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The evolution of technology is the heart of Technofiction. Technofiction is about how technology changes our lives, and this section is about how technology changes.
I have watched new inventions come into our lives for five decades now. I've seen lots of surprises, and what fun they've been! But as I've watched, I've started to see patterns, as well.
These essays are about are the patterns I see.
Tattoos and T-Shirts: A Study in How New Tech Replaces Old Tech
It was a lazy Saturday afternoon; I was slumped in my easy chair; my mind was idling after some hard writing. I was watching a PBS documentary on aboriginal peoples. In my relaxed haze I heard the interviewer ask the explorer, "Of all the treasures of modern technology, which do these Stone Age tribes want first?"
It felt like Jeopardy, so I jammed my imaginary button and yelled, "Guns or firewater!"
"They want T-shirts," The explorer answered, "T-shirts with gaudy designs on them. They have no idea what the designs mean, but they want them anyway."
"What!" I sat up, "What sort of crazy answer is that?"
Sigh ... It's the kind of crazy answer that gets me to thinking.
And out of that thinking came an inspiration about how an older technology is displaced by a newer better technology.
A new high technology solution
In the story above the aborigines' attraction to T-shirts could be that T-shirts are a high-tech substitute for tattoos. Tattoos seem to be as old as mankind. The oldest recorded tattoo is that on Oetzi the iceman, a Stone Age hunter from 5,300 years ago who was uncovered in the Alps in the 1980's.
A tattoo decorates a person, and so does a T-shirt, but a T-shirt decoration is brighter, more elaborate, easier to change and less painful to acquire. And, for the aboriginal people living in central Borneo, that's quite an improvement in something that's an important part of life. T-shirts with designs are a high-tech substitute for tattoos and other skin decorating.
The relation between tattoos and T-shirts is one example of a general phenomenon: the replacement of one technology with another. From this example, we can look for general trends in how one technology will replace another.
The substitution cycle
T-shirts are the high-tech substitute product for tattoos. As T-shirts replace tattoos, two attendant trends show up: first, the use of tattoos declines as the T-shirts become prevalent; second, T-shirts command a larger segment of the market than tattoos ever did. For instance, they appeal to women and children, where tattooing appealed only to men.
There's another less easily explained trend, too: The tattoos don't disappear completely. We can use our American culture for an example of this. We still have tattoo parlors. In spite of the T-shirt's technological superiority as a skin decorator, the substitution for tattoos isn't total.
The surprise trend: the old improves!
Further, if we look at Western-culture tattoo parlors, we find that the art of tattooing not only hasn't gone away, it's improved! The designs of tattooers today are more innovative that those of yesteryear. The processes for applying tattoos have improved, and they are much safer and less painful than ever before.
This is an example of an incomplete displacement of one technology by another: T-shirt technology is vastly superior to tattoo technology as a body decorator. According to simple economic theory, T-shirts should displace tattoos entirely. In practice, high-tech substitutes will displace a lot, but not all, of the uses of the low-tech alternative, and the remaining devotees to the low-tech alternative become more skilled, on the average, than when the old technology was the only choice.
Here are some other examples of low tech surviving a high-tech replacement:
Horse use survives even after cars and trucks are developed.
Sailboating survives even after motorboats are developed.
Handwritten letters survive even after typewriters are developed.
Typewriters survive even after word processors are developed.
In each case, the high-tech alternative opens a much wider market than the low-tech alternative could ever reach, but the low-tech survives because it offers something the high-tech can't. The low-tech alternative will prove most enduring if the "something" it offers is an "artistic expression" of some sort. Horses survive as race horses. Sailboats survive as yachts. Handwritten letters survive as indulgences and thank-you notes. Vacuum tubes for stereos survive in the high-end audiophile market.
When does low-tech survive?
Roger's Rule of the Artistic Residual:
When a high-tech alternative becomes available to displace an existing low-tech process, the high-tech process will displace the low-tech in commodity uses and will widen the marketplace for such products and services. But the highest quality versions of the low-tech process will survive if the low-tech process becomes a tool for artistic expression or a symbol of distinctive consumption.
If you just want a design on your chest, a T-shirt will do. If you want to get from point A to point B, a car will do. If you want to do these things in an extravagant or exotic way, then the highest quality of the low-tech alternative looks attractive: tattoos and horses.
Musical instruments are going through this evolution. The piano replaced the harpsichord, almost displaced it entirely, but now there are harpsichords again. My guess is that the new harpsichords, and the new harpsichordists, play far better than the average harpsichordist of old did. Today those who would have been mediocre harpsichordists now play the piano instead ... or an electronic keyboard. We are now going through the stage where piano and other acoustic instruments are loosing another segment of their commodity market to the electronic organs, keyboards, and, newest of all, video games with a music playing theme. (They lost a big segment years ago to radios, juke boxes and Muzak.) Meanwhile, the high-end of the low-tech market retains its appeal to accomplished old players, and intensely dedicated new players.
