The Fault, Dear Humans, Is Not In Our Tools, But In Ourselves

An interesting little article here from Charlie Stross (h/t Winchell Chung), concerning China’s new “credit score” system that incorporates all sorts of other social information and which looks to be shaping up into a horrendous mechanism of total social control, the way they’re using it.

This, of course, is relevant to our SFnal interests around here, seeing as the Empire, among other polities of the Worlds, is very much into the use of reputation networks and gamification for all sorts of purposes.

…of course, confronted with this sort of thing, the great and the good *there* pretty much shrug. Of course outworlder barbarians turn simple, benign technologies into grotesque engines of mass oppression! That’s what barbarians do, definitionally – what do you expect from korasmóníëdwelling madmen, hardwired for conformity and for seeing said conformity as a virtue, with no civilized sense of tratalmir ulkith? It certainly shouldn’t be that they’d use empowering technologies in rational, life-enhancing ways like us decent, civilized, letter-and-spirit-of-the-Contract-adherent folks.

In short: shit happens in the Periphery.


(It ruins their society-level rep score, though.)

Question: Technological Development

Another question to answer:

And finally, how much far advanced Imperial science/technology compared with other Presidium Powers?

Well, now, that’s a complicated question, covering a whole lot of different fields and people and… yeah. I probably can’t give you a full answer, but let’s see what I can say (with the additional caveat that this is the publically-known *there* view).

The Empire, by and large, does lead the edge of advancement for several reasons, including but not limited to (a) being ideologically and personally inclined to push the edge of progress For Science!; (b) being entirely comfortable with buying, imitating, etc., good ideas other people have for their own use, unlike more xenophobic cultures which often seem to reject ideas just because someone else thought of them first; and (c) being very flexible in using new technologies (the economy is laissez-faire, the ethical standards don’t wibble about much beyond informed consent, and so forth)…

…but it’s not nearly as far ahead as it might be, because the Empire’s set-up is diametrically opposed to keeping such things secret. Even if its governance could get away with imposing the sort of controls needed to keep technological secrets out of other people’s hands, which it couldn’t, it knows perfectly well that security by obscurity never works in the long term, that keeping technological secrets reduces the total amount of innovation you have to draw on, and, for that matter, that keeping other people mired in primitivism for your own advantage is, well, remarkably morally ugly.

(In relative terms, that is. An Imperial would point out that by giving up the opportunity to be further ahead in relative terms, they’ve actually made more progress in absolute terms.)

Specifically of the Presidium powers, the Photonic Network trails a short distance behind the Empire, and may actually be ahead in certain areas: the difference often isn’t much, because they have similarly sensible policies and are very good at information-sharing. The others make up a clump a little further back, with the League of Meridian bringing up the rear of that clump because their voters often issue knee-jerk moral-panic bans due to what amounts to squickedness; often they get over it when they see that other people have been able to use such technologies without causing whatever it was that squicked them, but the tendency is enough to notably slow the rate of adoption.

(Such is as expected, really: the Ephemeral Worlds, Rejectionists, and people whose planetary economies can’t support high technologies have other reasons to explain why they can’t make it into the Great Power club.)

Trope-a-Day: Machine Empathy

Machine Empathy: It looks this way – actually, it mostly is this way, thanks to those population demographics that made it necessary, due to lack of a large disposable workforce, for the Empire to adopt automation as early and as often as possible, and therefore ensured that lots of people not only had plenty of experience using machines, but also in customizing machines, fixing machines, and adapting machines to do things that the original builders didn’t think of.  Make those cultural universals for a few millennia, and you’ll have lots of machine empathy going on.

But anyway, in the modern era, a lot of what looks like this would be more properly described as Technopathy, even if the underlying machine empathy is still there.

Trope-a-Day: Older is Better / Lost Technology

Older is Better/Lost Technology: Subverted in that while there are some awfully nice bits of leftover Precursor and/or elder race technology around, and piles of interesting things buried in the archives (assuming that some leftover perversion doesn’t eat your soul when you go looking for it), it’s more or less absolutely averted within the lifespan of any given civilization.  Things get better, not worse, the more so for those people who are appropriately obsessive about not losing stuff along the way.

And in any case, in many areas, modern civilization has beaten the best (extinct) elder-race tech that’s been found.  After all, it became the starting point for development.

Trope-a-Day: Burn The Witch!

Burn The Witch!: Hardly unknown, both in the form in which advanced technology is considered to be magic (see: Magic From Technology) and in the form in which it’s merely considered about as immoral as magic, when dealing with more technologically or socially backward worlds  (This is another problem traditionally solved with orbital artillery.  As in, say, the Bombardment of Firital.)

