In speculative fiction, there seem to be two very commonly used levels of technology - the medieval fantasy level of technology that writes like a renaissance fair, and the vague, super-futuristic sci-fi level of technology where flying cars exist and everything’s a utopia (or dystopia). I don’t see much in between, and often, stories tend to be really vague about their world’s level of technology. It’s not necessary to info-dump detail about the technology, but it’s good information to have, especially as a backbone for your story. You don’t want to be writing in a void, or mention pieces of technology that wouldn’t make sense in your current setting. As with other worldbuilding aspects, your story will be better if you know what you’re talking about
So, what is technology? Technology, at its essence, is the phenomenon of humans using tools and resources to improve quality of life. Everything that could be considered “man-made” is technology, even something simple like the wheel. The wheel is just very old, basic technology. So when you think about technology for your world, think about what makes your society run.
Here are some areas of technology you should consider, in no particular order:
- How does this world get their energy? Fossil fuels? Hydropower? Solar power? Biofuels? Wind power? Nuclear? A society that runs on a certain type of fuel probably does so because that resource is abundant there, so keep that in mind.
- How much can they power with their current energy level? You might want to look up the efficiency of their power source, for this one (for instance, burning some fuels provides a lot more energy than others).
- How dangerous is their energy source, and what are its costs/benefits for society?
- What’s the technology level required for this particular energy source? A medieval-level fantasy is not going to have the tech for solar power, unless you’ve figured out some way to explain it with magic.
- Is their power source renewable or non-renewable? If it’s non-renewable, like fossil fuels, they’re bound to run out sometime.
- Does this power source produce waste, and if it does, where does it get stored (i.e. nuclear and fossil fuel energy)?
- How advanced is this society’s medical technology, and why? Again, keep this one realistic. A society that hasn’t developed electricity yet, for instance, is not going to have MRI machines.
- How well can they control and cure diseases (such as the use of vaccines, medicines, etc)? The less medical technology they have, the more widespread disease will be.
- Do people trust the medical techniques that are commonly used, and why? (this calls anti-vaccine people to mind, who use their own unscientific ‘research’ and distrust peer-reviewed actual scientific studies) Does society have a negative intent with these medical techniques, or is it just people being paranoid?
- How advanced is their medicine? Does it cause a lot of adverse side effects? Is it even effective at all (think of herbal remedies and such that may not actually work)?
- What’s used for medicine? Do they used plants themselves? Synthesized chemicals? Pills? Liquids?
- How expensive is medical care? Do most people have access to it?
- How safe is medical technology? Again with this one, the more technology exists, the safer medical procedures are likely to be.
- What technology does this society use to farm/gather/produce food? Same with water.
- Do they rely on agriculture? If so, what plants do they grow? (hint: to survive, humans need carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. So societies usually grow a carbohydrate source [a cereal grain], a protein/fat source [animals or legume plants], and vitamin and mineral sources [fruits and vegetables].)
- How hard is it to produce food in that area? Flat areas with fertile soils tend to be the best for growing most things. Look up things that are grown in the kind of geography your society has.
- Where does the water come from? Are they near a lake? A river? An aquifer (an underground source of water)? Do they distill salt water from the sea? How close is this water supply to running out (for instance, where I live, the aquifer will eventually run out)?
- How polluted is the water? Is it safe to drink? What lives in it? How do they clean it?
- What do people use for transportation? Cars? Trains? Horses/other four-legged hooved things? Motorcycles? Trucks? Carriages? Look up what your particular transportation method requires in terms of energy/electricity, and make sure it makes sense with your technology level. Societies also generally utilize more than one kind of transporation, especially in cities.
- How is their public transportation? The more crowded/compact the area, the more likely public transportation is going to be widely used. Rural, spaced-out areas tend to depend on cars, trucks, and occasionally long-distance trains.
- How is their transportation powered? Most things run on fossil fuels these days, but there are electric cars, trains that are powered by electromagnets, etc. The first trains that developed came around before electricity and ran on steam power.
- How do people access their information? Does the internet or something like it exist? Other ways of sharing information include books, phones, radio, word of mouth, songs, etc.
- How easy is it to learn about things? The lower the level of technology, the harder it is for everyone to access information (for instance, the internet makes this very easy).
- How accurate is the information people are able to access? Since the rise of the internet, a lot of complete nonsense is very easy to find via a google search. People also might only be exposed to biased propaganda in their media, and that might be the only thing they know.
- How does society view truth? Do they take the things they know as absolute dogma, or do they constantly question things and try to learn more?
- How do people communicate? By mail? Phone? Fax? Radio? Telegraph? Internet? In person?
- How fast is communication? This depends on the technology in question (obviously the Pony Express is not going to be as quick as a phone). Also, if an area is more spaced out, it will be more difficult for them to establish communications before electricity is invented.
- How private are communications? Does the government listen in? Do other people? Who are those people? Can the communications technology be easily hacked? Are there ways for people to protect themselves?
- What kind of technology exists for people to have fun with? Things like amusement parks, hobbies, etc.
- What do people do for fun? Obviously, the lower the technology, the simpler it will be.
- Is investing in recreation technology a big part of the economy (in most countries, it definitely is. People like to be entertained)?
- How dangerous is the technology? A thrill ride built in 2013 is likely to be safer than one built fifty years ago.
- What are some of the more dangerous/stupid things people do for fun?
And here are some other, miscellaneous things about technology that you should also consider:
Safety Level of Technology
- It’s not just manufacturing technology that can be dangerous - all technology carries some level of danger for both the people who work with it up close, and sometimes, the people who use it.
- What short-term dangerous effects does this technology have? What about long-term? Do they affect people who work with them directly, or do they also affect the environment in general?
Access to Technology
- How easy is it to access the technologies in question? Richer people usually have access to better technology, and there can be a large disparity between classes.
- How easy is it to use these technologies? Can just anyone use them, or do you need to be trained?
- Who is allowed to access which technologies? For instance, something more dangerous will probably have a restricted set of people working with it.
Speed of Technological Development
- How fast is technology developing? Certain advancements (steam, electricity, the internet, etc.) have resulted in exponential technological growth.
- Has anyone tried to stop technological growth? If so, why?
- Is it going too fast, or too slow?
History of Technology
- What came before the technologies your society is currently using?
- How did people live back then, and how were they affected by the development of that technology?
- Were groups of people disenfranchised as technology developed?
- Are working conditions better or worse than they were in past years?
This is just a starting point - there are a lot of things to think about when it comes to technology, and it’s a lot more complicated than it initially seems! I hope this helps, though, and best of luck!