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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Are we too timid in our thinking?

   
Author Topic: Are we too timid in our thinking?
Grumpy old guy
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I've recently turned my hand to speculative fiction; a story set in a 'future' world that I postulate. But, am I too timid in my prognostication's?

Consider this: What has had the biggest impact on society and technology, the computer or the reciprocating internal combustion engine?

Computers have given us unprecedented access to knowledge. We can 'construct' virtual worlds, viruses and molecules. But, the combustion engine changed the world so much more. Because of that we have mechanised war (and all its consequences), flight (and all its consequences), traffic jams and everything associated with those three things. One impacts on the 'intellectual' level of society -- knowledge and understanding. The other changes the physical world we live and operate in.

Which has the greater impact on the 'human condition? Just idly wondering.

Phil.

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Pyre Dynasty
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Years ago I was working at a dry cleaners. We handled the uniforms of the employees of a large university. The entire system was computerized with barcodes. we'd scan the code to learn who the uniform belonged to so we could sort it on the right hook. Keep in mind that this replaced a system where the clothes were labeled with the employee's name and delivery stop. As you'd expect one day the computer wasn't working and suddenly it was the end of the world. We had to write down each barcode number on a note card and go to the other side of the building and type them into another computer manually. (Or search through a poorly organized, rarely updated hard copy binder.) It took all day to do what was usually a 30 minute to an hour job. We still didn't get it all. That was the worst day I've ever worked (this takes into account a day at another job where the sewer was backing up and it was my job to clean it up.)

Around that time my car broke down, so my dad gave me a ride to work. No big deal.

We've always been travelling, whether by foot or horse or wagon or car or (I'm shooting for teleportation) it's not really a game changer, just evolution. But computers have enslaved our minds in such a way that we can't live without them. (Or at least we feel that way.) Even people who shun computers are impacted by them. They fall into the same category as squibs from Harry Potter in a growing number of situations.

edited to add: A while ago Popular Mechanics asked a bunch of scientists and experts what the most important invention in history was. The most common answer was the remote control because it represented the transition from the quest for survival to the quest for leisure.

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rcmann
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I think it depends on whether you are talking about survival or quality of life. The discovery of soap was of paramount importance to human survival, but you seldom hear it mentioned that way. It's just taken for granted. Like the internal combustion engine that drives the tractors that grow the vast surplus of food that guards us against the vagaries of a poor crop year and prevents famine.

Computers are something we can live without. Many of us have. I have seen half a century, so I was an established family man before I ever got my hands on my first computer. It made my job as an engineering tech a lot easier, but I could have continued writing and drafting by hand if need be. Just not as fast or as productively.

There was an old lady when I was a young man who ran a grocery store. Her husband died and she continued with it for several years until closing up shop. She used an old manual cash register, and kept her credit records (Yes, she actually let people buy on credit.) on simple notepads. It worked fine.

Now, if the computer goes down, you can't buy a loaf of bread at the local carryout. I look at computers the same way I look at automatic windows in cars. They're great when they work.

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Crystal Stevens
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Just thought I'd add that there are groups of people right here in the USA that don't have computers or cars, trucks, tractors, etc. and live just fine. They're called the Amish [Smile] .
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rcmann
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That cuts right to the chase. First you survive. Then you get fancy. And all survival necessities come from the land. Everything else is padding.
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Robert Nowall
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I'd like to think I could "live without." And that covers pretty much everything beyond food and shelter. But I might be wrong.

As for what can be done without, my cell phone is just for phone calls, my Nook Color is just a portable computer, I don't use my computer to keep track of my finances, I still buy CDs-DVDs-BluRays, and I still occasionally haul out my typewriter and write with that. (My parents haven't gotten as far as getting a cell phone.)

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
I've recently turned my hand to speculative fiction; a story set in a 'future' world that I postulate. But, am I too timid in my prognostication's?

Consider this: What has had the biggest impact on society and technology, the computer or the reciprocating internal combustion engine?

Computers have given us unprecedented access to knowledge. We can 'construct' virtual worlds, viruses and molecules. But, the combustion engine changed the world so much more. Because of that we have mechanised war (and all its consequences), flight (and all its consequences), traffic jams and everything associated with those three things. One impacts on the 'intellectual' level of society -- knowledge and understanding. The other changes the physical world we live and operate in.

Which has the greater impact on the 'human condition? Just idly wondering.

Phil.

