Imagining Alternative Presents: On Alternative History and the Politics of Technology

Earlier this year, Amazon’s streaming service released a pilot for a TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel. The Man in the High Castle. It takes place during the 1960s after an Axis victory in the Second World War, and the subsequent occupation of most of the United States by the Germans and Japanese. You can watch the pilot for free, and you should, because it’s amazing

By now, the movie-going, book-reading, video-game-playing public is pretty familiar with alternative history. Over the last few years, it has gone from being a niche genre just a few years ago, limited to obscure web forums and a few niche novelists like Harry Turtledove, to something that is commonly featured in mainstream pop culture. Video games, as a medium, are a bit ahead of the curve, and have been using alternative histories as settings for players to shoot up for some time now. There are even strategy games which allow players to shape their own alternative history through the game pla;. The Civilization and Total War series, to take two examples, are incredibly detailed global history simulators.

I think that this is a good trend. It’s useful, for a number of reasons, to have an understanding and a discussion about what might have been. Of course you can’t predict exactly what a Nazified America or a Europe conquered by Ögedei Khan might have looked like, but that’s besides the point. The point, as stated by Noam Chomsky, is that “there is nothing inevitable in history“. It is a politically salient fact that things could have turned out differently. We need to understand that many of the problems we currently experience can be traced back to specific decisions in the past, rather than in the inevitable unfolding of a pre-ordained modern world. Furthermore, many of the good things we enjoy today were the result of very concerted efforts, or just lucky occurrences, in the past. If we are aware of this, then we are more motivated to try and bring about a better future. Inevitability breeds complacency.

You might wonder why I’m going on about this on a technology blog. The reason is this: For all its popularity and all its appeal, the alternative history genre is pretty terrible when it comes to questions of technology. Generally, alternative histories simply have slightly different versions of the same technologies that existed in that time and place in our own timeline. In the pilot of The Man in the High Castle, for example, a jet airliner looking distinctively like the Concorde ferries a Nazi delegation from occupied New York to meet with their counterparts in Japanese-occupied San Francisco. In reality, the development of such planes was far from inevitable, and the first jet airliners in the late 1940s were in fact the outcome of a very specific commercial struggle between the United Kingdom and the United States. Would the Nazis have developed their own high-speed civilian jetliners had they won the war? Maybe. But there is no reason to assume it. The uses of jet aircraft in that timeline could have turned out completely differently from what we now take for-granted.

Strategy video games make this technological determinism more explicit. through the well-known game mechanic of the “Technology tree”. For those who do not play strategy games, a technology tree is a set of branching paths which link up different technologies in a series of consequential relationships. In Civilization V, for example, researching steam power and dynamite allows you to develop the first railroads. Railroads, in turn, are prerequisites for research on combustion. The Total War series, Europa Universalis, and other similar strategy games use the same approach.

An example of a tech tree from Civilization V. From civfanatics.com.

There is some wiggle room in these tech trees. Generally the player gets to choose which technology to research next; a choice that has strategic consequences. But, as pointed out by video game scholar Turr Ghys, there are no genuinely branching paths. Choosing to research ironclads rather than fertilizer might influence your strategy, but ultimately you or somebody else on the map will wind up researching fertilizer, and you will inevitably be using chemical fertilizers that were in fact very historically contingent in the real world. The implicit message that you can rewrite the political and military history of a continent or the entire world to your heart’s content, but technologies are set in stone.

I think that this is a big gaping hole in the project of alternative history, because it suggests that technological development follows an inevitable path, when in fact it is political and subject to all the same struggles and uncertainties of any other element of society. Technological determinism implies that the environmental problems caused by, and power relations embodied in, our current set of technologies were simply an inevitable outgrowth of history. This undermines the sense that our technological systems are amenable to change, which in turn makes people less likely to try and change them. That’s bad.

The first thing I woudl like to see, then, is more variation in the technology we see in alternative histories in pop culture. What if a German victory in the First World War led to a global transport system based primarily on airships? What if worker movements had curtailed the development of containerisation, fundamentally changing the way goods are moved today? What if the Luddites had won, and brought in a completely different set of social, economic, and political relations around production technology? What if there had been no First World War, which gave cars a major boost while undermining competing technologies such as the railroads?

In the casse of video games. I would like to see a a reinvention of the technology tree. Suppose you are given the choice at one point between researching heavier-than-air aircraft or airships, and at another point you rare given the choice between a transportation system based on railways or highways? Each of these choices would open up a completely different set of capabilities and future technologies to research, and, if you were the first player to reach that junction in the tech tree, your choice would partially determine the choice of other players. (No nation is an island, technologically speaking, so perhaps they would incur a penalty for choosing a different branch on the tech tree than you did.)

You’d have to ask people like my friend Jedrzej if such a game would be feasible and if it would be fun. Video games, however, are a legitimate art form, and so, like TV shows and Philip K. Dick novels, they can do more than merely entertain us. Entertainment is political, and technology is political, and the past and future are both political. So entertainment about the past and future is…you get the idea. From that perspective, I think it’s clear that if we are to foster an understanding of the reality that technology is a political act, we should promote stories about the capacity to act differently. That means games, TV shows, movies, books, and all other forms of entertainment that show technology as a series of forks in the road, and that which one we choose is far from pre-tetermined.

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