How I Worldbuild With Technology
A common approach to worldbuilding technology is to look at the way history believes our own technology has progressed, and use that as a template to simply copy, selecting a moment in history and using that to determine the technology level of society. That works well if you intentionally intend to mimic our own world and civilizations, but what if you don't? What if you're building a new world, with history and culture and natural laws much different than our own? As an engineer, I love leaning into concepts of technology and how it impacts - and has been impacted by - the world around us. Technology is at the heart of everything we do. Scientific advancements, cultural beliefs and practices, available resources, and the laws of physics, mathematics, and the universe itself determine not only what's possible, but also what has been discovered to be possible, and what has been forbidden. I'd like to walk you through a couple of my own thoughts regarding technology, and the way I view them in my worldbuilding. As with most things when writing, there are few rules here about what should or should not be done, provided your technology supports your setting and the stories you intend to tell within it. Feel free to use what sparks your interest, and ignore the rest.
Technology BasicsFirst, I'd like to mention a few simple concepts, to ensure we're on the same page. Namely, what is technology? And what rules must it follow?
What is Technology?We like to think of technology as the latest shiny electronic gadget, but there's so much more to it than that. Technology has been a major driver of human civilization, all the way back to the discovery of fire, or the invention of the wheel. The dictionary lists many different definitions of the term technology, and when I use that word here, I mean all of them.
- a : the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area
b : a capability given by the practical application of knowledge
- a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge new technologies for information storage
- the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor
Rules of TechnologyI mentioned there are "few rules" when worldbuilding technology. Honestly, everything can be boiled down to a single rule:
Technology should feel believable to those exploring your world.That's it. That's the rule. You want technology that compliments your worldbuilding and helps pull in your reader, player, or whoever else you consider the audience for your worldbuilding. Don't do anything that would push them out of your world, and you're all set. But how do you do that? Well, that's the fun part.
My Technology ChecklistI like to think about my technology and its impact in layers, like a cake. Each layer supports the one above, while also adding depth and really allowing your worldbuilding to shine. Entire settings can be built with technology as the driving foundation, with histories and cultures shaped by the technology available. It's certainly believable. Our own societies are very much tech-driven. You wouldn't be reading my words right now without the internet, after all. Building up technology in this way is easier when you consider each aspect of your world in a certain order, so while you're welcome to start wherever you'd like, here's the rules I use when I'm starting from scratch. You'll notice that they fall into two categories: external factors based on how the world works, and internal factors centered around how your people view themselves and the world. I'll dig into each one of these separately, below.
- Conform to - and take advantage of - the natural laws of the setting.
- Retain consistency, in how and why it works, and also its limitations.
- Compliment the cultural beliefs, interests, and morals of the societies that use them.
- Vary by region or organization, adjusting (even if only slightly) to different cultures and resource availability.
- Have a believable explanation for when any of the above rules are violated.
External Influences on TechnologyThe same forces that keep the universe turning also determine what is and is not possible within a setting. These lay the foundations for technology, by determining not only what is possible, but also what limits are imposed upon those possibilities. These include the facts of technology that will not change with time, as well as the factors impacted by the physical features of the world now - which can and will change with time.
Natural LawsThis is fairly straightforward, and you've likely already been following this thought even if you haven't thought about it. This lays the foundation for the immutable laws of the universe, and why things work the way they do. The people of your world don't necessarily need to understand these laws, or even realize they're there, but they do follow them nonetheless.
What are the natural laws and features of your setting? How do they differ from ours? How do those differences impact your setting?If your planet is a different size or density than ours, the gravity will be different. This will also impact the creatures living there, and make certain tasks or skills - like movement - easier or harder. If your setting is mostly water, or lacks ready access to water, that will not only impact your cultures but also the way they approach water-related technologies. People invent what they need, within the limitations of what's possible. This sets the foundation of what technology can do, and what people will want it to do.
Does your setting have magic? If yes, how accessible is it? Who has access?As a society, people are lazy. We tend to do things whichever way is fastest, cheapest, and most convenient. Technology is no different. Those that are easy to use and cheap to obtain will triumph over those expensive and complicated, often even when the latter option is arguably more effective, or better for the environment, or otherwise superior in some significant but specific way. If magic is resource intensive, or illegal, or expensive to learn or use, then more traditional means will retain their prominence. The more accessible the magic, the more central to technology it becomes.
How available are the resources required to make or maintain the technology?As I mentioned with magic, availability is king when developing technology. If a resource is expensive or otherwise difficult to obtain, but integral to either the creation or the usage of a technology, that will severely impact the prevalence of that technology, as well as the priorities of your setting's people when developing their technologies. There will always be unique fringe tech available to those with abundant resources to push those limits, of course. In our world this often equates to the priorities of the government, especially the military, and also to the wealthy. Often a more streamlined version of that technology will eventually make its way to the masses, once the constraints are addressed and reduced, but the cutting edge of tech belongs to those who can afford it.
ConsistencyIn order for a setting's technology to remain believable, the foundation needs to remain consistent. The device that worked one way yesterday should work the same way in the same conditions today. That doesn't mean a technology and its application needs to be the same exact thing everywhere and all the time, but it does mean that it has to feel like the same thing with the same rules. That said, there are still fun ways to play with this one. Just because a technology is consistent with its capabilities and limitations does not mean that it needs to appear that way to the inhabitants of the world. To use a simple example, while the rotation of the earth ensures our sun always appears to rise in the east and set in the west, every day the length of our available sunlight changes. Additionally, occasionally we'll have a solar eclipse, where the moon will temporarily block the light from the sun at a certain part of the world. We now know the science behind why this happens, and can easily predict when and where and how long each eclipse will occur, but to those unfamiliar with the orbits of our earth and moon these would be terrifying and unpredictable events breaking the consistent behavior of the sun. We don't have to understand everything about how a technology works in order to use it - or to invent it! We just need to know enough to get it working. As long as the way it works - or doesn't work - feels consistent and believable to your audience, you're all set. Even if the population of your world thinks it's finicky and unreliable.
