30 Nov

Why you’re Writing Technology Wrong

Technology Stabs You in the Back - Carrie Snow quote

Technology Stabs You in the Back - Carrie Snow quoteI love technology in stories. It works. It doesn’t require upgrades, it doesn’t crash and there’s no need to read the fine print in the manufacturer’s warranty.

The Terminator never needs to reboot (ok, he does but that’s because he gets pummeled into prickly metal paste and we need that moment when the eye fades then goes red again). No one aboard the Enterprise complains about the poor User Interface, or requires captain Picard to install ergonomic touch screens. Everything just works.

What a load of crock.

I love the moment in the first Star Wars movie where Han Solo is trying to get the Millennium Falcon of the ground and it stalls. Everything goes bvieeewwww and all the lights go out. And the, of course, Han does the Hero Thing(tm) and bashes it with a fist to get it working again.

It’s a tiny, little thing, a momentary laugh, but it works. It works because the technology acts as a plot point. That fist-to-the-panel moment fills all the important roles in a story:

  • It shows character – Han Solo is a man of action and very, very used to his ship’s quirks (he doesn’t panic, he just bashes it in the right place and wrooom we go).
  • It shows setting – all the neat buttons aren’t there for show, we get a closer look at what they do, that there’s something happening behind the lights.
  • It advances plot – the good ol’ Falcon is perhaps not quite as good as it looks (we know that, as the Falcon is combined out of junk, but we see it as a cool

That’s how technology should work in stories – it should be meaningful.

How the Millennium Falcon works isn’t central to the plot. How it interacts with the story, the characters and the world, is. All we need to know is “this will break down any moment”, and that’s fine. Compare that to HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL’s a very clever, very anthropomorphic piece of technology (with a very creepy voice). The entire story centers around HAL’s malfunction (ops, spoiler, 50 years after the fact), and as such it is explored in detail.

Now take a look at your average Star Trek episode, especially the original series. Things just work.

And what happens? The interesting parts of the story happens away from the Enterprise. Here’s this marvelous piece of space-tech and all it’s used as is a glorified flying carpet. Technology is magic in the original series. It’s something that allows James T Kirk to romance nubile aliens, fight ugly aliens, argue with pointy-eared aliens and generally play Buck Rogers. There’s nothing interesting in the awesome tech.

Which is fine. We don’t need to see how the Enterprise works (albeit we do get that, when the whole episode is about how it fails to work). We need to see the quirks, the parts that heighten the plot, increase our empathy for the characters and make their lives interesting (may you live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes). But the tech’s wasted. It’s nothing but set dressing, an electronic mini-skirt.

And that’s a waste of good world building. You’ve got all this cool and you’re not using it.

So, in all this preaching, how should you use tech? Or rather, how could you use it? Well, starting off, we don’t need to focus on the tech unless we’re writing a techno-thriller where the tech’s the point. What we need to do is find the points at which the technology has the potential to intersect with plot, setting or character.

Character is probably the easiest way to interact with the technology. What do your characters think of it? Do they like the tech? Are they luddites, looking for every chance to discredit or destroy it? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What do your characters take for granted from their technology? What would happen if that part malfunctioned? Would they be angry, like Dave in 2001, or would they take it in stride like Han?
  • Do they consider technology to be dependable? If so, they’re going to be much more distraught when it stops working.
  • Do they work with the technology or around/in spite of it? How can a bad interface, or bad programming or bad design, make the characters’ lives difficult?
  • Do they understand the technology or do they just use it? This is the difference between an engineer and a user, a person who knows how things should be and one that considers them to work “by magic”.

Adding character emotions and reactions to the technology around them increases the importance of it. And it doesn’t have to be advanced technology. Perhaps the character is afraid of how the crossbow will make all archers useless. Be imaginative, there’s plenty of ways to show character through technology.

Plot is probably the second easiest because plot focuses on how the lack or application of technology moves the story forward. Ask yourself this:

  • What is the worst time at which this technology can malfunction?
  • What is the worst way the opposition can employ some new technology?
  • Is there a way to use technology to get the characters out of their predicament? If so, why don’t they use it?

The last one is crucial. If the reader can see a way to apply a particular piece of technology to solve the characters’ problems and they’re not using it, then the characters are idiot. You need to find the technology holes in your plot and plug them. Give the characters reasons why they can’t use the tech. Perhaps they’ve got religious or moral reasons to avoid it (“I would never shoot another human being, no matter what”) – this sets up interesting decisions for the characters. Perhaps they’re just stubborn (“real men use bows”) or they’re mistaken about how the technology is used (“so you put dark sand in this hole and it goes boom – perhaps we can use ordinary sand instead”). Whatever it is, find the plug to the plot hole.

The most difficult part is the setting. Which goes contrary to common sense as technology is setting, it’s just there – but that’s why we often don’t think through what it actually means. In the movie Minority Report you get precognitives who visualize crime in order to stop it before it happens. Would that be the first priority? No, of course not. If you had people who could foretell the future you’d use them to get rich. They’d be watching the stock market and lottery numbers, not murderers. In the movie their limitation is that they need emotional moments – but what’s more emotional: a murder or a million people scoring big on the market? So here are some questions to ask yourself about technology as a setting:

BTW, take a look at the clip of the escape from Hoth above. Notice the error St. George does in his plotting? Tip: if Han can pull an automated machine gun out of the Falcon with a mere button press, why doesn’t the Alliance built a million of them to guard their bases?

So there, now you’ve got the tools to use your tech more effectively. Of course, they’re not worth spit if they malfunction…

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