Yes, too timid. The computer and internal combustion engines are obvious choices for the greatest technological influences on culture, and they are only relevant currently. Who knows, tomorrow something may replace either or both or make them impossible to sustain. Too timid in the sense they are easy choices and focal points for a narrative's technological influence on near-future society. Movable type, indoor plumbing, antibiotics, radio transmission, oral contraceptives, corrugated cardboard, ad infinitum; great inventions and innovations both reflect and influence society.

For less timidity, consider projecting near-future technology innovations that have similar impacts and fulfill similar needs. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, and Nevil Shute's On the Beach come to mind. Technology gone awry themes. Nuclear fusion, hydrogen energy economy, algae farms, wave farms. Energy economies are powerful social engines. Transportation, communication, trade, labor, education, defense, natural resources, too. Sustenance, safety, society, these latter three are at the primal core of human need.

If you're going to project the near future, project, don't retread. Of note, an underlying theme of technology is that it's a manifold bladed edge. The sword cuts both ways and then some, piercing, and sharp and blunt forces, it also feeds; like a pen. Pound your plowshares into pens.

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Osiris
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

For less timidity, consider projecting near-future technology innovations that have similar impacts and fulfill similar needs. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, and Nevil Shute's On the Beach come to mind. Technology gone awry themes. Nuclear fusion, hydrogen energy economy, algae farms, wave farms. Energy economies are powerful social engines. Transportation, communication, trade, labor, education, defense, natural resources, too. Sustenance, safety, society, these latter three are at the primal core of human need.

If you're going to project the near future, project, don't retread.

I have on my 'quote board', where I a bit narcissistically post quotes I come up with that I find to inspire me in my writing, the quote "Extrapolated futures are believable ones". So yes, absolutely, project near futures technologies to their extremes. Explore their benefits and abuses, intended and unintended consequences.

In my own writing I've done a lot of this with medical nanotechnology. But it isn't just to make your story more interesting. Projecting from real technologies makes your story more believable. On a number of occasions, I've had readers in my writing group comment that my science-fiction seems 'real' to them, and that they can see a future world where the things in my stories happen.

So yes, project, not just to be more bold, but to be more believable.

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MattLeo
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The internal combustion engine is just the glamor-puss of the motor world. It's the electric motor that's the workhorse of modern mechanical power. Imagine a world without internal combustion engines. It would be somewhat different. Now imagine the world without *electric* motors. It would be unrecognizable. No power tools. No electric mixers. Old fashioned factories full of crude machines built by millwrights using centralized power from water wheels or steam engines.

Dentist's drills run by foot treadle...

Try to imagine a civilization which had mastered interstellar travel without the computer. Not hard to do, basically every sci-fi author before 1960 did just that. Now try to imagine a civilization with interstellar travel, but no *electricity*. Hmm. Interesting. They'd probably be *very* good at hydraulics.

So if the question is which had the biggest impact on society, the computer or the electric motor, it'd be the electric motor hands down. The ICE, not so much. But it's the wrong kind of question. The motor and the computer are both parts of an ongoing process of mechanization of human society, it's just that we're still in the middle of the computer and computer network revolution. This distorts its significance, as we we're distracted by new gee-gaws like tablet computers and miss some of the bigger trends.

I've spent research time on neo-nazi and white supremacist web sites and one thing that makes clear is that the Internet has been a tremendous force for radicalizing society. We take our cues for belief and behavior from the people we associate with, and with the Internet we no longer have to seek community with people who don't think like us, as back when physical proximity defined community.

An extremist can find a web based community that will cocoon him in confirming opinions, while also schooling him in expressing himself in less alarming ways. For example white supremacists are taught to express their racism, not as hatred for Jews or blacks, but as a love for the "white race". This of course is a distinction without a difference, because the agenda is the same.

I predict the trend toward fringe groups (good and bad) gaining clout through association will continue to accelerate and will be one of the biggest impacts of computers on society.

I also predict that more skilled "mental" jobs will be done by software, or with much of the mental heavy lifting done by software. Within most of our lifetimes, we'll see the first commercially published novel which was generated by computer, albeit with human editing. Within the lifetime of children now born computer generated stories and movies will become commonplace, although they probably won't entirely displaced human written stories. Many other professions besides "author" will become automated or semi-automated.

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MAP
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I think a lot of the most important discoveries are sometimes the most simplestic and easy to over look. Take the Periodic Table for instance. I'm not sure we really appreciate the impact that simple organization of the elements has really had on our society.

