so, i was over at one of my favorite hangouts: 30 days to worldbuilding. if you write sf and have not made use of this site, i highly recommend it. and i was tripping through the topics, thinking, oh i can’t wait to see what she says about building your technology.
and then i skimmed through, and i realized–ah! she didn’t! at least not in a heading. it might be buried in there somewhere.
anyhoo! technology does change us, it changes our society, and it changes how we interact. it’s not just the gadget-of-the-week. these changes are profound, and they can alter even the most intimate of exchanges (Facebook, anyone?).
so! here’s my take on considering technology in sf worldbuilding. if you’re writing fantasy and magic is everywhere, so long as your characters use a match to light a fire, you still have technology, so no hall passes for you.*
what is the technological status of your world? is it stone age, pre-industrial, industrial, digital? something beyond digital? postapocalyptic? technology isn’t just in teraflops–the sewing needle is technology, the sewing machine is technology, the industrial loom is technology, the 3D printer is technology. canned food is tech. so are scalpels, printed books, steam engines, and standardized sizes of nuts and bolts.
how far your society has gotten in tech says quite a bit about how much cooperation there is among groups, states, nations. the higher tech your society is, the greater the need for cooperation among ever-larger groups. your iPad is engineered in the US, its raw materials come from god knows where, it is assembled in China, the oil to ship it may be from the Middle East or South America, and its programming localized wherever you happen to live. that’s a lot of cooperation.
and how does this bit of tech change how you live, once all these fine people have gotten together enough to make it? 20 years ago, no one had a portable computer with which he could wirelessly connect to the internet, log in to Facebook, and find out his girlfriend has de-friended him. possibly de-friended him because he was a Facebook junkie, checking his updates every three minutes, anxious when he didn’t get a digital pat for some pedestrian Tweet. in fact, it could be that 90% of their relationship was conducted online, something that could not have happened at all 20 years ago. what does technology enable (or disable), for good or ill, in personal interactions?
and what specific tech does exist in your world? do you have razor blades? nano computing? internal combustion engines? photosynthetic clothing, so your people don’t have to eat food? whatever exists, its development must be consistent with the level of civilization in your world (unless there has been some violation of the Prime Directive, or some apocalypse so that all the tech is pre-disaster).
is tech spread evenly around in your world? are there tech haves and have-nots? if there are, what effect does that have? are there cases where you perhaps should wish to be a have-not (for example, if corporations were mining your brain’s unused capacity)?
are there groups who don’t love tech? who are leery of it? who live for it? are there political groups that seek to control it to further their own ends, or does information get to be free? in any technological development, who benefits, and who loses?
all of that said… unless you are writing sf about technology (usually “hard” sf), technology itself should probably** be backgrounded rather than foregrounded. nothing is more idiotically boring in an sf story than a long exegesis about how the Quantum Enshrinkenator works. think about how hard you’d eyeroll if somebody devoted a half-page of exposition to how to drive a car. we don’t give a crap about how to drive a car, we care that the character got from point A to B. if they did it with grace and style, so much the better.
the 30 Days site ends each day with a 15-minute exercise. i’m not so hot at inventing exercises, but perhaps this will serve.
figure out the 3 gadgets (implants, nanotattoos, whatever) that people in your world either love or hate or must at any rate use daily, then assess what the implications of those gadgets are. are they gadgets of connection (the internet), of division (the handgun), of domination (the airport scanner)? those last three are just examples; you could think about it any other way. for example: the washing machine. it’s a gadget of division (because it separates women who used to get together for communal washing stuff at the river); it’s a gadget of ease (because washing clothes on a rock is a pain in the ass); it’s a gadget of cleanliness tyranny (because people didn’t used to wash their clothes so damned much). however you slice it, let the gadget and its assessment say something profound about the state of your society and how that gadget affects the way they live.
* anyway, think how much fun you could have playing one against the other, or having them work together.
** of course there are a million caveats to this, but you’re a big boy or girl, you can handle an occasionally overbroad generalization in service of a larger point.