Forecasts for the future
Where will we see this "high-tech substitution with high quality low-tech survival" phenomenon in the future?
First, some places we won't. Slide rules have been displaced pretty completely by electronic calculators. Bessemer-process steel is hard to find these days. In both cases there is little artistic component in the product's use, so the displacement is complete, or nearly complete. On the other hand, there is still some hand-processed paper available these days.
Musical instruments will always have enduring low-tech survivors because of the high artistic content in their use.
Photography has a lot of art in it. Don't expect film-based cameras to disappear completely in the face of camcorder and digital camera competition. Film-based photography won't be used to take assessment pictures of real-estate or passport photos, but it will be used for a long time for formal portraiture and its distinctive special effects such as long exposure pictures. Painting lost most of its commodity value when photography and TV appeared. It's almost pure art these days, so what is left won't be affected by digital cameras.
Sports equipment has a lot of personal expression, but very little artistic component. In some areas old designs will survive, but the competitive nature of sports keeps that sort of low-tech survival to a minimum.
Cars, surprisingly, have a lot of art. Evidence: the number of classic car shows. Art-oriented shows are a good indicator of strong artistic component in any technology.
Writing is a well-recognized art. But it has a commodity part, too. That part has been replaced by the telephone, movies, and television. More will be replaced by mobile communications technologies as those come online.
Typing, on the other hand, has no art. It will be dropped like a hot potato as soon as voice recognition- and mouse-using programs can type, edit and format.
Likewise, there is little art in forms (the paperwork kind). As electronic transfers are able to handle more of the information-moving now done with forms, they will wither to a small vestige.
The evolution of memory aids into art
Since prehistory, mankind has found a strong memory valuable. But the brain's evolution hasn't kept pace, so mankind has constantly been searching for memory aids. Poetry was originally developed as a memory enhancer. For example, if you want to cross-index weight and volume, "A pint is a pound the world around" gets you started. This is a fine example of using poetry for commodity memorizing. Rhyme and meter, chapter and verse, parallel and chiasmic structures, are all ways of error checking what is memorized.
Roses are red, violets are blue
Sugar is sweet and so is Uncle Ozmo [???]
There is clearly something wrong in how this verse came out because it fails rhyme and meter error checking.
Aboriginal "songlines" are another example of a memory enhancing tool. The preliterate aborigines of Australia saved much of their cultural memory in songs. The songs were keyed to local geography. Periodically, an aborigine would walk a songline to check if he or she had remembered the song correctly, and to make changes to the song to update it as necessary. Since many of these songs were top-secret, these "walkabouts" looked rather aimless to the early European settlers who first witnessed them.
Both poetry and songlines are inefficient and hard to use as information storage devices when compared to writing. (That is, once writing's infrastructure has developed: Inexpensive writing supplies, and a written language.) As writing becomes available to a preliterate people, it displaces poetry, songlines, and such for commodity activities such as remembering names, dates, and taxes paid.
Poetry survives today not as a memory enhancer, but as artistic expression. Its divorce from commodity memorizing is what has allowed it to evolve into so many different forms over the centuries.
Who will be the best practitioner?
The culture of the samurai developed in Japan during the 150-year period of unrest before Japan was unified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. During this time, samurai had a demanding, commodity-level job to perform: protecting their master from the unrest of the period. But some of the people most famous for being samurai come from the period immediately following the unification. With unification, the commodity use for samurais declined, and they had a chance to "perfect their art", unfettered by the day-to-day demands of actually doing commodity samurai work.
Likewise, horse people and horses of today perform at much higher standards than did those of the pre-automobile era.
The "Golden Age" craftspeople and practitioners of a technology will be those who flourish as the commodity aspect of using the technology is displaced.
Commodity will wither; art will survive, quality will improve dramatically
As one technology replaces another, the commodity uses of the older technology will be those that disappear first. If the technology survives replacement, it will be because there is an element of personal or artistic expression involved in using the old technology that isn't involved in using the new technology.
That part of the old technology that survives will be the highest quality part, and the practice and practitioners will be of higher quality than the average practice and practitioners were during the old technology's heyday, when it had to service a commodity as well as quality market.
T-shirts will replace tattoos as standard body decoration because they are the high technology substitute, but tattoos will survive as an art form. This is the "tattoos and T-shirts" phenomenon.