Internal Influences on TechnologyTime changes us. The relentless march of history has seen many civilizations rise and fall, while our present technology and access to resources and each other leaves an indelible mark on how we live and even think as a society. These internal influences are more volatile than external forces, constantly shifting and reprioritizing not only our needs but also our interests.
Cultural InfluenceWe shape - and are shaped by - the technology we have available to us, and the more advanced our technology the more volatile its development becomes. The cultures of your setting will have a large impact on the prioritization of technological advancements.
What technologies are encouraged? Which are controversial, or even forbidden?If a society reveres certain fields, but ignores others, their technology will reflect this. For example, imagine a culture where doctors are highly valued, but scientists are not. What impact would this have on their medicine? A society who wishes to minimize their environmental impact will develop very differently than one seeking to maximize their profits. A thriving country which has outlawed buildings over three stories tall to ensure their leader's four-story castle remains the tallest in the land will have much different engineering and architectural practices than one writing laws in the belief literal demons live underground.
Which are easier to research? What has the most funding? The most pressing need?This also ties into the earlier prompt about available resources. People prefer to follow their interests, but will adjust based upon the options available to them. Heavily-funded areas of research will naturally have more advancements than less popular ones with fewer opportunities available.
An Important Note: Interest Versus Difficulty and FeasibilityIt's important to keep in mind the difficulty and even feasibility of each area of research. Difficult technical questions will obviously take longer to answer than easy ones. A large amount of funding has been poured into the field of quantum computing, for example, with little practical progress to show for it due to the challenges inherent in the problem. Many experts believe quantum computing will never be solved, at least not in an economically viable and useful manner. Others insist it's still worthwhile, either in the belief we will eventually develop a viable quantum computer, or in pursuit of the things we'll learn along the way while attempting to create one. Who's right? In the case of quantum computing, we may never know in our lifetime - but you don't have that same limitation in your constructed world. You get to decide the answer. Remember that not all problems have solutions, and of those that do, sometimes they take a really long time, no matter how much attention and energy is poured into the matter. Difficult and impossible problems can be a fun addition to worldbuilding. And sometimes interesting discoveries are made along the way.
Impacts of Technology on CultureAs with many things, the pendulum of technology swings both ways. While culture helps determine the directions taken by technology, that same technology will also change those cultures that use them. People will spend more time indoors if it's more comfortable. Ease of travel will increase access to goods and to information and other cultures, thereby shifting priorities and their understanding of the world. Access to radio, television, and the internet in today's has had a notable impact on regional accents, particularly among younger generations. The internet has also led to a rapid flow of ideas of all varieties, allowing us to find likeminded individuals across the globe and reducing the societal pressures to conform to local expectations. Our advanced medical knowledge has increased our lifespans, which has in turn shifted the needs of medicine, as well as opening up a new market in the form of a healthier and more active elderly population. As much as we change technology, it also changes us.
VariationsPeople are not all the same. Neither are cultures and societies. Interests, resources, and even geography play a huge impact on one group's priorities when compared to another, and this in turn will alter what technologies they have available to them. As a simple example, an insular culture in the middle of the forest will have ready access to wood, and also likely leather, whereas metal is likely much rarer. In reaction to this, they'd likely rely more heavily on wood and leather than metal, and this would be reflected in their everyday lives - including their local technology. Even their music would take on a different sound, since their instruments - and yes, the development of musical instruments counts as technology - would most likely rely on wood, guts, and animal skins - and therefore lean heavily toward percussion, strings, and woodwinds. Geographic differences would also push some cultures to invent technologies far in advance of other areas, simply because they had easier access to the necessary materials, or a greater requirement to invent the technology for their own comfort or survival. Economic and cultural classes would also have an impact here. The most obvious example is who can afford a technology, but there are other reasons a particular group may or may not have access to a particular tech. Maybe it's simply an age limit, stating when an individual may have a license to use or own a particular device. If your setting has multiple species, some may require a specific technology to interact with society, while others might have an adverse physical reaction to it. Perhaps a technology is forbidden except among an elite group of religious. Or perhaps it is encouraged among the populace but forbidden to the elite. All these will have an effect. Depending upon the interconnectedness of your world, the size of these differences will vary, but they'll always be present. Giving your audience even a glimpse of this will make the world feel larger, and more real, even if you only spent a small effort on the thought.
Breaking the RulesAs with all rules, any of the guidelines above can be broken - but the way they break has to make sense to your audience, or you'll lose them.
- Natural Laws - If a technology is behaving in an unexpected way, is anyone trying to figure out why? Did anything happen that might explain the sudden change?
- Consistency - Why did something that always worked one way suddenly start working a different way? Or stop working altogether? (For example, my discussion on a solar eclipse).
- Cultural Influence - If a technology is at odds with the culture that uses it, how could that have happened? Did they discover this technology rather than developing it themselves? Was there a major cultural shift recently and the tech hasn't adjusted yet? Are there factions within the culture?
- Variations - If everything is the same everywhere, how did that happen? Is there some unseen force at work? Or maybe this is merely a façade, with the true cultures hiding beneath the surface?