The Tech Locks
Technology is Legislation
The framing ideas in Lady of Mazes are well-established in SF: ringworlds, transhumanism, AI etc. But the book also contains genuinely new ideas, ones that you won't find anywhere else. For instance, take the technology I call the tech locks. Understand the rationale behind the tech locks, and you understand why I wrote Lady of Mazes. (This article contains serious spoilers. You've been warned.)
In Lady of Mazes, Qiingi Voicewalker puts it this way:
“What we know is that you can’t have just one technology. Like you can’t have just one silverfish in your house. Technologies come in families, like people, and when you invite one into your home, the whole family will eventually move in and they won’t leave.
“And even if you don’t let the rest of the family into your house, they will camp out on your doorstep and pester you whenever you go by. The one inside your house will constantly remind you about the ones outside. And each family of technologies comes with a particular way of life. To invite that family in is to accept their way of life. To invite just one member in, is to be constantly reminded that you could be living another way. It brings doubt into your house..."
Science fiction is based on a set of deeply held, unquestioned core assumptions. We're not even aware of them. Since SF is a distorted mirror of the real world, you can bet that its premises are also those of our civilization.
I wanted to write a book that exposed one of those assumptions. Lady of Mazes opens up the ticking heart of SF to expose something strange: namely the assumption that we have to accept and adapt to new technologies; we have no choice but to let our discoveries and inventions change us.
Accommodation to technology is usually disguised as yielding to the unseen hand of the market; in the movie Singin in the Rain (my favourite examination of the effects of new technology on culture) the characters face unemployment if they don't find a way to adapt to the new industry of talking pictures. But the idea that it's all market-driven ignores the drivers of the market, which are often irrational. New gadgets are often less convenient than old gadgets, yet we adopt them anyway--often because other people are adopting them, so we have to keep up.
Technology has a life of its own, and technology is legislation. And I think people assume (with little evidence) that new technologies are by definition better--they make our lives easier, right?
If that's true, then why is there a plague of stress and sleep deprivation across the Western world? Shouldn't we be calmer and less stressed than our ancestors? It seems we have little choice in the matter; the electric light is here, the the telephone and the internet are here. Theoretically, you can choose not to use them. In reality, the choice is not yours to make.
Technology is legislation. But does it have to be that way?
Let's listen to Qiingi again:
“Knowing this, our ancestors drew the family trees of all the technologies. And then they made a... a meta-technology that was able to suppress any of the others. It is easier for me to call this Ometeotl, for that is the name I was told as a boy. This great spirit knows what way of life--what family--each technology belongs to. Like people’s families, technology’s families shift and overlap. So it is never easy for a person to know what family he is inviting in when he adopts a new tool. But the spirit knows. You tell it the way of life you want to have, and it evicts the families that go against that way."
Qiingi is describing the tech locks.
We're hardly the masters of our technology--much less masters of our own fate--if we have no choice but to be swept along by change. In fact the technological singularity and post-humanism are celebrations of this very helplessness. In Charlie Stross's Singularity Sky an entire culture is wiped out by the casual introduction of post-scarcity technologies. What I find interesting is that in stories like that one, people have infinite power as long as they swim with the current; but the current cannot be opposed.
What if you didn't have to change your way of life to accommodate your civilization's technological mix? What if you could decide how you wanted to live, and then pick and choose the technologies that would let you live that way? You can't do that in our world--we're not even aware of the problem much less capable of fixing it. But why assume that we never will be able to fix it?
So this is one of the things that Lady of Mazes is about: how to take control of our lives back from technology. It's bone-headed to assume that new technologies will always benefit us; that's a kind of Darwinian blindness, like saying "natural selection would never hurt me!" It's related to the assumption that the invisible hand of the market is ultimately benign. (Remember that the invisible hand of the market has destroyed entire civilizations--for instance the Easter Islanders whose wood-based economy worked perfectly well right up until the day that they chopped down the last tree.) But the knee-jerk reaction of people who are technophiles and market-evangelists is to assume that we can't control technology, only decide whether or not to adopt it. By such logic, what I am saying will sound like "stop progress!" But I am not advocating some back-to-the-land tree-hugging green-powered romanticism. I'm talking about power and control, and the right to exercise them over your own life.
The tech locks permit unbridled technological advancement for those who want that. They permit agrarian Utopianism for those who want to go back to the land--as well as any shade in between. There is no war between technocrats and Luddites in this world
Why should technology determine how we should all live? That's not even remotely democratic. In the free future described in Lady of Mazes, the right to control your own technological milieu is as basic as the right to vote. More basic, in fact, since... yes, I'll say it again: technology is legislation.