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Though not terribly common, there are occasionally questions where the querent asks either how to implement technology or whether or not their suggested implementation is viable, practical, feasible, believable, plausible, etc. Examples of this include one of my very first questions:

And, more recently...

Questions like these are easily defined by a phrase L.Dutch first used in a comment to his answer for my early question:

And if I had a more detailed description for the above, I would file it to a patent office, not to WorldBuilding

I've used a modified version of that phrase myself many times.

If someone could answer this question, they'd be running to the patent office, not posting it here.

The problem seems to be (and I could be wrong about this) that the querent doesn't understand the inherent limitations to asking us to either invent or validate a previously non-existent technology.

Question: I am seeking answers that help users understand the practical limits of this site. In this instance, the practical limit to questions that ask either how to build or implement a technological device or process, or whether or not a specific implementation is considered plausible. What advice and expectations can we give to the authors of such questions? What would keep such questions from getting closed? What makes them good or bad questions?

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a related observation rather than a solution, but I've noticed that some of the more real world based biotech/genetic engineering questions, like this one (worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/196873/…), wouldn't be out of place on SE.Bio or SE.Synbio (if it manages to get launched, area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/125068/synthetic-biology) given a bit of re-writing to focus on the technology rather than the world building. $\endgroup$ – Brad0440 Apr 12 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Brad0440 Your observation is "the other side of the coin." WB.se has long suffered the conundrum of many real-world questions being better and more sensibly asked on the other stacks. The Mods finally put together a consensus and decided real world questions are on-topic. I don't disagree with it at all, but it's what opens the window to this problem - asking a near-future real-world-question with the science-based or hard-science tags and expecting anything but a guess. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 12 at 22:36
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You want to ask us to help you invent some tech. We can do that! But you need to understand our limitations.

It's not uncommon for users to ask for help building technology on Worldbuilding.SE. But too many of the questions are challenged, argued over, and closed, because, I believe, the querent has an expectation that we cannot meet. The problem is expressed by an idea that's floated around for several years:

If someone could answer this question in the way that you want, they wouldn't post the answer here, they'd be running to the patent office.

To help you properly set your expectations (and, thereby, to better ask your question), allow me to explain briefly how this site operates.

We don't know how to define a poor question, but we know one when we see it

In 1964 case Jacobellis v. Ohio, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter uttered what has become a famous statement:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it....

Unlike pretty much every other Stack in the Stack Exchange galaxy, Worldbuilding is highly creative and imaginative — which means it's sometimes really hard to know when a question has crossed a line. It's beyond the scope of this answer to explain why the lines exist. I can only ask that you trust me that they do and must exist.

"Help me build my tech" questions are not intrinsically bad questions. In fact, they can be among the richest and most rewarding questions asked on the site — but how they are asked and what you expect are critically important because, unfortunately, "build my tech" questions sit on the "rule line." Here are the most common rules "build my tech" questions can cross.

1. We build worlds, not stories

  • Worldbuilding (on-topic) is the creation and consistent use of rules and systems governing and defining a fictional world of the querent's own creation wherein an infinite number of stories can be placed or told. A world can encompass something as small as a family unit and as large as whole universes and dimensions. Rules and systems can be modified and adopted by many world builders as they build their own worlds. The expression of a rule or system may be unique to the querent, but the rule or system itself can be used by anyone.

  • Storybuilding (off-topic) is the creation of plot, circumstances, character actions, and character choices. Storybuilding questions usually reflect writer's block or a lack of research on the writer's part. Storybuilding is frequently only applicable to the querent's project and has little or no use to anyone else.

Inventing technology falls into both worldbuilding and storybuilding because how the technology will be used is often a requirement for creating the technology. Engineers will understand what I mean. If you ask us to invent a knife, a thousand knives can be presented to you (and that wouldn't exhaust the design possibilities) — but only the design that fits your story's needs (the intended application) can be the correct design.

The following chart will help you understand what I mean. (You can click on all the images to see a larger version.)

enter image description here

To be fair, if I told you that reddish zone was an accurate reflection of the kinds of questions we'll answer (and not close) it would probably start a fight. But it's close enough for government work. You'll notice that the blue circle representing "help me build my tech" questions is not centered on the cross-hairs and part of it falls outside the reddish zone.

Advice: You can help us a lot by explaining how you will use your technology. What are its benefits and limitations in your story? What are the world rules that affect the tech? The more you can explain why it's important to build the tech the simpler it is to constrain our responses to a solution that will help you.

FYI: Many new users, and sometimes experienced users, will intentionally hide their story or post vague requirements. Sometimes it's because they don't want to reveal proprietary work. Most of the time it's because they think that by keeping the question vague the more likely they'll get a lot of responses to choose from. We call this "fishing for ideas" and it doesn't work well on Stack Exchange. In fact, it'll usually get the question closed as too opinion-based or too story-based.

2. We deal with fictional worlds, not the real world

This is, perhaps, the most frustrating of the issues I'll introduce here. We do not deal with the real world. Period. And telling us that "my world is just like the real world except that it has this cool tech I need help inventing" doesn't solve the problem. You're still asking us to invent something in the real world. To paraphrase The Bard, a pile of manure by any other name will still stink.

Why is this a problem? Because the technology doesn't exist in the real world — and if it did, whomever knew how to design it would be running to the patent office, not explaining it on this Stack. (A lot of new users don't realize just how valuable the invention they're proposing would be!)

