Steam Engines, Cyberspace, & Starships

November 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

It’s dusk on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass, and my little group, unfamiliar with this side of the Cascade Mountains, is trying to find a place for a stargazing picnic. We pulled off Interstate 90 and discovered that our chosen spot required a Discover trail pass after sunset, something that we forgot about in our spontaneity. One of our number pokes at his phone. The screen casts a night light glow inside the care while he calls out navigation to the driver. He has Google Maps up, and has found a tiny neighborhood park nearby. We get a chance to eat our sandwiches by starlight after all.

Contrast this to the more recent night of a friend’s birthday party. Again, my group is in an unfamiliar neighborhood, but this one is in the urban wilderness. It is, in fact, in a part of the city that the birthday girl warned us was the “Bothell Triangle,” a GPS thwarting conjunction of overlapping city borders not unlike the Bermuda Triangle. We’re on foot, trying to find the party house that is supposed to be a short walk away from the Park and Ride. However, this time the maps app is failing us utterly. We end up calling for help, and the host and hostess come to pick us up. Later, I find out that another guest tried for half an hour to find the house, but her car’s navigation system sent her elsewhere.

In the not-so-distant past, I carried a Thomas Guide map book in my car, at least ever since getting lost in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles and finding myself in Echo Park at midnight (not a great combination for a very young woman alone in her car, circa 1992). Before my acquisition of a smart phone, I planned ahead and wrote down directions. Along the same lines, I remember when people were more patient to wait for someone who was late, in the times before cellular phones.

I like to write about how ordinary people use technology. Whether it’s clockwork and steam engines or smart phones or cryosleep chambers, my characters are shaped by the technologies of their worlds. Much of the time, ordinary people — especially urban denizens — don’t have a whole lot of choice about using tech. In a race to offer consumers the most to purchase, industry pushes the newest technology and packages it through marketing as essential to… life, happiness, and everything.

Technology is perceived as a male dominated industry, but around me I see that everyone uses tech. Computers are common in city workplaces and households. In Seattle, it can look like everyone not only has a mobile phone but a smart phone, there is an assumption of internet access and usage, and fewer than six degrees separate any one person from someone earning her daily bread in a technology job. According to a recent article in Forbes, the Seattle area is top ranked in the country for technology jobs. In my every day I see women using technology along the entire spectrum. I know women who have their own servers, and I know women whose highest tech usage is listening to music on a portable mp3 player.

It’s fascinating to me to see how some people embrace technology, and whether they do it because it excites them (geeks, pretty much anything) or because it keeps them at the top of a particular social class (hipsters, first to have iPhones). Then there are others who accept tech consciously, often grudgingly, and those who accept tech without thinking much about it.  Those who grew up in the age of computers are probably easier about accepting the latest gadget than those of us who remember ditto purple.

A simple truth of technology is that embodies change. In the context of an individual, that place of change is the dynamic of story.

The funny thing is, technology and how it affects a person is always more interesting when it breaks. (Just imagine if one of James Bond’s secret weapons didn’t work. What would 007 do?) Since it is supposed to make our lives easier, it is designed to make us dependent on it. I think we can all relate to that moment where something in the background becomes the focus of our attention because of the obstruction it has become.  I’ve been in many an office setting where the copier breaks, taking our fax with it, and workday gridlock ensues. I’ve experienced text messaging fail often enough to create protocols for that method of communication. How often has an empty printer cartridge, dead battery, or burned out light bulb been an obstacle to things running smoothly?

Maybe it’s the poor tailor who is first to get a sewing machine, or the wounded space pirate with the outdated robotic leg. Maybe it’s the child who is replicated, or the thief who is caught because of a phone, or an engineer whose field of work becomes banned. Any of these are characters whose stories I will want to tell.

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