Bryan Sebesta

How We Interface with Physical Realities

Ursula K. Le Guin has written some of my favorite science fiction books, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. All of her writings take place in fantastic worlds, but her writing is more interested in people and culture than in technology. Because of this, she was sometimes accused of studiously avoiding technology. Well, in a wonderful letter, she takes umbrage with that criticism. She writes:

‘Hard’ sf is all about technology, and ‘soft’ sf doesn’t have any technology, right? And my books don’t have technology in them, because I am only interested in psychology and emotions and squashy stuff like that, right?

Not right. How can genuine science fiction of any kind lack technological content? Even if its principal interest isn’t in engineering or how machines work — if like most of mine, it’s more interested in how minds, societies, and cultures work — still, how can anybody make a story about a future or an alien culture without describing, implicitly or explicitly, its technology?

Nobody can. I can’t imagine why they’d want to.

Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine - and so on and on. Perhaps very ethereal people aren’t interested in these mundane, bodily matters, but I’m fascinated by them, and I think most of my readers are too.

Technology is the active human interface with the material world.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Technology doesn’t only refer to computers and airplanes and the internet. It refers to pencils and paper, tables and chairs, toothbrushes and tape, books and lawnmowers, credit cards and insurance, sinks and toilets, maps and bikes and cars and umbrellas and mirrors and glasses—these are all technology, as are institutions like churches and markets. Even words and stories are technology. All of these allow us to to cope with—to interface with—the physical world.

This is an expansive view of technology, as opposed to a limiting one. Technology has always been with us, since the first days on the plains when we learned to harness fire and and speak and tell stories. This makes her writing, here and everywhere in books, quite powerful, because it’s possessed by a deep admiration for even so-called “primitive” people.

Anybody who ever lighted a fire without matches has probably gained some proper respect for “low” or “primitive” or “simple” technologies; anybody who ever lighted a fire with matches should have the wits to respect that notable hi-tech invention.

I don’t know how to build and power a refrigerator, or program a computer, but I don’t know how to make a fishhook or a pair of shoes, either. I could learn. We all can learn. That’s the neat thing about technologies. They’re what we can learn to do.

This definition, in other words, cultivates a gratitude and respect for so-called “primitive” peoples and their tech. For example, “Low Tech Magazine” has an article on the hot water bottle that goes back thousands of years and it’s incredible. And John Plant is a YouTuber who runs a channel called “Primitive Technology”, where he shows how to make tools and buildings from just materials found in the wild, and it too is amazing.

In other words: everywhere you look you see technology, in all its various “high” and “low” forms (though that’s, as she points out, a deceitful spectrum!). Keys, knots, sandals, paper, cups, buildings, roofs, planter boxes, glasses, urns, water bottles, insurance, vinyl, metaphors, matches, screwdrivers, specific words, picture frames, sticky notes, zip-locs, elevators, stairs, huts, glue, window panes, asphalt roads, signs—these are all technologies. Even the simplest, like “the fishhook” or “pair of shoes”, take a tremendous amount of skill. And they all still constitute the fabric of our coping with physical realities—our technological worlds—today.