Also, historically, what the Somárans did to the founder of the present mainstream eldraeic religion.  (See: Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions.)  It… didn’t work out so well.

Trope-a-Day: Magic From Technology

Magic From Technology: Played straight; it is a materialist, science fiction universe; any magic we see is, indeed, one or another form of technology, misunderstood.  Which seems to happen with truly annoying frequency every time a Sufficiently Advanced culture runs into an Insufficiently Advanced one, especially with any technology that doesn’t have big obvious machinery associated with it.

This is annoying as hell to most of the people on the wrong end of it.  (The Imperials, in particular, hate being stuck with the “magic” label because of several reasons, primary among which are disliking falsehood, disdaining the respect of people who are basing it entirely on ignorance, and being proud of actually understanding every tiny nuance of what they’re doing at its real level of complexity, and therefore considering having it labeled as “magic” to be depriving them of their rightful awesomeness, dammit.)  There’re always a few who are inclined to try to pull the “We Are Mighty Wizards – or Gods – from the Sky, Now Give Us All Your Liquid Assets” scam, but it’s just so tacky.

Also, more to the real reason it’s less done than it might be, quite unsafe, given just how many expectations people have for their gods.  After all, we nailed ours to a stick.

Trope(s)-a-Day: Awesome, yet Practical & Boring, but Practical

Awesome, yet Practical / Boring, but Practical: Rather than attempt to come up with a large ad-hoc list here, I shall just point out that the Empire’s hat, or one of them, is largely based on playing the former as straight as possible while averting the latter, inasmuch as the people responsible for making things know their own cultural predilections quite well, and thus that making it awesome (or at the very least sprinkling it with some awesome like fairy dust) will sell infinitely more units than its boring but equally functional equivalent.

(Others simply go the route of “what do you mean, it’s not Simple Yet Awesome?”, such as pointing out that the hanrian, the second-sword, has been the canonical short blade/combat knife/utility knife/first general-purpose tool for millennia, from practically the Iron Age until now In Space, and the design has changed remarkably little over all that time.  Anyone want to argue that that’s not awesome?)

Domestic Technology

Another interesting article here (hat tip: Eclipse Phase blog), concerning the gender distribution of the future, and in particular its technologies, complete with real-world examples of the differential between the (assumed-male) public sphere and (assumed-female) domestic sphere.  And here’s a relevant paragraph for you:

One of the things that has frustrated me about science fiction is that technology pertaining to the smaller aspects of our lives is often neglected in favor of big giant rockets and exotic weaponry. Birth control seems non-existent and childbirth is still rocking the stirrups. And the home is at best not mentioned much. One of the things that “the future,” when we use that word as a metonymy for an idealized world in which machines solve all our problems, is supposed to do for us is give us time. Relieve us from work that is repetitive or unpleasant and allow us the sheer, simple hours in the day to do more. And yet, by far the biggest time sink going is the need to clean our habitats, prepare food and clothing, and maintain our environments. For those who have always had the, dare I say, privilege of ignoring that work, you simply cannot imagine how much time it takes to do all that and then turn around and do it again, often multiple times a day if there are offspring at play. Despite the fact that we here in the first world are supposed to have leveled up our gender equality stat, women still perform the majority of this labor, often in addition to a full shift outside the home. Fully automating this activity would free humanity on a scale that even the most awesome BFG can’t even begin to contemplate.

Now, the civilized polities of the Associated Worlds are not inclined to the strange kinks of humanity in this regard.  (Yes, the darëssef term for those who look after domestic matters – as well as infrastructure maintenance, repair, and medicine, but details – in the Empire is “hearthmistress”.  That’s a devil’s bargain with Translation Convention, inasmuch as it is unreasonably hard, although it’s still easier than in most European languages, to use English without dropping gender implications all over the place, there is no adequate gender-neutral term that fits, and “hearthmaster” carries all the wrong connotations for an English-speaker because English-speaking cultures come preloaded with wacky gender ideas. Sigh.  Nonetheless, the gender split there, as in most of the darëssef, is pretty close to even.)

End digression.  My point, mostly, is that I have a lot of notes in my worldbuilding wiki addressing this point, and concerning the plentiful domestic technology that exists, in re self-cleaning clothing, and self-aware homes, and preemptively helpful appliances and domestic robots, and any number of other things whose existence is very much intended to address this problem in the in-world sense, and yet, despite having done the worldbuilding on the various things intended to make the pointlessness of domestic labor a quaint historic footnote for actual sophont people, it hasn’t exactly shown up on screen.  (Nor, for that matter, to address another mentioned area, has the equivalent of the Bujoldian uterine replicator, but then, given the demographics, it would have less occasion to.)

