Thursday, December 16, 2010

Filling the technology-shaped holes

One thing that tends not to happen too much in science fiction (or in fantasy, where it's less overt but still an issue) is any kind of consideration of how technology shapes morality. I'm not talking absolutes here, but generalities - the kind of consensus morality that most people in any given society can agree on. If a society doesn't have that consensus, it's not going to last: without a consensus morality that covers a good chunk of what happens in public life (and usually private as well) people tend to revert to tribal mores, finding themselves groups that share their views and identifying with their chosen 'tribe' over everything else. I don't think I've seen the phenomenon described that way, but you can see it in descriptions of the dying Roman Empire, and in the long and painful decline of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire. Once too many (and I have no idea where the tipping point is) people started thinking of themselves as something other than Roman - the reason they did this is a different beast altogether - the Empire was doomed.

That's actually not what I'm talking about here, but it is incidental to my point. One of the things that happens when you get a collapsing empire is that technology levels in the general populace drop. In part this is because it takes a large, well educated population to maintain and improve technology. Plus, technologists are specialists of a kind you tend to only find at high levels of technology: a society has to have a high food production level and a sophisticated trade and distribution network to maintain people whose principle function is basically making stuff that makes life easier. Once you knock a technological society back to pre-industrial or even to subsistence farming levels, that society loses the ability to maintain the people who build and run the tech.

The other big reason tech levels drop is the one I'm interested in. Morality. The consensus morality always lags behind technology by at least a generation. Sometimes it's a lot more - but it never freezes. If society is fragmenting, it's much more comfortable to drop back to the technology level that your morality can accept, at least at first. We tend not to see the massively interconnected frameworks that make up the current technological basis, and most of us don't have the luxury of choosing which technology we're going to accept. The Amish, who do, only have that luxury because they're protected by the much larger body of the society around them.

Now... Imagine a society where no-one carries any harmful recessive gene markers. Hemophilia and a host of other inheritable nasties no longer exist. Leaving aside the question of how those people got to that state (hint: probably not by gene surgery), would those people regard (consensual, between adults) incest as taboo?

I think after they'd been that way long enough, they wouldn't, but the shift would be a long and painful one, possibly involving ugly protests and persecution. It would make an interesting story - but it's not one anyone could write and have published today, because almost everyone today regards incest with abhorrence.

To add a new twist, what new taboos might have arisen? To put this in context, we have taboos and rituals today that were either impossible or unthinkable a few hundred years ago. Sometimes both. Take hand-washing. It's not possible to wash your hands regularly without at minimum a reliable supply of clean water. In Western societies today we take this for granted. Maybe in future societies they won't because everyone will carry pathogen-eating nanobots. Or maybe they'll have some kind of bug-zapper that you walk through to instantly sterilize you and whatever you're carrying (this could cause problems in the future version of programming, since it will make sacrificing goats to one's computer rather more awkward. But anyway...). Possibly your future person wouldn't dream of going anywhere without having gone through the zapper first. Or will think that anyone who carries a child through pregnancy is insane when bio-wombs are so much more convenient and protect the growing embryo so much better than the old, messy, biological method.

Of course, there will be controversies. People may well be arguing that it's immoral to have a child whose genetic makeup is entirely derived from you (that is, two eggs or two sperm are merged to produce a unique individual who has only one biological parent). Maybe the big argument will be over whether or not technological artifacts can be considered people - and whether it's murder if someone destroys an AI. Perhaps the big moral issue of the day will be who actually 'owns' vat-grown meat and organs - is it the source of the DNA? Or the owner of the vat? What if there's a dispute over the ownership of the replacement parts that were grown for you after you wiped out a lung, your liver, and a hefty chunk of assorted other internal organs in an accident? Will you be the 'villain' for your foolishness in risking your life, or will the company that wants to repossess the organs be the 'villain'?

One of the aspects of Sarah's DarkShip Thieves that I really enjoyed was the moral conflicts she slipped in under the main storyline. Most of them aren't things that are much of an issue today - if they're even possible. Some of them were - to my delight - notions I'd never considered. There's a lot of that in Heinlein, too, and in Dave's writing. With Pratchett the moral questions tend to be masked somewhat with the fantasy setting, but not always (the question of dwarf gender comes to mind).

And now, so inhabitants of the future can read and laugh at how silly we were back in that primitive era of networking (or alternatively, so it can all be vanish without trace when the last Google server rusts out in the new dark age), what do you think will be taboo in 50 years time? 100 years? 500? How about way, way in the far future?


EvMick said...

Now you're talking.

THIS is what science fiction is supposed to be. "If THIS....then WHAT?"

If pistols become cheap what good is the expensive sword and all the training required to master the sword.

If every person can selectively access intellectual "enhancements"..(plug in Algebra.....History....Volvo AirConditoner Repair) .what good would be the school system?

Suppose a person could disassociate his "society of mind"...into multiple individuals and be sane....and productive.

"Schizophrenia means never being lonely..."


THAT's the kind of reading I like.

All the gratuitous violence, sex and mayhem is just icing.

MataPam said...

In a society without genetic errors - trauma damage would be repulsive, anyone with a chronic condition from a toxic exposure considered a weakling, not good enough to be a real person.

Incest is common, despite the statistical relationship to birth defects. From Egyptian Pharoses marrying their sisters to the current Muslim culture of frequent cousin marriage to conserve family wealth. But it is also how animal breeders strengthen desireable characteristics.

Will a taboo against marrying against "specialty" arise. "I can't believe it! Eighteen generations of Engineers and she married a Musician! Pity the poor children!"

