The Technology Myth

Written: 2000.07.10

Does this argument sound familiar?

"<other sci-fi series> doesn't have <technobabble>, or <technobabble>. They don't even have <technobabble>! It's obvious that the Federation is vastly superior. They would have no problem with the primitives in <other sci-fi series>"

How about this?

"<other sci-fi series> uses <technology type>, but <technology type> is obsolete in the Star Trek universe. Therefore, <other sci-fi series> is primitive and relies on inferior technology."

Of course it sounds familiar. That's the basic format of 95% of all Trekkie advocacy arguments against other sci-fi series, from Babylon 5 to Star Wars and Macross. So what's wrong with it? That's easy- it's based on the following myth:

Technologies are arranged into a "caste system", where accomplishments and capabilities are less important than "technology class". Newer technology classes are better than older technology classes. Therefore, weapons should be evaluated based on what "technology class" they belong to, not how powerful they are. Starship propulsion systems should be evaluated based on what "technology class" they belong to, not how fast they are. Computers should be evaluated based on what "technology class" they belong to, not their storage capacity, speed, or computing power. Continue ad infinitum for every conceivable type of product.

Myth #1

So what's wrong with the idea of a technology caste system? I would hope that you don't even need to ask this question, since as far as I'm concerned, the very idea is obviously ridiculous. However, if you can't see its flaws, try asking yourself what its underlying assumptions are. Let's look at them:

  1. Newer technologies are always superior to older technologies in every aspect.

  2. Older technologies are made obsolete by newer technologies, and they eventually become useless.

  3. No implementation of an older technology, no matter how clever or refined, will ever equal any implementation of a newer technology.

Much of this attitude stems from the consumer electronics and computer industries, in which the above assumptions are perceived to be largely true. Newer computer chips and storage devices invariably outperform older ones in every conceivable aspect. Aging computer chips are generally worthless, and quickly become relegated to the junk heap. The fastest 486-class chip is pummeled by virtually any Pentium-class chip, the fastest Pentium is pummeled by virtually any Pentium-II or Celeron, etc.

However, the perception is just that: a perception. Old technologies sometimes become obsolete in the face of newer technologies, but not always. In reality, new technologies are generally added to our inventory or used to help refine applications of old technologies. We engineers don't replace; we augment and improve. Click here for some examples, starting with my personal favourites.

Another problem with the technology caste system is that it presumes the existence of sharp distinctions between the various "technology classes," even though technologies are heavily intermingled in reality (it reminds me of the infamous racist South African apartheid system, which made sharp distinctions between races and had no meaningful ways of handling intermarriage).

For example, let's look at a computer. It's a perfect example of unfettered high technology, right? No old technologies in sight, right? Wrong. The CPU is a marvel of modern technology, but it's connected to the motherboard using the same copper wire that we've been using for a century in power transmission and electronic signalling applications. The modern hard drive seems radically advanced, but its sophisticated controller circuits and actuators read data off the platters using the same basic magnetic storage principles that existed before we were born. A CD-ROM drive uses lasers, which are only a few decades old, but its spindle is still turned by the same basic electromagnetic motor concepts that were used throughout the 20th century. The list goes on.