Why are fictional inventors anti-trade?

In stories, those who invent and make powerful technologies frequently seek to gain power via the technology they make.

In reality, those who invent and make powerful technologies seek to gain power solely through selling their technologies and getting status.

Fictional artists do not keep their paintings, to go out provoking and moving people themselves. Fictional chefs usually prefer trade to eating it all themselves.

Why the difference?

How much does this bias our expectations for the social outcomes, especially risks, of future technologies?

11 responses to “Why are fictional inventors anti-trade?

  1. I don’t read much science fiction, I’m afraid. Could you give some representative examples?

  2. The essence of fictional plots, but not ordinary life, is: conflict. What kind of story would that be if people just made stuff others wanted, pocketed the money, and went home and watched a movie or made love?

  3. “In reality, those who invent and make powerful technologies seek to gain power solely through selling their technologies and getting status.”

    I don’t think so. What about all the technologies which have been developed for military purposes? What about all the inventors who hoped to transform the world in some way?

  4. “In stories, those who invent and make powerful technologies frequently seek to gain power via the technology they make.”

    Let’s face it, my doomsday gun is far better put to use plotting humanity’s enslavement than it is being freely traded

  5. Agreed with Mitchell here. Military development plays a much larger role in the history of technology than in that of painting (I won’t say art, there was a time when military leaders explicitly expected to win their battles because of superior inspirational ballads and prayers to a god that they acknowledged their opponents to also pray to).

  6. As usual, Leo Szilard is the case in point.

  7. I thought it was more common for actual inventors to not be as interested in trade, but to have a partner come along that sees the profit value and the original inventor often sells the invention at an enormous loss in a poorly-constructed deal. But I could be wrong.

  8. Nathan Helm-Burger

    Often, in books I’ve read, artists are coincidentally artists. Their art making has little to do with moving the plot along, and more to do with illuminating facets of their character. This is sometimes the case for scientists in books, but not usually in science fiction where the science is an integral part of the plot (world changing). Scientists who just sell their science (usually by working at a university or for a corporation), do pop up at times in science fiction, but usually as side characters (so far as I’ve seen) since they aren’t the deliberate-world-changers in the story.
    How about a romance novel with a nerdy scientist woman being wooed by some guy. Her work might not be mentioned at all beyond the necessary minimum to develop her ‘nerdy’ character trait.

  9. The largest part would seem to be the need for conflict to drive a plot. The other thing is that fictional inventors make way bigger leaps in capability than real inventors. If real inventors made devices that could give then ability to take over the world, some of them would, rather than selling that capability.

  10. > In stories, those who invent and make powerful technologies frequently seek to gain power via the technology they make.

    How’s this: in fiction, inventors come powerful and perfectly formed, even when they malfunction for plot purposes. If a scientist invents immortality, he does so in his spare time and it works flawlessly and he doesn’t need to spend 40 years in phase IV human trials. Ditto for weapons, mind-reading, etc.

    In such a situation, why wouldn’t he act such a way? And besides being not obviously a bad idea, it is more interesting.

    In real life, of course, things take forever, lots of people know about it, there are countless details to refine and perfect, bureaucracy, investors and bosses, and your invention is only a 5% improvement on the state of the art in one microscopic subfield of a subfield and require importing some rare ore contaminated with blood-iron from the killing fields of Africa, and won’t be put to good use for decades.

    So you can’t conquer the world and even if you could, you wouldn’t wreck the entire infrastructure shipping the ore to you so you could actually use it (even if you were the kind of person who would use it, although in actuality, it’s much like becoming a black belt: any scientist who could invent and perfect something as effective as the atom bomb would not be the sort of person who would then use it).

  11. I had two comments to make about exceptions to your interesting post.
    The first, about military inventions, was already made by Mitchell. But his point doesn’t negate yours: most inventions in both fiction and reality aren’t made by military scientists or contractors.
    The second exception that occured to me is apropos to our times: financial algorithms. Quite often they’re proprietory and used t to “gain power via the technology they make”, rather than “solely through selling their technologies and getting status”.

Comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s