Technology can be many things and exist on many different levels. It is defined as “the sum of any techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives” (Wiki) and is derived from the Greek word meaning skilled and cunning of hand. The use of technology can be an important part of world building, creating a richer picture of the world.
Humans are fairly poorly designed in terms of bare-handed survival. We don’t have the teeth of predators, or the speed of prey. What we do have is rat cunning and a large brain to design tools to survive. Our digestion is omnivorous, indicating we probably ate pretty much anything as we evolved. One of the more interesting theories of evolution I’ve read has been that we were small scavengers who worked out that smashing open bones from something else’s kill was a great way to get the nutrient and fat dense bone marrow that then aided in brain development. Sorry for any vegetarians or people believing in the noble hunter idea!
One of the first tools was no doubt a rock, or at least a stick. With that advantage it wasn’t long before humans developed stone tools, and probably a lot of things like baskets that don’t get preserved in the archaeological record. The hammer stone remained as a functional design for millennia, then was overtaken by stone core tools such as blades, which make a lot more tools from the same amount of stone. The first human creators that would have taken some pride in producing a serviceable tool which could be beautiful as well.
Technology for humans gives one group an advantage. Better food harvesting, preservation or hunting technique or even gardening by collecting seeds and sowing them for next season would all be survival aids. But skills are important – tanning a hide for warmth, weaving plants into rope and thread, the first sewing, identifying edible and medicinal plants, raising babies or caring for the old. Technology and knowledge can only be passed down in a social environment that teaches and cares for others.
Technology is then a feature of being human – we are an inventive species. From stone tools to metal tools took thousands of years. But from the first flight to landing on the moon only took sixty-six years. The internet sent its first message in 1969, some fifty-two years ago. It would be hard to pick a time where human culture changed faster than 1900 – 2000.
This can cause problems in world building. Firstly, the author may be out paced by developments. A scifi book written in the fifties would be severely outdated – and so might one being written now. But even research can be difficult – we become so used to the current situation that we are blind to the past – imagine a time with no internet – say thirty years ago? That is a lifetime for some already. The difference in how something is used can also be a generational or location aspect – the uptake of smart phones for instance would be much lower in the old or in poorer parts of the world.
So how do characters react to change and new technology? In the Earth Children series, the discovery that pyrite makes long lasting sparks on flint to make fire was seen as a spiritual invention, so much did it help daily life. But during the Industrial Revolution workers revolted at new machines that took their jobs – coining the term ‘luddite’. Today we see the effects of modern-day miracles such as vaccines being treated with deep suspicion and fear. Change – represented by technology – is something that can be a fearful thing, taking away the familiar and forcing new learning and habits.
Of course, not all technology is a good thing. Sometimes research goes down wrong paths on the route to discovery or from a sense of curiosity not tempered with compassion. Mistakes happen causing more problems, or there are unforeseen side effects. That’s where robust scientific method and ethics can provide guidance, in themselves nested in an environment of free exchange of information and ideas. One benefit from such problematic technology is the subsequent development of safety guidelines and vigorous testing. From a historical perspective, the development of food safety laws and clean water is interesting, involving as it does the human failing of greed vs a desire for public safety.
Over time, the creation of technology has also changed. The image of the lone Victorian eccentric inventor has been replaced with a team. It is also perhaps more corporate than individual, given large amounts of money might be needed. Going forward again, the introduction of the universal basic wage might reinvigorate individual creativity once more, once creative thought is not stifled by hours serving customers. Imagine a future working towards the betterment of humankind – and yes, I pinched that idea from Star Trek.
Imagine a future where technology is so advanced, everyone has the chance to invent things. A return to the time of our ancestors, asking themselves how can I make this rock more useful? A time when humans can go out and explore the universe like the ancient savannahs, using their giant brains for good. In a way, a book is a form of technology, a way to encourage a brighter future, and to spur the imagination. But most of all, to provide hope in the future.
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