Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writing Wednesday: Society Building


I live in a house that was built in 1920. One of the first things I had to do was build closets, because in 1920 they didn't have closets. Being curious I wondered why.

Before the 20th century people kept their few clothes in armoires, these had shelves and drawers to store the clothes. The clothes were laid flat, so it would be tough to organize more than a few clothes. Then in 1903 the world changed.

Albert J. Parkhouse arrived as usual at his workplace, the Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company in Jackson, Michigan, which specialized in making lampshade frames and other wire items. When he went to hang his hat and coat on the hooks provided for the workers, Parkhouse found all were in use.

Annoyed-and inspired-Parkhouse picked up a piece of wire, bent it into two large oblong hoops opposite each other, and twisted both ends at the center into a hook. Then he hung up his coat and went to work.

That simple invention increased the amount clothes that could be stored. Armoires gave way to Wardrobes that had both drawers and hooks for clothes hangers. Someone took the idea of a clothesline and put it into the wardrobe and shirts and coats could be easily sorted.

With the ability to store more than a few clothes people stopped the practice of wearing the same clothes for a month before washing them. With so much more clothes hand washing became a chore so in 1908 the washing machine was made.

Wardrobes became bigger and more elaborate after WWII architects started building them in to home plans.

This simple act of annoyance changed the world we live in forever.

How does all this effect writing?

In SFF it a very important part. As you build your physical world you have to think about how it will effect the people living in that world.

One of the least thought out society reacting to technology is the STAR TREK next generation universe. Two pieces of technology would make that society unrecognizable to us. The Replicator and the Holodeck.

The Replicator would completely transform society. If you had everything you wanted at your fingertips how would the economy work. There are only two ways it could go:

One way would be a slave economy, where all money flowed to the owners of the energy sources that powered the replicators. The masses would have to provide services to these masters of the world to get a little energy to power their replicators. A very small middle class would make some money by selling designs for products to be replicated, but piracy would create a police state where every time you designed something of your own it would have to be checked against existing designs.

Judges would spend all their time checking how close a knockoff is to the original. For instance what if you took one of Gordon Ramsey's meals and used three quarters of a tablespoon of salt instead of a full tablespoon of salt? Would that be an original creation that you could sell for a tenth of the price?

Trying to use a capitalist model on a world with replicators would be a disaster.

So Gene Roddenberry pictured a world without money. Some have called this Socialism, and it is very close to Marxist Socialism taken one step farther. The consumers literally control the means of production.

With no incentive to work, many simply wouldn't. However, working is something that people do enjoy. Some of the nicest neighborhoods are the ones with a lot of retired people. You see flowerbeds that took a lot of work, carefully crafted landscaping, unique fences. These things don't give the owners much material gain, but they get the satisfaction of a job well done.

So the elite would go into Starfleet and the next tier would go into the Civil Corp of Engineers. There would be a huge art movement. But there would also be the dregs of society, a large percentage of the people would simply give up. People who want to do meaningful work but everything is provided for them and they aren't creative enough to be in the engineering sector of the art sector. Star Trek never shows this class of citizens.

Needless to say I absolutely hated the episodes that took place on Earth, as this problem was never directly addressed.

The societal problems of replicators could be addressed and you could build a nice society taking all that into consideration. The Star Trek technology that the writers thought would be a good idea but never (well, barely) addressed was the Holodeck.


You have the ability to create a world distinguishable from the real world. Sounds great, but what happens when the real world sucks.

You tried like crazy to get into Starfleet, and failed out. You wonder what would happen if you didn't. Jump in the Holodeck and you're no longer a failure. Time to come out and study, why you don't need the real world.

The object of your affection dumps you, hop in the Holodeck where they love you.

A family member dies, no problem they will live forever in the Holodeck.

The Holodeck does address the problem of what to do with the people who give up on wanting to do meaningful work but it would hit all parts of society.

I haven't met anyone whose life was so wonderful that there was never a time that they wanted to give up. It's the biggest part of being human that during life there will be many times that you're knocked down, it is the struggle to recover that makes you who you are. With the Holodeck it would be too easy just to stop struggling and give up. Soon all of society would retreat into Holodecks and never come out again. It would be the last invention humans ever made.


So while you are building your world, try to imagine what anything you add to your world would do to your society. A small thing like the coat hanger can change the world profoundly. A huge fictional invention like the Holodeck might seem like a cool idea, but when you look at how it would impact society it soon becomes a disaster.


  1. I've never thought the holodeck made any sense. As for replicators, I'm with Heinlein: TANSTAAFL.

    Small things can have profound impacts. I'm afraid a lot of fantasy and science fiction is too blase about the impacts of their "cool" ideas.

  2. It wasn't the hanger, but the sewing machine that made it possible for people to own lots of clothes. Clothing could be made in 1/10th of the time, so it became far cheaper to own more than two outfits (one for every day, one for church and special occasions).

    Only the very wealthy could own multiple outfits until that time.

  3. The sewing machine is an other invention that totally changed the world. Not only could they own more than two outfits, they didn't have to be made to last forever. They could sacrifice a little durability for style and comfort.