I'm not really sure what this means in terms of world-building in sci fi, but that is not how I personally world-build. I don't try to look ahead at where we are going in terms of technology. I think that question has infinite number of possibilities, so you can almost go anywhere. I start with a story idea and build a world that is necessary for the story I'm trying to tell.

But I know everyone has their own process.

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rcmann
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Gunpowder and its descendants were critical. Without chemical explosives we would not be driving on the highway system we enjoy today. We would still be winding our way around hills and over mountains. In may places, running along the course of a stream bed, ar following a ridgeline, would remain the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.

Not to speak of the difference it made in feeding our insatiable need for mined resources.

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Grumpy old guy
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Interesting responses. My 'List' (subject to sober reflection later on) would be:

Fire
The wheel
The printing press
Gunpowder (not because of your reasons rcmann, but because it meant anyone could be a soldier)
The internal combustion engine
Electricity (had never occurred to me until you mentioned it, MattLeo)

These I consider to be the game changers. Germ theory, vaccination and penicillin didn't really make a big difference -- other than initiate a population explosion with all its own nasty side effects. Even the atomic bomb hasn't really changed society. Oh, I admit that the Cold War and MAD did have a sociological effect, but it didn't change the development of human history. Or, did it?

Having started this by idly wondering, I'm now musing on what might have been and what might be. I guess the next biggest game changer will be FTL travel.

Phil.

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Osiris
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
I also predict that more skilled "mental" jobs will be done by software, or with much of the mental heavy lifting done by software. [/QB]

This is already happening, I see it every day in my job as a bioinformatics analyst. What's actually happening, however, is that the software is doing the heavy, complex, but ultimately uncreative mental heavy lifting.
This is actually freeing up the human mental capacity in our field for the creative stuff: problem solving, algorithm development, and innovation.

I'm much more skeptical that we'll see a computer-generated novel that can hold a candle to a human-generated one. It's creative intellect that distinguishes us most from computers. Without our creativity, computers are stupid. Anything a computer does a creative software engineer made it do.

Also, I might have missed comments on this, but if not, I think we are remiss not to mention the effects of modern medicine on society. While the nature of medicine is such that you can't point to any one innovation as revolutionary as say, the ICE or computer, the collective innovations in the field are enormous.

Oh, looks like I did miss a comment:

quote:
Germ theory, vaccination and penicillin didn't really make a big difference
I'd disagree with that. Technological advancement comes from human innovation, and these things undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of innovators, and facilitated a population boom that yes, does have ills, but also permitted the birth and survival of even more innovators. It is no different than investing a thousand dollars in stock to see it become 100,000 dollars in the future. I would not be surprised if, without the benefits of medical advancements, we'd currently be somewhere in the 1970s from technological standpoint.
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Robert Nowall
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Gotta go along with the notion that germ theory & co. did make a difference---billions lived that would have otherwise died.

Abandonment of technology makes a difference, too. DDT, among other things, brought malaria under control---when its use was abandoned, millions in the "Third World" died in a resurgance of malaria. (I figure it'll be back on the menu when there's a big outbreak of malaria in the USA.)

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Osiris:

I'm much more skeptical that we'll see a computer-generated novel that can hold a candle to a human-generated one. It's creative intellect that distinguishes us most from computers. Without our creativity, computers are stupid. Anything a computer does a creative software engineer made it do.

Well, speaking as a software engineer, I think that attributing the powers of a piece of software to its designer is a fallacy.

Think of the Mandelbrot set. It is generated by an very simple recurrence equation: z[n + 1] = z[n]^2 + c. But could anyone have foreseen the shape of that set? Or the infinite detail along its edge? Anyone can in a few minutes find a place in the Mandelbrot set that nobody has ever seen before or imagined. Benoit Mandelbrot did not create hat detail. A successful story generating system would generate stories that its designers would not.

The main difficulty in a story generating system would be incorporating the subtleties of human experience into the characterization. But not all fiction has much of this. Take a look at the submission guidelines for the various Harlequin Romance imprints: http://www.harlequin.com/articlepage.html?articleId=538&chapter=0. Each imprint distills the universe of human experience down to a small number of specific, repeatable factors. For example here is what they want in MCs for the Harlequin Blaze imprint:

quote:
A Blaze heroine is usually between 25 and 33. She knows what she wants, and isn't afraid to go and get it. She's confident and has a good idea of who she is. She doesn't need a man to fulfill her, but she'll happily take advantage of the situation if the right guy comes along.

