“you pass butter.”

In very few words, Ursula K. Le Guin perfectly describes an issue with science fiction writing that I immediately resonated with. Why can’t science fiction take an interest in society, culture or identities? Lately, my favorite science fiction book has been Neuromancer by William Gibson. While there is the obvious romance with the technology in the cyperpunk world of Chiba City, we also have a deep understanding of how each character identifies themselves in a culture that’s determined by the technology which drives it. In the Netflix original Altered Carbon—based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan—we have a culture that can no longer trust the absolute of death, but rather commodifies the human body in a world where consciousness is easily transferred from body to body. What kind of discussion could that be without technology? It wouldn‘t even be a conversation worth having if one does not consider the socio-cultural implications.

Another point made by Le Guin has to do with qualifying what is “hi-tech” and what is not. Here, we come to the understanding that even the most obvious inventions—such as matches—can easily become hi-tech when considering if one knows how to make anything like it. I‘m reminded of designer Thomas Thwaites, who labored for nine months and crossed country lines to create a toaster from completely raw materials. In his effort to create something designed for so trivial a task as to lightly burn a piece of bread, it’s incredible how inaccessible the means to recreate such technology is to the average consumer.

Finally, I’m thinking about the Butter Robot created by Rick Sanchez in the show Rick and Morty. “What is my purpose?” it asks Rick. “You pass butter,” Rick replies. In this split second interaction, we see the creator of this hi-tech, intelligent robot affirm what we’re currently seeing in our culture today: our capacity to create technology is outpacing what we can even imagine it to do. This is where Le Guin’s closing statement is prescient: “I don’t know how to build and power a refrigerator, or program a computer, but I don’t know how to make a fishhook or a pair of shoes, either. I could learn. We all can learn. That’s the neat thing about technologies. They’re what we can learn to do.”