Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ringworld, by Larry Niven: what happens when we forget how to do things?

I never know whether to put my feelings about the book first, so you don't fall asleep/lose interest during the plot summary, or to put it last, so you actually know what I'm talking about....

For me, this was an tremendously entertaining book, well written, full of humour, plot, twists, turns, mystery, danger, and sciency stuff.

It also reveals a potentially devastating trend in human behavior. As long as the lights come on when we flip the switch, we don't care how it does it. As technology advances, the intellectual elite become fewer and fewer, because we need fewer and fewer people to program the computers that make our technology. Extrapolate a few years and the computers program the computers that make our technology, and before you know it, we have amazing transportation, cool gadgets, and we have no idea how they actually do what they do. And if the intellectual elite disappear, or just fade away, it is just a matter of time before the food slot stops making the food, or the water filtration system no longer automatically does its thing, and while the factories still work, we just throw it away and buy a new one. But eventually, when the right piece breaks, and no one knows how to fix it, the chain reaction spirals the culture right back to stone tools.

This of course takes time, but the trend is already here.

On an Earth far in the future where "boosterspice" prolongs human life well beyond the 300 year mark, Louis Wu, human, is bored. With all the world connected by instantaneous travel, every room is right next door to the one you're in. And because of this, every room is exactly like the one you just came from. Earth culture/society/genetics have become so homogenized that it is impossible to see anything new.

Enter a two headed alien (called a puppeteer, for various reasons) with superior technology and a culture entirely devoted to minimizing risk, a genetically lucky human female(her parents, grandparents, and so on all won the right to reproduce by lottery, hence bred for extreme luck...) and a Kzin ( like a big orange panther/humanoid)ambassador, whose culture places such contempt on humanity that it would have wiped them out in a series of wars had not another superior alien race balanced the scales in favor of the humans.

Puppeteer tells them that all of life in the galaxy will be wiped out in twenty thousand years, and in order to escape they need what they can offer, but only if the motley crew goes on a space voyage to see what this ring around a star is. And if they do that, they get a super fast engine for their spacecraft and can escape the apocalypse of the galaxy.
So they all get on a ship and go hunting for the ring world, only to crash onto the surface of the ring, which is entirely too immense to wrap your head around. Or your understanding... ( its about a million times the surface of the earth, in a big ring, all of the surface facing the sun/star) And once they are on the surface, millions of miles away from anything, they have to figure out a way to get off. No problem right? I mean, a culture sufficiently advanced enough to make this ring should be able to give them some help getting home...

But whoever (humans of some sort, or not) built this gigantic ring world around a star made it able to support life, and then over time, apparently, all their technology stopped working.

Because no one remembers how to do anything. The engineers of the ring made it so stable, and so fail safe and idiot proof that the people living on it simply forget how things work. They just do.

Until they don't.

And then, just like the fall of the Roman empire, on a slightly larger scale, society reverts back to its most basic forms. Feudalism, Peasantry, Hunter/Gatherer, Priest/shaman/warrior leaders.

Do you know how a microwave oven works? Do you know how to design and manufacture a firearm? Could you build a fire without matches, a lighter, or other modern equipment? Where would your clothing come from if all the means for mass production ceased to function.

The late Arthur C Clarke, renowned British science fiction author (most famous for 2001:a space odyssey) formulated three laws, the third of which is "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".
This law contributed to the decline and fall of the ringworld society, simply because no one needed to know how to fix anything, because the technology was so advanced. But the down side is, no one knew how to fix anything, because the technology was so advanced.

So perhaps I will google how something works, or what a transistor is made of, or how bronze is made, so that when the machine stops, we can at least start in the bronze age.

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