Speculative versus magical technology in high-tech science fiction

High-tech science fiction is full or ironies and conflicts. One of the more interesting is the scientistic derision of magical technology. At its extreme, it seems to me to be a negation of the terms of high-tech; a set of scientistic limits imposed upon how far high technology should, as opposed to could, go…

Communications Room on the USS Pueblo

A used-to-be-high-tech Communications Room

Once people start criticising a high-tech reality as being driven by magical technology in a derisive way, does this imply that the extremes of high tech shouldn’t exist?

The critic may oppose this by saying: “In contrast, it’s just that speculative scientific qualities should be used to inform the structure and functioning of the technology. It’s not a suggestion that the technology should be lower tech.”

This may work with lower-tech realities, but when you take the extremes of the possible into account, maybe there wouldn’t be many who’d say that…

How could the extremes of high technology do anything plausible with modern physics, after all?

If you think that it could and have examples, then you possibly haven’t gone extreme enough and your examples are still too low tech.

Over-extrapolation tends towards magic or the absurd … whichever you prefer.  Just go a bit further again, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

What’s the point of speculative versus magical technology?

Speculative technologies that have some basis in science (albeit only loosely), and are demonstrated as such, satisfy the scientific curiosity of the scientifically minded among us: those who want to know how things work and just get intrinsically frustrated when they don’t know … and particularly when there’s no conceivable route to finding any plausible explanation whatsoever. For them, when magical technology is used, there’s just an empty void of meaninglessness.  The red flag of superficiality gets immediately hoisted.

Nevertheless, magical technology is something we’re all actually intimately familiar with and make use of every day. Knowing about technology is often reduced to knowing how to use it, and this is often experienced in an implicit procedural way, such that many will even find it difficult to teach others until they’ve put together an explicit teaching programme. We just learn how to use it, forget about how we learnt, and then use it.

New technology gets absorbed into this learning and accommodation approach; we rarely ask or consider how the technology actually works … even those who know … as it interrupts the flow.  We’re busy using. We’re usually more interested in functionality and what technology can do for our lives to ‘augment’ it, or interrupt and disrupt and time sap, etc.

Opening and closing the black box

This is a matter of black-boxing, which I’ve talked about previously. The scientifically minded will want to open it up and examine it (at some stage) … but then, they will close it up and just start using it; pretty soon, their use of it will look and feel just about the same as that of other users: we still tap on the touchscreen in negligibly different ways for it to function effectively, right? And your goal orientation when doing so is essentially the same: getting from A to B: opening an app, etc.

The pragmatics of technology use and the limits of access to increasing knowledge

As a scientist, I understand the need for and have an interest in understanding mechanics, but magical technology is perhaps more relevant to our lives than plausibly explained speculative technology … for many of us. There’s a certain knowledge deficit that’s been emerging for centuries due to the increasingly overwhelming nature of the growth in and diversification and specification of knowledge.  And, no matter how interested we are in science, that deficit and our intrinsic alienation from emerging knowledge is set to amplify in the near future.

What the understanding of mechanics has been replaced by is the pragmatic approach towards accommodating and using new technologies.

Is this unscientific? In one way, yes; in another way, no… There’s still the experimental and theoretical qualities associated with determining how the technology fits into your life and the judgments as to whether it serves your purposes effectively or not. Does it allow you to get from A to B faster and more effectively? Or does it interrupt detrimentally? Am I fit enough to tell the difference, and, even if I am, am I fit enough to stop using the technology and use something else instead … or nothing at all? Does it get me into more trouble, and is it ultimately worth it, etc?

This is experimentation associated with utility, purpose and handling and it provides a meta-framework for use: it’s about assimilation and accommodation, and working out the range of proper and alternative uses and abuses for technologies.

In essence, this is about praxis or technique. By focusing on this, you’re essentially opening up the black box of technique and examining how it functions and what it allows you to know and do. It’s therefore scientifically epistemological and ontological at a different level of analysis.

This is significant.

The rise of magical technology in SF may remain something to lament for many, but there also seems to be a large and growing number of SF fans who don’t particularly mind. Not that it doesn’t matter; what I mean is that, in these times, there’s a good chance that readers understand intuitively that the pragmatics of technology and the understanding of augmentation of technique is imminently relevant to their lives. Importantly, they may also understand intuitively that magical technology in SF doesn’t make the SF superficial or defective infantilism, that pragmatics serves a different purpose at a different level, and that, therefore, the narrative themes, the depth and the examination will be found at different levels as well.

This implies that the invoked epistemological and ontological void of magical technology, from a scientistic and reductive viewpiont, is the wrong place to make the judgement about substantive content … and its absence.

None of this is likely to change the views of many of those who exclusively want speculative technology in their SF, though.

That’s fine.

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