A Blaze hero is an extraordinary ordinary guy. He's usually between 28 and 38 and is the type of strong heroic hero who is attainable for the average woman. He's a cop, a firefighter, a businessman, a soldier and sometimes a cowboy. Money isn't all that important to him—being true to himself is.

Each imprint has its unique character requirements. Here's the formula for Harlequin Medical Romance:

quote:
Strong, gorgeous, medical professional heroes at the top of their game with hearts of gold, and heroines to match.
Hmmm. Paging Dr. Bob?

Avalon Romances get's right to the point:
quote:

HEROINES: Every Avalon heroine should be an independent young woman with an interesting profession or career. She is equal to the stresses of today’s world and can take care of herself. She should be smart, capable, and likable.

HEROES: Avalon heroes should be warm, likable, realistic, sympathetic, understanding men who treat the heroine as an equal, with respect for her intelligence and individuality, and with courtesy. The hero should be a fully-realized character, someone the reader can warm up to and be happy to see with the heroine.

Category romance publishers say they don't want "formulaic books" but really, they do. They are looking for very specific attributes in their heroines (e.g. innocent, but sexually awakened) and have very specific criteria authors have to adjust their manuscripts to (e.g. maximum number of pages without a sex scene).

What they want is what every publishing business wants: "the same, only different." They want something that adheres to the formula, but is surprising or novel within that formula. This might be a place where a program's lack of cultural indoctrination would be an advantage. It doesn't know how these stories "always go" it knows what it has been told to do and not do. The first results would reveal all kinds of implicit requirements the publishers didn't have, but then you'd add those in until it was generating "the same, only different."

This is quite feasible. Some years ago there was a project to develop a knowledge base that would allow software to do more common sense reasoning. This involved feeding the software lots of assertions, like "apples are fruit" and "apples are edible". The software would take each day's input of assertions and cross check them against its existing facts by generating a batch of test conclusions using the old and new data together. One day, the researchers fed the software information about families, and in the test results they found the computer had arrived at this conclusion: "the father of a family is like the dictator of a country." That might not be correct, but it is at least incorrect in an interesting way.

The way I see computer generated storytelling happening is that the system would be used by formulaic genre publishers first. It would generate a few dozen stories along with synopses. An editor would pick through the synopses, choose a story and then fix it up, improving dialog and tweaking scenes. Over time the software would become more sophisticated and its database larger, and it would feel less and less formulaic. It would take a long time for the software to outperform the best novelists, but it would soon outperform average novelists, in much the same way that computer chess programs outperform average chess players but not the best chess players (the rules of computer-human matches allow the computer teams to cheat, IMO).

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Osiris
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The mandlebrot set is indeed a formula that leads to some beautiful images, but I'd still call it a beautiful coincidence that wouldn't have occured without the human ingenuity that made it possible for that formula to be expressed graphically. And that beauty isn't appreciated by the computer, it is appreciated by humans. That feedback loop between artist and appreciator is vitally important in encouraging the artist to improve their work. A computer will have to rely on 'upgrades' from its programmer. We'll see true creativity and artificial intelligence, I believe, when computers can write their own code, and have motivations for doing so.


I suppose what I remain skeptical about is a computer having the ability to weave together plot, character development, and prose together in a way that as you said, tells something of human experience in a complete package.

It's my personal belief that representational art (by that I mean art that represents human experience) will be the last thing computers can conquer. If they do ever start to outperform novelists in writing novels, I hope I'm dead and gone by then. [Smile]

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rcmann
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That formula for romance stories reminds me of, say, the requirements for a sonnet. Rigidly required structure, and total freedom within the structure. Or an oil painting on canvas. You must have canvas. You must have paint, based on oil. Otherwise, go for it.

The bit about gunpowder letting anyone be a soldier also brings to mind the idea of weapons as equalizers. For the first time in history, a 4'10" woman who weighs 89 pounds can successfully challenge a 250 pound lumberjack and get away with it. That was a HUGE shift in social, and thus political, power.

Which reminds me about birth control. I predate birth control pills. Anyone else remember when they became widely available, and the shock wave that resulted?

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Reziac
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In my SF Epic, the people [humanoid, but not human] have been in space almost 13,000 years. You'd think they'd have high tech everywhere, right? Nope... they're very quick-and-dirty about a lot of things (notably medicine), and it's highly unusual for an average person to carry a communications device (like our cellphones). Why?

Even aside from how they differ from Terranan -- a large percentage of the population have telepathy, telekinesis, and/or some form of "healing" ability. So there's not been the broad pressure to develop/use that sort of tech for everyday life.

