Novel technologies, either alternative versions or futuristic inventions, can help both define a world and influence it in many ways. As a worldbuilder, determining what technology a world has will depend on the era that world is set in as well as what other elements are present.
Most technology exists to solve a problem. When designing novel or alternative technologies, consider what problems exist in your world and how the people have attempted to solve them. Often, new technologies are simply better or different solutions to the same problems of the past. Consider the issue of long-distance communication. Being able to communicate over vast distances is a problem that has existed throughout history and solutions to this conundrum form an evolutionary timeline of sorts. Signal fires, smoke signals, massive horns or drums, runners, animal couriers, letters, radio transmissions, cell phones, emails – all of these are different solutions to this single problem. Throughout history, there have been certain central areas, like long-distance communication, which have repeatedly resulted in the generation of new technologies. Consideration of these central elements can yield fruit for any worldbuilder looking to develop something unique to their world. Below is a list of some of these central areas. Developing technologies in these arenas will have large effects in your world:
- PERSONAL TRANSPORTATION
- MASS TRANSPORTATION
- LONG-DISTANCE TRANSPORTATION
- PERSONAL COMMUNICATION DEVICES
- LONG-RANGE COMMUNICATION
- EXTREME ENVIRONMENTS
- ARMS & ARMOR
- PERSONAL ARMS & ARMOR
- MILITARY VEHICLES
- SIEGE WEAPONRY
- SCIENTIFIC INSTRUMENTATION
- TOOLS & MANUFACTURING
- PERSONAL TOOLS
- MASS MANUFACTURING
- ENERGY SYSTEMS & STORAGE
- FOOD PRODUCTION & STORAGE
- DATA TRANSFER & STORAGE
What unique problems exist in your world and what have the inhabitants done to either solve them or diminish their negative impact?
Generating era- or world-appropriate versions of modern technology is a technique commonly used in worldbuilding. Take for instance this alternative version of barbed wire using fictional world elements. This approach is exemplified in Hanna Barbara’s Flintstones, which took the technique to an extreme for comedic effect. While prehistoric automobiles may be too far-fetched for most worlds, more ‘realistic’ technologies can easily be created using this same method.
When using this method consider what elements are unique to your world that can be used to mimic a known technology.
Identifying trends in technological progression can also inspire new or alternative technologies. While certainly not as central an issue as long-distance communication, consider the progression of personal workspaces. During the 19th century, portable writing boxes were popular items. These were small, transportable desks that unfolded to reveal a workspace. They would also house writing utensils and other necessities for correspondence. Many of these boxes included hidden compartments. In the present era we have a different version of this technology: the personal laptop.
Consider the impact of any new technology you introduce into your world. This may result in disruption to society, it may result in the generation of new technologies or the abolishment of older ones, or it may result in something else entirely.
New technologies may impact interpersonal dynamics, for either the better or the worse. Think on whether any new technology you create will change how people interact with one another and any potential downstream changes that will cause.
While cost, availability, prevalence are immediate things to consider with a technology, also consider the broader changes to an economy a new technology may impart. Are manufacturing, resource management, and supply chains impacted?
With the onset of many new technologies there comes a period of flux. Consider the case of new mechanical textile equipment introduced in the early 1800s. This technology destroyed the livelihoods of many textile workers, and in turn generated the formation of the Luddites – a group of disillusioned workers who would break into factories to destroy equipment.
Warfare If a technology can be used for warfare, chances are it will be adapted for that purpose (if it wasn’t designed specifically for that reason). Consider what use a technology would have on the offensive or defensive capabilities of a soldier or army. How does it impact battle strategy? If the technology confers an advantage, have rivals developed a method or new technology to mitigate that advantage?
Where are the resources gathered to create your new technology?
Does your world have a version of the Luddites?
Technologies are never generated in their optimal form. There are prototypes, there are early versions, there is a progression in form and function as the invention is optimized. Consider if your new technology is in its infancy and is still being developed (perhaps there are ‘bugs’ to work out) or if there is already a long line of previous versions out within the world.
Technology trees can be a great tool to help you organize and visualize the progression of inventions in your world. They can also spur creative thought when thinking about how one technology may give rise to something else.