The emergence of new technologies and their effect on the way that society works is perhaps the most obvious marker of speculative fiction – but what if this technology isn’t available to all of us?
Looking into the way that technology works in the stock markets gives us a good example of this; when only the big players have access to the most effective means, can small players catch up? Financial journalist Michael Lewis claims in his latest book that high frequency trading, where sophisticated automated computer programs analyse the markets and buy or sell shares in fractions of a second, rigs the system in favour of the larger traders. With more money to invest in these systems, they simply leave the smaller players behind by buying and selling before human traders have a chance to react, pushing prices up or down as a result.
So what can we take from this to inform our fictional world? The most obvious is a cascade of advantages. If one advantage leads to a larger advantage, which in turn leads to a larger advantage, there is virtually no hope of someone starting without that initial advantage ever being able to catch up or compete. Perhaps one group of people began with a relatively insignificant magical ability, but through this ability they were able to gain further abilities, and so on.
Example: The highest tier of wizards, chosen due to their ability to defeat other wizards in single combat, are allowed access to greater magics due to their status. According to guild law, lower wizards can win advancement by challenging the current members of the highest tier – but because they lack the same access to more potent spells and secret lore, lower wizards have no hope of victory. How might this distort how talented and ambitious lower wizards view their order?
This also shows up the difference between “formal” and “substantive” social mobility and equality of opportunity; while your fictional world might have no legal, physical or societal barriers to how successful a person from a particular background (whether financial, racial, gender-based etc.) can be, the same doesn’t necessarily hold true in practice. Perhaps (as here) an expensive technology allows the wealthy to buy an unfair advantage in what might legally be a fair contest.
Example: Two candidates are engaged in debate for political office. The wealthier one has access to a computer system which secretly supplies her with information about contradictions in her opponent’s argument, the latest relevant figures, news articles and relevant examples, etc. throughout the debate, allowing her to appear more intelligent and informed on all issues than her opponent who cannot afford access to the same technology. How might this affect a legally ‘fair’ electoral campaign?
What other issues might we find with these types of technologies? How might they influence our fictional worlds?