[Plus, they just don't think that way... Carry a personal comlink when you're flying off to the wilderness? they'd look at you funny for suggesting it, and probably bristle in annoyance to boot.]

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MattLeo
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I would think that a culture with 13,000 continuous years of civilization would suffer from serious information overload. Often the solutions to problems would be "hidden in plain sight", right there in the history books cheek-by-jowl with contradictory solutions to nearly identical-sounding problems. In any argument, both sides would have history on their side, success and failure hinging on tiny distinctions that probably neither side sees clearly.

In a very mature culture, the ratio of an individual's knowledge to the total knowledge in society would approach zero. In fact the ratio of any group's knowledge to total knowledge would approach zero. People from different entrenched groups would tend to talk past each other.

[ February 02, 2013, 01:13 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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History
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quote:
quote:
Strong, gorgeous, medical professional heroes at the top of their game with hearts of gold, and heroines to match.


Hmmm. Paging Dr. Bob?

"Strong" -- Physical or mental? (Never mind. I make no pretext to either) Or do they mean scent?

"Gorgeous" -- I'm no Grey's Anatomy Dr. Dreamy (whom I've met, btw). Then again, I'm not chopped liver (I think).

"Medical professional heroes" -- Is that (to be kind) redundant or a subcategory? I have made diagnoses and performed procedures that have detected clinically occult (i.e. hidden)disease from aneurysms (before they ruptured) and early cancer (before it has spread), etc.; but I'm no McGyver who can perform a cholecystectomy or appendectomy with a paper clip.

"at the top of their game" -- I never considered medicine a "game". More a profession, perhaps a "calling." As I approach the end of my career, I'd say I've passed over "the top"; yet...I have physicians who insist on my taking care of their family members rather than my younger more recently educated partners in the belief that a little "snow on the roof" means greater knowledge by experience.

"with hearts of gold" -- That's kind to say.

"and heroines to match" -- For romantic interest? Feh. Talk about fantasy. You know, my wife watches all these doctor shows on television, who seem to have more time to be concerned with themselves than their patients. And more time making whoopee than real doctors whose wives are spending bedtime watching the tv doctors having sex. [Wink]

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
I would think that a culture with 13,000 continuous years of civilization would suffer from serious information overload. Often the solutions to problems would be "hidden in plain sight", right there in the history books cheek-by-jowl with contradictory solutions to nearly identical-sounding problems. In any argument, both sides would have history on their side, success and failure hinging on tiny distinctions that probably neither side sees clearly.

I suppose it depends how much one lives in the past. They're rather more in-the-present, and socially they are leader-and-pack, not tribal-like-humans. There's probably a tendency to let go of whatever the leader doesn't deem memorable. And they're rather more individualistic than Terranan -- you solve things your way, I'll solve them mine; history isn't generally consulted. (Tho when it is, there's some use of local precedent. Precedent from some other planet isn't relevant. And no one cares.)

quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
In a very mature culture, the ratio of an individual's knowledge to the total knowledge in society would approach zero. In fact the ratio of any group's knowledge to total knowledge would approach zero.

Technically true of any society, but how relevant is that? I'd think relevance would be proportional to the degree of specialization (which in my society, is "not very").

quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:People from different entrenched groups would tend to talk past each other.
But that happens any time you have different groups, regardless of tech level. Put primitives from opposite sides of the globe in the same room and see how much common ground they find... probably very durn little (hell, adjacent tribes often thought the neighbors were crazy).

Where my people tend to "talk past each other" is more predicated on the subtypes that are poorly understood by one another. There is no standard educational system, and after 3000 years of a gov't that went against the social grain followed by a century of war and a sharp population decline... yeah, there's a lot of misinformation about "those other types".

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
In a very mature culture, the ratio of an individual's knowledge to the total knowledge in society would approach zero. In fact the ratio of any group's knowledge to total knowledge would approach zero.

Technically true of any society, but how relevant is that? I'd think relevance would be proportional to the degree of specialization (which in my society, is "not very").
[/QB]

Actually, I don't think that's the case. In medieval times, a gentleman could go off to university for several years, then return home with an education and a library which encompassed most of what was known by his society.

In most societies before the invention of the printing press, a person could with twenty years or so of study become a sage with basic competency across all fields of knowledge and detailed expertise in several. Compare that to a scholar in a modern university, whose mastery of his field is apt to be less comprehensive than a sage's mastery of all fields of knowledge.

