Technology

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Technology is the application of scientific principles to create useful devices, and also the devices so created. An expert who deals in technology, in terms of either creating new technologies or maintaining existing devices, is called an engineer. Particular fields of technological knowledge are, accordingly, known as fields of "engineering"—chemical engineering, for instance, is the study of technology primarily based on chemistry, and mechanical engineering is the study of technology stemming from basic mechanics and materials science.

Technically, any physical objects that make use of laws of nature to produce effects are applications of technology. Something as simple as a wheel, or even an axe, is technological in nature. In practice, the word "technology" is often informally reserved for devices that make use of particular phenomena that aren't as obvious in nature, such as electricity—certainly electricity is natural, but outside of technological devices it's not often directly experienced in everyday life the way that gravity is.

The connection between science and technology is not one-way. Scientific discoveries lead to new technologies, but in return new technologies lead to new and better methods of scientific investigation. On modern Earth, for instance, studies on the frontier of particle physics require advanced particle accelerators, which are complicated technological devices that could never have been built before the development of the numerous different technologies that go into their design.

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Inventing new technologies

Most new technologies are applications of existing scientific knowledge. They don't represent great breakthroughs in theory; they only involve creative ways to use what's already known. This doesn't mean they may not be revolutionary, in their own way; it's quite possible for someone to imagine a way to put things together that no one has thought of before, to do something that no previous machine could do, or at least that no previous machine could do as well. There was certainly nothing scientifically groundbreaking about a zipper or an escalator, but these inventions have nonetheless been extremely successful. Even if the application isn't necessarily difficult, however, it may take a lot of trial and error—or lucky guessing—to figure out the best way to do something. The light bulb is a good example—Thomas Edison (who didn't invent the light bulb, but was primarily responsible for making it a commercial success) tested thousands of different materials to find the best type of filament.

Because of their dependence on scientific principles, new technologies are most likely to be developed when there is a boom in scientific knowledge. As new scientific discoveries are made, engineers and inventors scurry to find out ways to apply these new discoveries to create new technologies, or improve existing ones. This isn't to say that every new scientific theory leads immediately to new technologies; certainly there are some scientific laws and discoveries that have not yet led directly to any useful application. Still, any new theory does open up new methods of investigation.

It could be, however, that new technologies are discovered accidentally... perhaps in the pursuit of something else altogether. One of the most widely known examples of such a serendipitous discovery was penicillin, which was famously brought to light when Alexander Fleming noticed that a spot of mold on a Petri dish inhibited the growth of the bacteria surrounding it. This story is a bit of an exaggeration, however; the antiseptic properties of the Penicillium mold had been known long before Fleming, though the active substance had not been isolated. Better examples include Styrofoam and the glue holding Post-it notes (Styrofoam and Post-it are trademarks of Dow Chemical Company and 3M, respectively), both of which were developed accidentally in a search for something completely different. If such an accidental creation is difficult to explain according to current scientific theories, it may lead later to scientific breakthroughs, as scientists labor to discover exactly why it works. This isn't the case for any of the inventions mentioned above, but, for instance, the Galvanic cell, the forerunner of the modern battery, was developed long before scientists had any understanding of the electrical principles behind it. And certainly humans were practicing selective breeding of domesticated animals and plants millennia before possessing any understanding of the genetic principles that made it possible.

Because of the synergy between science and technology, new technological developments tend to lead to new scientific advances, which in turn lead to new technological developments. (Furthermore, new technological developments can lead to new technological developments on their own, as they provide necessary components for more complex devices.) Because of this, it may be that the pace of technological advancement tends to increase over time. Certainly there is some appearance of such exponential increase, although some critics believe it to be an illusion, or to be unsustainable in the long term. Still, the controversial idea has been bruited that eventually as the exponential increase in technology continues, eventually it will reach a technological singularity, past which the world will be changed beyond any hope of present comprehension.

Availability of technology

Just because technology exists in a particular world doesn't mean it's going to be readily available. Some technologies might be suppressed or outlawed by the government, or perhaps by private organizations that hold patents or equivalent legal rights and aren't interested in sharing them. Even if there are no particular restrictions on its use, some advanced technology may be too expensive to be easily acquired. Of course, what qualifies as "too expensive" depends on how wealthy one is. A very wealthy man might not blink at purchasing some high-tech gizmo that would be completely out of the reach of someone below the poverty line. In any case, the cost may change over time; on Earth, for example, over the course of only a few decades, computers went from huge and enormously expensive machines that only large companies could afford to smaller models far more powerful than their ungainly predecessors that were cheap enough to be found in most middle-class homes.