On Birds and BOEINGS: OR THOUGHTS ON THE SURPRISES WE CAN EXPECT FROM GENETIC ENGINEERING
Whenever a powerful new technology is developed, its adaptation to human needs goes through some common phases. This is a discussion of those phases, and how they are likely to apply to an up-and-coming powerful technology: genetic engineering.
The basic phases are:
1. Being inspired by a dream until an application of the technology shows its first commercial feasibility.
2. This first feasibility shows one way that the new technology can replace an existing technology in an existing application. This inspires more people to pay serious attention to the new technology – serious meaning: willing to invest time, money and attention.
3. Discovering what other existing applications the new technology can do well.
4. Discovering the surprise benefits that the new technology is capable of supporting.
5. Discovering which parts of the original dream are not likely to be realized.
The first phase of implementing a new technology happens when it is seen as a solution to a dream. The dream may be to replace an existing, but tedious, task, such as getting to work on a cold, winter day. Or, it may be the dream to gain a wonderful, but currently unattainable, ability, such as flying like a bird. Either way, the first implementation of a new technology is almost always big, clunky and dangerous, and it rarely comes out in a way that will allow the inspiring dream to come true.
The first successful implementation of a new technology - successful in this case meaning use that is widespread enough that other people besides the first adapter consider using the technology - is almost always to replace an existing, but hard-pressed, technology. The first use of digital computers was to replace thousands of human beings doing the tedious arithmetic it takes to calculate artillery trajectory tables. The first use of cars was to replace horses who didn't like to make house calls in the middle of the night (the doctors riding them didn't mind as much).
The third phase of implementing a new technology is the phase where it gets smaller, more elegant and cheaper to produce. This trend opens the way for the fourth phase, when "surprises" appear - ways to use the technology that don't relate much at all to the original dream, or the clunky first implementation. The surprise uses are almost always much more interesting than the original use, because they are much better fitted to what the technology can do well. The surprise uses are discovered as mankind comes to understand better what a technology can and can't do well. They are discovered by yet more tinkering done by people who no longer think of this technology as wondrous or mysterious – it's now just another part of their technology universe, and their thinking about this technology is, "So ... why not use it this new way? It's a neat use!"
Finally, I will talk about those times and places where a technology fails to live up to its dream. These are important, because even though these failed implementations tend to be looked upon as curious and ridiculous thinking by following generations, they were an important part of the drive to get the technology established in the first place, and without these dreams that became failures, the technology would not have been implemented. These dreams opened the wallets of investors and philanthropists, so that inventors could experiment with the new technology.
I will center my discussion on four technologies: the automobile, the airplane, nuclear power, and genetic engineering.
Phase One: Emerging technology plus a dream
In phase one, an emerging technology is mixed with a dream, and something useful emerges.
In the late 1800's, industrialization was producing a lot of newly wealthy people. These newly wealthy dreamed of moving around like old rich people did - with a horse pulling a carriage. The problem was horses are expensive. They are expensive to buy, very expensive to maintain, and they are unreliable. But several technologies emerging from industrialization had potential to help make this dream of more and cheaper carriages become a reality. The most noticeable of those technologies were: internal combustion engines, better road pavement, and rubber tires. The key feature for cars - the one that distinguished it from bicycles - was the engine. In fact, bicycles boomed just ahead of cars, and the demand for better bicycle conditions laid the groundwork for many of the infrastructure improvements we now attribute to being done for cars. Think of China in the 1980's as a near-modern example of a place where a road network was bicycle-dominated rather than car-dominated.
Since they were first developed in the late 1700's, engines have been getting steadily smaller and cheaper and their use more widespread. By the late 1800's, some were small enough to mount on carriages, and the first "horseless carriages" were developed. By modern standards, these first implementations were clunky and expensive, and a lot of key features, such as gear shifts and electric starters, were not available. As a result, the cars of the late 1800's were strange and not very useful, and not many were sold. But these early horseless carriages powered the dream, and they showed inventors of the 1900's what was easy, what was hard, and what was necessary to make cars that were popular for car buyers.
Excerpted from Science and Insight by Roger Bourke White Jr. Copyright © 2012 by Roger Bourke White Jr.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 21, 2012
When White writes his Tales of Technofiction stories, he bases them on good science. He feels that good science is just as important as good characters and a good story line. In this book White is putting his fingers where his mouth is: He’s writing about the science that is the basis for his technofiction writing. This book is designed to help aspiring science fiction writers see how good science thinking can become the basis for good science fiction writing. This book is a series of essays on various topics that White wrote as preparation for the various stories you find in Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric, The Honeycomb Comet and Rostov Rising – His other Tales of Technofiction books. If you are writing science fiction, or aspire to write science fiction, and you want your flavor to be “hard” rather than space opera, this book can help out.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.