Two hundred years ago you'd expect an educated gentleman to be quite conversant in grammar, logic, mathematics, astronomy etc. Thomas Jefferson was unusual, but not *that* unusual. It wouldn't be surprising to see references to recent developments in mathematics mentioned in the letters of any of the founding fathers, not just Jefferson and Franklin. Today, you would not expect a university professor in English to be able to answer even basic questions in astronomy or mathematics -- to even know what the Sieve of Eratosthenes is about prime numbers or that Kepler's Laws refer to planetary motion.

There's been a kind of boiling point -- a phase change in the nature of scholarship where it became less about shared knowledge and more about shared methods and values. Our job as spec fiction authors is to think forward. Are there *other* phase changes ahead of us?


quote:
Where my people tend to "talk past each other" is more predicated on the subtypes that are poorly understood by one another. There is no standard educational system, and after 3000 years of a gov't that went against the social grain followed by a century of war and a sharp population decline... yeah, there's a lot of misinformation about "those other types".
This largely fits how I'd expect an ancient, but high tech civilization to be. However the kind of talking past each other that happens when people who are *different* from each other is just one kind of talking past each other. There's also the kind of talking past each other you get when people who are very much alike fasten on a different parts of a problem (think the revolutionaries in Monty Python's *Life of Brian*). I'd conjecture that's a much more prominent feature of an ancient but advanced civilization.
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rcmann
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
In a very mature culture, the ratio of an individual's knowledge to the total knowledge in society would approach zero. In fact the ratio of any group's knowledge to total knowledge would approach zero.

Technically true of any society, but how relevant is that? I'd think relevance would be proportional to the degree of specialization (which in my society, is "not very").

Actually, I don't think that's the case. In medieval times, a gentleman could go off to university for several years, then return home with an education and a library which encompassed most of what was known by his society.

In most societies before the invention of the printing press, a person could with twenty years or so of study become a sage with basic competency across all fields of knowledge and detailed expertise in several. Compare that to a scholar in a modern university, whose mastery of his field is apt to be less comprehensive than a sage's mastery of all fields of knowledge.

Two hundred years ago you'd expect an educated gentleman to be quite conversant in grammar, logic, mathematics, astronomy etc. Thomas Jefferson was unusual, but not *that* unusual. It wouldn't be surprising to see references to recent developments in mathematics mentioned in the letters of any of the founding fathers, not just Jefferson and Franklin. Today, you would not expect a university professor in English to be able to answer even basic questions in astronomy or mathematics -- to even know what the Sieve of Eratosthenes is about prime numbers or that Kepler's Laws refer to planetary motion.

There's been a kind of boiling point -- a phase change in the nature of scholarship where it became less about shared knowledge and more about shared methods and values. Our job as spec fiction authors is to think forward. Are there *other* phase changes ahead of us?

[/QB]

Ever read "Walden"? There's a part where he is griping about the useless nature of book learning as opposed to practical hands on experience.

A medieval gentleman might be well-versed in all the book learning available to his culture (darn little in western Europe at the time) but would he be capable of smelting, forging, and tempering his own sword? Or for that matter, would he have the requisite knowledge to plant, cultivate, harvest, store, grind, and bake his own bread? There are many kinds of knowledge.

Even ancient Greek civilization was capable of producing something like the machine of Antikythera (sp?). We know that the ancient Greeks also had working steam engines and understood the principle of magnetic levitation. We know this becuase some of their artifacts still exist. And the library at Alexandria in the ancient world is still remembered with awe.

I doubt that anyone, anywhere, has ever been capable of engulfing all the knowledge available to them.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
A medieval gentleman might be well-versed in all the book learning available to his culture (darn little in western Europe at the time) but would he be capable of smelting, forging, and tempering his own sword? Or for that matter, would he have the requisite knowledge to plant, cultivate, harvest, store, grind, and bake his own bread? There are many kinds of knowledge.

That's akin to how my SF-people would think of it... there are individuals who pursue scholarship for its own sake, and some people know lots of useless things [Smile] but generally they're more interested in practical knowledge.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:

A medieval gentleman might be well-versed in all the book learning available to his culture (darn little in western Europe at the time) but would he be capable of smelting, forging, and tempering his own sword? Or for that matter, would he have the requisite knowledge to plant, cultivate, harvest, store, grind, and bake his own bread? There are many kinds of knowledge.

Well, judging from the fantasy manuscripts I've read, he'd probably know a lot more about those things than most modern people. Authors seem to be unaware that the technology to melt iron didn't exist until the early modern era (except in China).