Like other controlled objects, technologies normally unavailable may be obtainable through other means. Specialty stores may sell devices normally made available only to industry. And, of course, illegal technologies may very well be available on the black market... though moral or cautious people may be understandably reluctant to resort to such measures.

Manufacture of technology

Advanced technologies, of course, are not created by hand, but require other technological devices to make them. Even a technology as simple as a sharpened stick requires something to sharpen it—if not a knife, then at least a sharp rock, which, if created by flaking off shards (as opposed to fortuitously finding a rock that already has a sharp edge), is itself a (very simple) technological device. More complicated technologies typically require correspondingly complicated devices to create them. Even if an engineer knows exactly how an alkaline battery (for instance) works, that doesn't mean he'll be able to create one from scratch—it may require chemicals and equipment that he doesn't have at hand.

Still, the machinery to create the technology requires people to maintain and operate it. Even if the manufacture is automated or done by robotics, people are required to maintain the automated system and the robots. (If the robots are themselves ellogous entities capable of self-maintainance, then they themselves qualify as people.) Therefore, there are always to some degree human (or at least sophont) hands involved in creating technological devices. It's possible that some sufficiently advanced automated system is capable of continuous operation for a long period of time without supervision, but parts are still likely to wear out and require maintenance eventually. (In addition, of course, there's the question of where it gets its raw materials.) Therefore, for the most part, the manufacture of technology almost always at some level involves the employment of ellogous workers... which also, however, means there's almost always some possibility of human error in the process.

Complicated technological devices are unlikely to be manufactured all in one place. Rather, many parts are themselves created by specialists, and the parts are then assembled in a central factory (which may also make some of the less difficult parts itself). Even the assembly may take place in multiple locations, with the device assembled piecemeal and then the partly assembled chunks finally put together into the finished device. This decentralization has its advantages and disadvantages; it certainly allows for more efficiency, as different manufacturers can concentrate on their specialties, and it probably allows for a higher quality end product. However, it also means that there are a lot of links in the chain and a lot of stages where things could go wrong or become held up.

Maintenance

Most technologies will not keep working indefinitely without maintenance. This is particularly true if they are subject to a lot of wear and tear; devices that are only used infrequently and have few or no working parts will probably last longer than devices that are constantly in motion and undergo considerable stress and strain. (Then again, the latter devices are likely to be built to be more sturdy, and if the former ever is subject to any unexpected jolts or blows, it may not take it well.) In any case, generally it's necessary for people to maintain technological objects, which may include periodic inspections to make sure everything is working up to par, and certainly will include making repairs when and if anything breaks down. The maintenance may be done by automated machinery, but, again, something has to maintain the automated system as well; at some level there has to be an end to the sequence, or if something does go wrong it will really lead to disaster.

Where technology becomes commonplace, the maintenance of even complex pieces of technology may not be considered a particularly prestigious career. In present-day Earth, for example, automobiles are a fairly complicated piece of technology, but the position of the mechanic who fixes them is considered a blue-collar job, and does not require a higher education.

Technological levels of societies

Different societies, of course, may be at different levels of technological advancement. It's not possible to define a single linear scale that quantifies a society's technological level, since some societies may be somewhat more advanced in one aspect than another. Nevertheless, given the interconnectedness of different fields of technological and scientific progress, there is unlikely to exist too large a discrepancy between advancement in fundamental fields. It is extremely improbable, for instance, that any society could invent complex computers without first having developed a basic understanding of mechanical engineering.

In any case, there are limits to how different the technology levels are likely to be between different societies that have significant interaction. If two civilizations on a particular world are completely or almost completely isolated from each other, then they may have radically different levels of technological development. If there is a lot of commerce and travel between two civilizations, however, then technological innovations are likely to be spread between them. Of course, people in a poorer nation may have less access to high technology than those of a richer nation, but this is mostly a financial matter; it has less to do with its being completely unknown and unobtainable there than with the fact that the poorer nation simply cannot afford it.

When civilizations are so isolated that they have radically different technological levels, however, anyone who does manage to bring high technology to a world that doesn't normally have access to it may be able to get a high price for it, and someone with the means of regular travel between the two civilizations, and the ability to transport technological goods, may be able to make a very lucrative career in such trade. Over time, of course, this could lead to radical changes in the lower-tech society. It's by no means inevitable that the inhabitants of this society will be able to reverse-engineer the high-tech products and figure out how they work. Indeed, if the technological disparity is particularly high, this is exceedingly unlikely; no matter how much he studied it, a medieval scholar without further access to modern science would never be able to understand a computer. Still, whether their owners understand how they work or not, the mere fact that some people do have access to such technology will certainly alter the workings of the society in some way. A cautious trader can minimize the impact by careful choice of exactly what he sells and whom he sells it to, but it's unlikely that the effect can ever be totally eliminated.

