Monday, July 14, 2008

High-Tech Fishing

I write fiction about a world of high-tech fishing. Sometimes readers don't accept the combination. I should laugh. The word "tech" originally meant "fabric," "weaving," or "net." So what could be higher tech than catching fish in synthetic fabric nets using sonar, GPS, and a network of satellites and navigational beacons? Everything about fishing is "tech," but readers still don’t believe me. And that brings up the issue of criteria. How does a person distinguish high-tech from low-tech? Advanced from primitive?

I had fun for a while asking people for definitions. Most hadn't thought about it. They would say that technology is things like cell phones and computers. So I asked, "Which is higher tech? A cell-phone or a steam locomotive?" They'd say, "Cell-phone of course. It was invented later."

What if the cell phone had been invented before the steam locomotive? Would it be higher-tech? If I had a PhD in the history of technology, I probably could pull out some juicy examples to demonstrate that components of cell-phone technology were available before components of a steam locomotive. And we might get into arguing the dates of inventions, but that would be beside the point. I don't think date of invention a good measure of technological advancement. It suggests that we have some mighty plan that we are all trying achieve — every one of us striving for the same goal, a linear race to a god-given finish line. I'll come back to goals.

Okay maybe a cell phone is more complex than a steam locomotive, so it's higher tech. I'm no expert on steam locomotives, but I suspect that some of them are every bit as complex as a cell phone.

And is complexity a good measure of advancement? An early computer with all those vacuum tubes was complex to make and to operate. Someone figured out how to make it simpler by etching transistors on glass, and that made cheap, easily maintained computers possible. Now don't start arguing about whether a computer chip is glass or crystal. That's beside the point. Computers became small enough to drop on the bathroom floor while sitting on the potty and playing computer poker. Or small enough to drop in the potty. Now that is high-tech in low places.

How about effectiveness? "Which is more effective, a cell-phone or a steam locomotive?" That depends on what you want to do, right? A cell phone wins for sending a message. Sending packages, riding across the country and seeing the sights, the locomotive wins. I think effectiveness, a rather good criterion of high-tech, but that criterion brings in values and judgment, a subjective criterion. Maybe I should abandon the term "high-tech" because it suggests that complex technology is more advanced than simple technology.

Now, let's consider the technology of infant nutrition. Which is the most advanced: breastfeeding or infant formula? It seems obvious that infant formula is more advanced; it was invented later, it's more complex. But it's not all that clear because infant formula is generally not as effective as breastfeeding.

Suppose a woman is breastfeeding because she is a microbiologist, and she knows all about endocrines, the human immune system, and the nutritional and emotional needs of an infant. Based on this knowledge, she decided to breast feed. I believe her breastfeeding in this case is more advanced than the woman who feeds her child formula because she can't get time off work. That brings options and knowledge into the definition of high-tech.

What is the goal of the person using the technology and why does she choose to use that particular technology? But wait wait, maybe that woman breastfeeding isn't using technology at all. She is using knowledge, not actual equipment. Oh dear here we go, getting off the point. Does something have to have a physical presence to be technology? Are ideas technology? The patent office thinks so. And computer programs are technology with no physical presence.

Okay back to the point. What was the point?

To determine advancement of technology we must consider the goals, knowledge level, and motivation of the person(s) using the technology, along with the effectiveness of the technology in achieving those goals.

So what about my fictional high-tech fishing planet and reader reaction? I want to write a good story without slowing it down to explain all this.