Chances are our hypothetical scholar-gentleman had seen a bloomery furnace, watched armor smiths, swordsmiths and certainly blacksmiths working at their trade. As for bread, that gentleman grew up on an estate where the production of bread was vertically integrated, from planting to baking. A loaf was probably consumed within a mile or so of where the wheat in it was planted.

I'm not saying there was no specialization -- especially where the kind of experiential knowledge that requires time and application of effort were concerned. But a medieval gentleman would know a great deal more about how the things around him were made than most modern people -- albeit in general terms. I'd be surprised if one in ten people understand how "injection molding" works.

quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:

Even ancient Greek civilization was capable of producing something like the machine of Antikythera (sp?).

That's an interesting point to me, because I put myself through college as an electromechanical tech in a research lab. To this day one of my best friends is a research machinist who's made satellite instruments, biomedical implants, and custom electrochemical apparatus. If you handed him the blueprints of a device like the Antikythera, and a selection of billet and bar stock, he could make it for you. But that makes him one in a thousand among machinists -- possibly one in a million. One of his prized possessions is a machinist's manual from the early 1800s, because it contains solutions to many tasks most machinists don't know how to do anymore, like cutting custom gears.

If you were to go about designing a modern Antikythera, you'd do it with catalogs of stock parts (gears, springs, lever, bearings etc.) at hand. Given the narrow utility of the components of the machine in ancient Greek society, it's almost certain that the device and all its components were fabricated in one shop. Raw metal stock -- or perhaps even ore -- went into that shop, and the device came out. Therefore it is quite plausible to assume that the sage who designed the device had a hand in its fabrication, possibly down to cutting and work hardening the gears. Certainly he would have had both the theoretical astronomy knowledge and the practical engineering know-how to produce a working design.

quote:

I doubt that anyone, anywhere, has ever been capable of engulfing all the knowledge available to them.

Well, if you go far back enough, I don't think that's true, unless you include in "knowledge" familiarity with the local landscape. I suspect there were paleolithic men who, for all practical purposes, knew everything there was to know, excluding local geography.

But I'm not suggesting that anyone "engulfed all knowledge" any time after,say, the invention of the pen. What I'm saying is that the scope of an individual's knowledge relative to the volume of knowledge available to him has been decreasing over the centuries.

I'm suggesting a topic of speculation, which is that as the ratio of an individual's knowledge to total knowledge available approaches zero, some things will change. What do you think would change? Or do you think *nothing* will change?

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extrinsic
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quote:
MattLeo:
I'm suggesting a topic of speculation, which is that as the ratio of an individual's knowledge to total knowledge available approaches zero, some things will change. What do you think would change? Or do you think *nothing* will change?

I see an ontological riff fallacy. Humans are social beings who cooperatively create, disseminate, and retain knowledge, or attempt to suppress or destroy knowledge. A whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Complex system successes like the Apollo space program involved individual parts cooperating synergistically. The net knowledge belongs to each part individually and collectively. I believe taming fire, putting natural world materials to use as wheels, and language's emergence comparatively required as much human cooperation as creating the Internet.

Logic is a matter of causal relationships. Cause and effect: cause precedes effect in all circumstances except theoretical quantum physics. Then cause; "As the ratio of an individual's knowledge to total knowledge approaches zero." I assume that means total human-knowable knowledge, and that an individual's function within the cooperative knowledge collective separates to a degree that the individual is isolated from the knowledge base.

Then effect; Social being isolation causes instability: insanity or creativity. Insanity is the sire of antisocial behavior. Creativity; the mother of innovation.

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rcmann
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Slight veer away from the main line, but not completely. As I age I find that my main problem is not forgetting the knowledge I have. My problem is that the data retrieval system in my brain seems to be breaking down. The information is still there, my mind just needs a kick of some kind to dig it out. A hint of sorts.

I don't know if this is due to the fact that each year, the cumulative total of my lifetime knowledge is getting larger, therefore the relative size and importance of each individual memory shrinks. It's a fact that I seem to have less trouble remembering crucial things.

Or it could be that the physical mechanisms that work to pull the crap out of my subconscious storage area are wearing out. I don't know. But what I am leading up to is this. Earlier I was trying to recall the name of an artist. I could recall that he lived in the last 19th century to about the turn of the twentieth. I knew that he spent some time in the south seas, and returned to "civilization" bringing some paintings of naked island women that scandalized the snob-igentsia of the time. But I could not recall the guy's name to save my butt.

I'm sure most of you know who I'm talking about. I finally broke down and entered a few search terms into Google. It was Gauguin.