I really should do something about that.  Maybe something from the point of view of the house

Trope-a-Day: Applied Phlebotinum

yeah, no.

Seriously, I’m imagining thousands of years of technological development, here, and the parts which correspond to the technological development of Terrans is rather, ah, variant – starting with the early use of nuclear energy in place of fossil fuels, the substitution of ceramics and composites for plastics, and so forth, and ending with the way in which the Babbage-equivalent actually got to build his engine, which then became a ubiquitous mechanical computing device under the name of the Stannic cogitator.  And that’s before we get into any of the variant physics.

A list of applied phlebotinium would be very long and shorn of context, and therefore about as dull to read about as to write about.

Let’s just let it come up naturally in the other tropes and the actual writing.

Stop Fittling With That: Author’s Notes

For those who might be a mite curious, Stop Fittling With That is set in “present-time” – that is to say, the furthest future point of my defined timeline (although, obviously, not the end of their history), so those mentioned technologies are things that won’t actually appear anywhere in the Eldraeverse, certainly not in the context of the peoples of the Associated Worlds.

FTL (other than the mentioned wormholes and tangle channels) won’t appear at all, and in fact is canonically impossible by other means using my conphysics; for reasons which boil down to “it interferes with the kind of stories I want to tell and the kind of technologies I want to use to tell them”.  Such forms of FTL as wouldn’t – like, say, mass relays – are for the most part functionally isomorphic to the wormhole network I chose to go with anyway.

Dimensional transcendence just hasn’t been invented yet – any examples of it you may see are faked by means which you’ll read about when the Trope-a-Day catches up to, ah, Hammerspace, I think – but is permitted by the local conphysics.  (If you can bend space and time enough to do practical, mass-produced wormholes, bending them enough to put a decent-sized mansion inside a police box is for the most part merely a matter of working out the engineering – for very large values of “merely”.)

Negentropy or something like it probably will require the ability to not merely bend but actually drill holes in the universe, and so is deep-time lengths of time away if it’s possible at all.  Which it may well not be, but I don’t plan on arbitrarily declaring the greatest expression of their greatest ambition physically off-limits when I can just Shrug of God it into the indefinite far future.

And both matter translocation/teleportation and instant Star Trek replicator-style manufacturing don’t exist for the same two reasons.  First, Heisenberg…

(Or rather, in-world, Jeness Rafientar, who spent the first, shorter part of his physics career discovering the uncertainty principle under the name of the Indeterminacy Barrier, and then spent the rather longer rest of his physics career trying unsuccessfully to find some way, any way, to work around the blasted thing.)

…is a bugger, as we know, and magical Heisenberg Compensators are a little too handwavy for my taste, thanks so much.  And secondly, even if you only do it at the molecular level, all that binding energy has to go to/come from somewhere in a very short time, and that poses some thermodynamic problems at the level of physics, and some literary/worldbuilding problems in explaining the implications that the ability to routinely toss that much energy about has on everything else.

These may theoretically exist in the future – given that the basis of the emerging field of ontological engineering is to use manipulations of the laws of the laws of physics that underlie the regular laws of physics to tell the latter to shut up and sit down, but they don’t at any part of the timeline I’m working with.

Trope-a-Day: The Aesthetics of Technology

The Aesthetics of Technology: Oh, the Imperials play this one completely straight.  After all, the Imperial motto is Order, Progress, Liberty, and it would never do to make all those neophilic people think that they weren’t getting their Progress, capital-p included.  So not only should it be all future-y, but it should look that way, too.

Which is why the stereotypical piece of technology looks like an Art Deco iPad rendered in organic shapes, out of burnished metal and crystal and gleaming stone and oiled wood, with some probably unnecessary glowy bits added around the side, and generous use of trigraphic (“hologram”) interfaces displaying all the information you need and quite a bit of information you don’t need but might quite like to have anyway.  Larger industrial machinery takes this and adds a few tons of brass piping on top.  Just to really take the futurity up to eleven, most of it is happy to respond to thought commands without you actually having to use a physical interface at all, although – especially on the large industrial machinery – it’s present anyway just in case you need it, and because it wouldn’t look machine-y enough without it.

And it’s all polished until it gleams, because it’s supposed to look beautiful as well as impossibly high-tech.  These chaps know their market.