Our experiences with the first AIs will determine whether they are banned or protected. One of the novels I have out in circulation has "Artifical Personalities" (as distinct from merely large capacity computers)destroyed upon discovery, and a benign AP trying to stay undiscovered.

I can see all kinds of weirdness in the future. And some of it is happening. One way travel to Mars, to colonize it - but they want to send old men, not a breeding population. How insane is that?

Brendan said...

The problem with a non-recessive society and incest is that while the society may start without recessives but new ones would crop up through cell mutation and (assuming we aren't talking a clone group) natural genetic changes due to breeding.

I think the questions of how society will change have always been one of the things SF has done(I could name multiple stories that address the issues Kate raised). Of course there is Hard SF where it is all about the tech, but I think the stories that deal with how the group deals with the tech to be far more interesting.

Synova said...

The incest thing is probably not wholly connected to a conscious understanding of inheritance or cultural memory of sickly children. This is a case of "I read this somewhere" but genetically related people actually seem to have a greater sexual attraction *provided they were not raised together.* And those unrelated but raised together acquire an inhibition as if they were actually siblings.

If that's true, then technology might mean that cultural taboos over incest disappear to be replaced by a taboo concerning one's creche-mates.

Oh, and King Tut had one grandmother. ;-)

Kate said...


Exactly! Taking a change and following along a reasonably sensible path to where it could end is a whole lot of fun, and the changes that happen to attitudes are probably even more interesting.

It helps if you don't ick out too quickly though.

Kate said...


Absolutely - and there's even a few mythological examples to use.

As far as incest goes, a lot of cultures don't regard cousin marriage as problematic - and it's not that long ago that our own didn't. So that one is a sliding boundary.

Wasn't it Heinlein who said that the world isn't just stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine?

Kate said...


Absolutely. And it would probably not show up until about long enough for all the taboos about it to have faded away - leading to some interesting consequences.

There have been any number of interesting stories exploring some of these - but sadly, not too many recently. How people handle the way the tech changes their life is probably the most interesting aspect of technology.

Suppose we got reliable teleportation? What happens to the places that aren't close to a teleporter?

Kate said...


As I understand it, the non-cultural incest-ick is a 'raised together' thing - and has been observed in animals. Cats will mate with other cats rather than their littermates (Of course, that particular reluctance only goes so far - if there aren't any other cats around, the littermate will do).

I think that being raised together creates a sense of "is family" as opposed to "is potential mate", and that's where the instinctive ick reaction happens.

What would happen if lifespans got long enough to weaken that reaction is another interesting question.

Chris McMahon said...

I think texting while talking to someone else will soon be punishable by death - likewise talking loudly on mobile phones on public transport:)

MataPam said...

Chris, we can only hope.

Speaking of cultural taboos, that would be a great pair to gain. Unfortunately, we appear to be in a strong anti-privacy trend right now.

Synova said...

Washing hands is getting to be an insult, supposedly. Not naming names but a President was criticized for using hand sanitizer after shaking a Junior Senator's hand, and a former candidate for VP was criticized for constantly washing her hands while visiting a cholera outbreak area.

The hand washing and sanitizer thing is technologically affected both by the availability of sanitizer and the ease of travel that amounts to untold vectors for germs over far greater distances ever before.

Lucius said...

On the incest thing, I'd argue that the possible genetic consequences are much less of a factor than the certain dysfunctional family dynamics resulting from the behavior. In an admittedly extreme example, the children and grandchildren of Sawney Bean were healthy enough physically.

But the main reason I'm writing, is because of your statement about technology regressing a generation or more. I want to come down heavily on the "or more" side of the equation. The knowledge base (and the infrastructure that supported it) has become obsolete, and has been abandoned. A small tactical withdrawal simply isn't viable.
A bit longer ago than I'd really care to think about, I thought it would be fun to build a steam engine. It's an invention that dominated lives for a few hundred years, and had been continually been refined and made more efficient during that time. Yet I found that it's darned difficult to find any but the crudest plans for the things.
Or as another example, some of the geekier of us might actually know how to use a slide rule. But they're pretty hard to find, and we'd have a heck of a time trying to make one.
When I was young, the township model was dying. It's now been dead for a long time. Living within three miles of a town just isn't very important when you've got fast, reliable cars. I can go out into the countryside and see a few crumbling foundations, but that's about it. It's not something that could be functionally rebuilt by a stressed populace which suddenly found its mobility constrained.

(And I'm rambling. I'll shut up now.)

Lucius said...


I have to disagree with your assertion about the current anti-privacy trend. While I'll agree that it's strong, it's not even a regression to the mean. The anonymity provided by a mobile urban life is a fairly new thing. The norm has nearly always been to live and work in the same place, surrounded the same people. Who knew nearly everything about you.
Heck, I grew up in a fairly good-sized town in a fairly mobile society. As a teenager, word of my exploits still frequently reached home before I did. (Which I found most inconvenient. But now that I've got kids of my own, I very much wish that our society would get back to that point.)

Synova said...

On privacy, my theory is that in cultures where everyone is stuffed in all together a sort of "virtual" privacy develops. You pretend not to know what you know and pretend not to notice what you notice.

My basis for this theory is the particular way that Scandinavians (and my ancestors) tend not to emote.

Dave Freer said...

What a fascinating post, Kate. I think however that it's a bit more complicated than a simple lag in mores changing to reflect a new reality. My own theory goes that it's a first in last out situation, that many of the basic traits which have an instinctive component are quite hard to change, rationally.

And of course there are often vested interests in not changing them.

There is also the comfort of familiarity factor (we've always had roast turkey for Christmas - so what if it is 110 degrees C out there) which helps in the retentiion of traditions and taboos (which are sometimes the same thing).