What I am getting at is that while the amount of knowledge available to an individual is increasing, technology is also providing increasingly efficient ways for the individual to store, retrieve and manipulate that knowledge.

Those of us who predate the PC revolution have painful memories of visiting the local library and searching through stacks of old magazine, microfilm newspapers, etc. to gather information for your school reports. I described the process to my teenage son and he... well... it wasn't pretty.

There are many sci-fi stories about having computers implanted into the brain. And now, there are many news stories about people who have chips implanted to control equipment and/or interface with computers. And I have read about some devices that can read and respond to brain waves without a direct probe. artificial telepathy. From there, is is such a huge jump to artificial data implantation? Another sci-fi staple, but no longer impossible.

And if we can grow new nerve cells from stem cells, what's to stop us from growing supplemental brain tissue strictly for extra data storage? Like adding an extra ram chip to a computer?

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MattLeo
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extrinsic -- you raise quite an interesting and relevant point. What difference does it make that someone, somewhere has learned something that I wot not of? None, obviously. So the total volume of human knowledge per se is neither here nor there. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that civilization and individuals will adapt to that greater knowledge by behaving differently. It isn't hard to show how they've done so in the past.

For example as the volume of knowledge in a field increases, students of that field are faced with a choice to try to absorb all that knowledge, to specialize further within that field, or to generalize outside that field. In response creative individuals have become ever more tied to ever deeper value chains and ever more distant producers, and increasingly reliant upon collaborators.

I think the relatively novelty of that process in the Victorian era is what makes steampunk appealing. Steampunk extrapolates from a unique moment in history where the volume of knowledge encompassed enough (electricity, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering etc.) to make the amazing plausible, yet it was still plausible that a single wizard-like sage-inventor could master enough of that knowledge to beat the assembled experts of the world.

You could believe a figure like Captain Nemo existed in 1870. In 1970 he'd be implausible on several accounts. For one thing, he'd be instantly traceable by his supply chain. Today a country can't even run a nuclear program without detection. It's ironic, because the US did exactly that in the Manhattan project. Could this be a product of increased specialization? Is there something enervating about the pre-existence of off-the-shelf solutions?

Another reason a modern Nemo doesn't work is that once the basic function and architecture of his inventions became known, they'd quickly be duplicated, and bettered by teams with access to a wider array of expertise than an individual could muster. As one engineer acquaintance of mine remarked, "The most important thing about an invention is that whatever it does can be done. Once you know that, doing it a different way is usually easy."

Looking back over the modern era, the role of the individual inventor has always been romantically exaggerated. Lots of people were working on "harmonic telegraphs" when Alexander Graham Bell "invented" the telephone, and it was only a matter of months before someone invented a voice telephone. This is different from the more distant past where the secrets of making Damascus steel, Venetian glass, or Chinese porcelain might remain secret for generations.

Peering into the future is harder. We can *see* that the increasing weight of human knowledge has changed the way we live and work together, but we can only guess how (or even whether) it will continue to change us.

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extrinsic
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Peering into the future is dicey. On one hand, humanity and knowledge follow a predictable arc, a pendulum arc. On the other hand, chaos and entropy unpredictably influence the arc. On a third hand, change is subject to inertia's drag and sporadic acceleration. On yet another hand, strong and immediate needs change momentum every which-a-way.

But looking ahead, human society has steadily, increasingly become impersonal. Social isolation is a premise of Isaac Asimov's Solaria. Social interaction is entirely by telepresence, except for the pesky need for reproduction. When did that happen in the real world? About 1977 by my reckoning is when social interaction became mostly by proxy realities. The trend continued and is becoming more so.

What other trends shape humans and knowledge? Is humanity maturing, at least comparatively, into young adulhood due to population pressures? Teenage angst- and ennui-ridden troubling times ahead.

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MattLeo
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Extrinsic thinks that society will be come more impersonal in the future. I think people will become more interdependent in the future.

I think what's interesting is that these two visions aren't mutually exclusive. Our connection to others can become impoverished while our capacity for independent thought and action is sapped.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
Slight veer away from the main line, but not completely. As I age I find that my main problem is not forgetting the knowledge I have. My problem is that the data retrieval system in my brain seems to be breaking down. The information is still there, my mind just needs a kick of some kind to dig it out. A hint of sorts.

I find the same thing, especially since my head is stuffed to overflowing with useless information, in no order whatsoever. I'm hoping Google Brain will be out soon. [Wink]
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