Do Our Values Shape Our Inventions, or Do Our Inventions Shape Us?

Imagining a futuristic world can help us tease out the relationship between culture and technology.


One of the best ways to think about the future is to create something to think with -- such as a machine, a scenario, or a story. There are people who do this for a living: futurists, for instance, and writers of speculative fiction (sf). The Canadian sf writer Karl Schroeder is both, and his 2005 novel Lady of Mazes is one of my favorite structures for thinking through the ways technology and culture build each other.

Lady of Mazes is set in a coronal, an enormous built ringworld, inside which civilizations flourish. Using a combination of neural implants and AI, inhabitants live in separate "manifolds," physically overlapping societies limned by their values and use of technology. Manifold boundaries are enforced by the use of "tech locks" that prevent inhabitants from using technology that doesn't line up with the social values of their particular manifolds. They even keep inhabitants from seeing incompatible societies that might share the same physical space.

Livia Kodaly, a professional singer, lives in a manifold called Westerhaven that is relatively high-tech and is dedicated to understanding other cultures. But, as a child, Livia suffered an incident her peers consider unspeakable: After an airship crash, she was exposed to a life without the augmented alternative reality of "inscape," without helpful agents and angels, without the company of virtual animas of her friends, alone in the physical world. This experience has both scarred her and helped her become a good diplomat, helped her learn how to travel between manifolds by suspending her own values, by holding deep respect for others' values. The neoanimist manifold called Raven overlaps Westerhaven and she is able to recalibrate her vision to see the forest world that occupies the same space as the bright city of libraries, duels, and ballrooms.

Everything changes when Livia's society, and the whole coronal, is attacked by agents of a mysterious force called 3340. Livia's friend Qiingi, from the Raven manifold, tries to understand the invaders, who are destroying the tech locks:

"I have been thinking about our conversation. I believe that the invaders think they are doing us a favor. They believe we are enslaved by illusion and that they are freeing us from the ropes of a dream."

"They seem to be primitives," agreed Livia."They don't know that reality is always mediated. They see that inscape is a filter between us and reality..."

"But they don't see that when you're outside the manifolds you're just living with a different set of filters," said Ellis and nodded.

And we are sent from there through a space-opera picaresque, and as Livia and her fellow refugees travel we can see the ways values literally mediate technology and vice versa. There is a literal adhocracy, where emergent factions spontaneously give rise to AI "Votes" to represent their interests. There is the absurd proliferation of personal inscapes, where there is no more consensus reality, no more public life, "only private life, ridiculously intensified." And there is the Book, a vast role-playing game from which unimaginable political changes emerge. There is a literal deus ex machina, another way of conceptualizing technological change. Livia is a guide whose travels challenge her and challenge our own sense of possible choices about how to live.

The tech locks, a working out of what "appropriate technology" might look like in a post-scarcity universe, are the key to the story. "Each technology equated to some human value or set of values, she saw. But on Earth, in the Archipelago and everywhere else, technologies came first, and values changed to accommodate them. Under the locks, values were the keys to access or shut away technologies." Lady of Mazes helps us approach this question: how can we use technology to help us build meaningful, true lives?

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Suzanne Fischer is a historian of science and technology. She serves as curator of technology at The Henry Ford.

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