to identify the operating principles apon which any new technology that you introduce – so that you can look for all the other ways that discovery would impact the world around the characters.

The Human impact revisited

It may not have escaped the attention of the reader that there was an underlying order to the series of impacts that were discussed – from the personal to the social (local to national), to the economic, military and political (national to international) to the global and to technology itself. The final step in translating the technology that you have devised into game-ready campaign background is to look at how all these non-personal impacts are reflected in the personal lives of the people who live within the affected societies. Ultimately, the core meaning of any technological advance is in how it alters the lives of the people who experience it; the core value in gaming or literary terms of a sci-fi technological postulate is how the characters interact with it and its consequences. Describing such effects to the reader or the players gives you the opening you need to discuss the wider implications – and that’s what sci-fi is all about.

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