A Small Improvement in Technology Means a Great Change in Society

[I had finger-trouble setting up the original… hence the re-post.]

Wow! That’s quite a statement to make! It has shades of that famous quote: That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

But that is exactly what has happened in technology, over and over again. Take for instance Edward Jenner’s proof that the cow pox vaccine prevented smallpox, which led onto the whole field of vaccinations. It is him we have to thank for for our flu jabs today, and we all know the benefits of those. Then there was Sir Alexander Fleming noticing antibacterial qualities of penicullium bacteria, which led to the whole field of antibiotics. How many lives have antibiotics saved? Then there was Sir James Watt’s work on improving the Newcomen steam engine that lead to efficient steam engines, which apart from benefitting the mining and manufacturing industries, led to steam trains and railways and you know where we went from there. (By the way the Flying Scotsman is due to finish its refurbishment towards the end of this year – so fingers crossed we should see her back on the rails next year). Of course there zillions more examples like these. But in each case there has been a profound shift in the way society functions. The shift did not happen overnight, but it didn’t take more than a couple of decades before its effects were easily noticeable by the ordinary man in the street.

We are now in an age where governments of developed countries encourage research and development, because it leads to greater economic prosperity. There is research going on into all kinds of things at the moment. To take but a few (of my favourite) examples: the SABRE engine and the Skylon space plane; robotics and artificial intelligence; implanting chips into brains so that people can see again; and so on. These are the ones that grab the headlines and are known about. And any one of these will have a significant impact on society… I’ll leave this as an exercise for your imaginations.

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It’s not surprising that science fiction writers latch onto these and spin them into their stories.

But there is a lot of technology going on that does not get the glamorous press coverage. Take for instance the research going into developing very small machines that clean the artery walls of clogging. Or what about the research that has been going on into both cold and hot fusion? Or all that research going on into how to apply quantum mechanics to useful things?

These are the things the science fiction writers, for whatever reason, rarely if at all latch into.

Yes, i have seen all the examples mentioned in passing – a kind of convenience for the story, but what about their impact on society? Again I’m going to leave this as a exercise for your imaginations. Yes, I know it’s going to a little bit tougher than the previous exercise, but you’ll enjoy it… go on, have some fun!

Obviously there are some very obscure areas of research and development, like magnetohydrodynamics. And yes, i was crazy enough to put a short story together based on magnetohydrodynamics. And yes, I pushed the boundaries of what that could do, and had some very interesting insights. And yes it’s going to have some very interesting impacts on society.

But I’ve had an editor come back (and it was done with the kindest of intentions I may add) with a comment to the effect that the science seems a bit questionable. My reaction after I got over the shock… piscillating pussy cats type of unprintable…

And it got me thinking. I have a second story dealing with an obscure aspect of quantum mechanics that I have given up hope of seeing it in print and have therefore retired from doing the submission rounds.

So I now have two stories based good new, but obscure, technology that are having great difficulties finding a home. Both these technologies will have an impact on society and each of those stories was trying to point the way. It’s as if the science has gone out of science fiction. Let me repeat that…

The science has gone out of science fiction.

What we are seeing today are accepted science themes that have been around for some time. Any new science that is coming into the genre is well publicised and being used or in the later stages of development. What I am not seeing is the really new tech.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. This new tech, once it is introduced into society, will have an impact on society.

It has been the accepted job of science fiction to comment on the implications of new technology. And to me, it is falling down on this aspect, and judging by my experience, badly so.

Obviously one person commenting on a post can have very little immediate influence on this state of affairs. But if others, like yourselves who are reading this, pass the comments around, maybe, just maybe things will start to change.

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2 thoughts on “A Small Improvement in Technology Means a Great Change in Society

  1. Very good points! I agree that portraying the societal effects of technology can be difficult, but it really is worth the effort. How would a future with widely available nanotechnology look like really? Or hyper efficient solar panels? Or easily affordable synthetic organs? What effects would this have on different socioeconomic classes? This is why I started writing Science Fiction, and the reason why I appreciate this blog so much! Thanks for your insight!

    • Hello WizendTurnip… It’s strange how there are quite a few science fiction writers, including us, who start writing science fiction because they want to write about potential futures… and yet the publishing industry seems very reluctant to publish the stories… good luck in your endeavours and hope they succeed.

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