In any case, such examples of isolated civilizations within a world are quite rare; if someone finds a route to travel between two formerly sequestered civilizations, then others will follow suit. Travel between worlds, however, may bring with it similar consequences, especially since in most cases different worlds are more likely to remain discrete; not everyone may develop the ability to travel between them. Some who do have the power to travel between different worlds, or even different planes, may therefore take advantage of their ability by engaging in some technological trade, at the possible cost of seriously altering the course of the world they're trading with. (This is somewhat less of an issue with intercosmic travel for the simple reason that, due to the differing physical laws in different cosmoi, a technological object from one cosmos may not work in another.) The same applies to time travel; a time traveler could potentially make a lot of money selling items from the future, at the possible cost of changing the past (though the exact effects of this depend on precisely how time travel works for him).

On some worlds, it seems that for some reason certain people have the ability to create technologies far more advanced than the world at large. The reasons for this remain not fully understood; certainly these so-called ingeniates possess well above average intelligence, but not so much that this alone could be responsible for their supernormal technological prowess. This technological disparity is especially common in super worlds, where ingeniates may put their technological abilities to use to become gadgeteering superheroes—or supervillains—but it's not necessarily confined entirely to such worlds. In any case, it seems that, for whatever reason, not just the invention but the replication and maintenance of the technologies invented by these ingeniates is impossible to others, no matter how highly skilled. It could be that the physical laws themselves for whatever reason operate differently in the presence of these ingeniates, though there's reason to believe that there are at least some cases where that explanation doesn't apply. In any case, ingeniates essentially have a personal technological level of their own, quite apart from that of their surrounding societies. Interestingly, there may also have been discovered those who seem unusually incapable of creating or using technology, the flip side of ingeniates; these egeniates, if they compose a real phenomenon, may be less noticeable than ingeniates simply because the creation of an amazing new technology will naturally attract more attention than an individual's inability to use old ones.

Technology and magic

Noted science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"—a maxim that has come to be known as "Clarke's Law" (or "Clarke's Third Law", but the first two laws are far less well known). Technically, of course, there are some distinguishing factors between magic and technology (by the definitions used in the Wongery), though there may be some subjectivity involved. For instance, magic does not necessarily require the construction of any physical objects to produce its effects, whereas technology, by definition, does. However, there is a lot of truth to Clarke's Law; it may be difficult for someone unfamiliar with its workings to distinguish a magical talisman from a technological device, and the same effects may be brought about by magical and technological means. In fact, enchantment—the imbuing of objects with lasting magical effects and properties—may be considered a type of technology. Magic operates, after all, by natural laws, even if those natural laws may be poorly understood by the mages who use them, and so the creation of a useful object that operates according to magic is, by definition, an application of technology, even if it is rarely referred to as such in practice.

There is an occasional belief that magic and technology are somehow in opposition, that where magic is in use technology cannot function, and vice versa. As an absolute prohibition, this is absurd; technology works through physical laws the same as do, for example, human organs. If no other physical processes worked in the presence of magic, then that would preclude respiration, digestion, muscular action, and pretty much every other biological process. It's not inconceivable that for some reason magical effects could take the place of the disrupted physical processes when it comes to biology and keep living creatures functioning as they did before, but that would be a very complex and impractical proposition, and would raise serious questions as to how such a system originated.

However, it is not impossible that some physical laws may operate differently in the presence of magical effects, and that this may make certain technologies incompatible with the use of magic. Indeed, this may very well be the case on some worlds. However, it is certainly not true as a general rule in all cosmoi, and in most cases magic and technology can coexist without difficulty. The fact that high levels of magic and technology are not used together more often than they are is perhaps attributable simply to the fact that the availability of magic reduces the motivation for technological research.

Conversely, however, in some cases magic and technology are not only fully compatible, but can be combined into synergistic creations. A magically-powered motor may drive an otherwise nonmagical engine more efficiently than could any other power source; a device may bring into contact through mechanical means sorcerous glyphs that produce some effect when they touch; a computer can be enchanted to enhance its effects. The general celemological term for such a combination of magic and technology is chamulcy, though other words may exist in certain areas or for certain applications. (In particular, the term "magitech" seems to have been independently coined on many different worlds, though it's not generally used by celemologists.) In practice, of course, many talismans are technically chamulcar that are not usually considered as such: a simple bow works by physical principles such as tension and inertia and is a technological device, so an enchanted bow is technically a chamulcus (a device that operates by chamulcy). In practice, though, the term is usually reserved for devices combining magic with relatively "advanced" technologies such as electricity and complex gearwork.

See also

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