Users of Worldbuilding.SE should (indeed, must), with rare exception, expect answers to reflect the fiction of their world, not the non-fiction of the real world. That latitude is necessary, and the more latitude we can have, the easier it is to provide an answer.

enter image description here

Advice: When you ask us to help you build your technology, please understand that while we'll do our best, we cannot and will not provide a real-life, perfectly-scientific answer. If we tell you in the comments to your question that a reasonable answer to your question would more likely go to the patent office, what we're telling you is that you've set your expectations too high and not given us enough wiggle room in your fictional world to answer the question.

3. Finally, there's a weakness in our tag system

There are three tags frequently associated with "help me build my tech" questions:

When I first started using the Stack, my expectation was something like this:

enter image description here

You probably looked at that last entry, Technobabble, and wondered why there isn't a tag. We don't want that tag. We feel it's too much fiction, too much fantasy. We want at least some science in our worldbuilding. (Yes, that's a weakness....)

But to show you the real problem, let me show you a graph that better reflects the Wiki definitions of those three tags:

enter image description here

Remember, what you're asking us to do is help you build fictional technology. The more "reality" you want, the less likely we can help you (or we'd be running to the patent office...). Unfortunately, our current tag structure doesn't easily cover the "answers are permitted to be fictional..." space. We know. It's a pain. But it's also harder to fix that than you might think. What this means is that you need to set your expectations.

Advice: Inventing fictional tech means accepting a fictional answer. If you're expecting a real-world, scientifically-rigid answer, you should not expect an answer.

Conclusion

When it comes to "help me build my tech" questions, we would LOVE to help you out. But you need to work with us, and that means understanding our limits and setting your expectations. The odds are pretty good that actually building what you're dreaming about would require teams numbering over a thousand people and several large corporations (that is NOT an exaggeration). But we also don't want you to leave the experience disappointed. A great experience is somewhere in the middle — and we hope you'll work with us to enjoy that experience.

And hopefully, if one of our users is tempted to post that comment about running to the patent office, they'll post a link here instead. :-)

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  • $\begingroup$ For point 2, would a question that asked: in the real world, how could this be possible using the least amount of handwavium necessary be a viable question? $\endgroup$ – Ekadh Singh May 11 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @EkadhSingh Simple answer: yes. It depends on the Q. As noted, we don't answer real-world questions. What really matters are the rules of your fictional world - the divergence between your world and the real world. The greater the divergence, the more on-topic the question is. An example of a question type that's closed half the time is "how early could I invent X?" they're problematic because there are not rules, it's all in the real world (but on-topic because it's alt-history). But, "if Edison was born 100yrs earlier, could he invent the light bulb?" has a divergence and is more on-topic. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 11 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking more along the lines of “using the least handwavium possible how could you do x” where x is something currently impossible in the real world. (This would probably be closed as opinion based but I figured it might be worth it to check) $\endgroup$ – Ekadh Singh May 11 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @EkadhSingh I get it. How to ask a question to avoid closure is a topic in its own right. 99% of the time, to avoid closure as opinion-based, you need to provide an explanation of either your specific goals or reasons for asking the question or, better still, an explanation for how you'll judge a best answer. It's important to realize that nearly all questions brought to this site could exist as valid, productive, and appreciated questions. The problem is almost always that the querent doesn't understand how Stack Exchange works, and so doesn't craft the Q to fit the rules. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 11 at 18:25
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While I commiserate with the dilemma, I'd just like to point out that we here in Worldbuilding are neither in the business of straight up implementing real tech nor of being beholden to real world technical & scientific limitations. We can think out of the box and through the tesseract, if you will.

As for helping the querent: I think that perhaps a two pronged approach might be helpful.

  • I think it's quite fair to create a Meta Policy on technological implementation. We do have tags like "hard science" and "science based". We could ensure that various technology tags are up to date and in alignment. You've got a good start with the thesis statement that there are "practical limitations". Not so much to our forum per se, but limitations on what real world technology can and can not do. It therefore becomes a matter of self-limitation for the querent to specify "reality check" and "technology". And that could be fine with the querent!
  • I think it's also fair for that policy to address how one can move beyond the limitations of current technology. Perhaps a different approach to tags, like "reality-check" plus "unknown technology" or something like that. Perhaps also a different approach to writing the question in the first place. I had a look at the currency question. It's a straight up historical application of best available tech question and nothing to do with worldbuilding. A querent would have to reveal enough about the world -- magic? tech level? -- so that we can work to extrapolate from the known to the possible.
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What would keep such questions from getting closed? What makes them good or bad questions?

Separate hard science from plausible science

I think we agree that a question that asks for the rigorous, 100% valid, 100% complete implementation of an idea is not a worldbuilding question. It should be duly closed as "off-topic". But the questions linked (except possibly the banknote question, which is now deleted and I can no longer view) do not ask for rigorous answers, they ask for plausible answers. And I think that is a very important distinction to make, in the interest of not punishing tech-related questions as a group.

You can only answer with hard science to rigorous questions. That excludes most speculative technology, unless they are constrained to a few parameters known. One can ask for the resonance frequency of a space elevator, as long as we have some indication as to its material, so there is data to plug into the strict formulae required for a rigorous answer. But a question that asks to prototype a space elevator, e.g. "What would a space elevator be made of?", cannot be answered rigorously, as they do not exist and nobody has ever tried to build such a thing, so we cannot possibly know all the factors involved. It is also rather hard to defend that such a question belongs on this site.

But now we get to the other category, plausible science. "What would be the required thickness of a space elevator made out of Cheddar?" Well, the correct answer is that we do not know. We don't know the shear strength of cheese and nobody has piled up enough of the stuff, yadayada. But we can make ballpark estimations, we can make suggestions like covering it in hard wax to make it more flexible. We can make something out of it, that has some scientific basis, and sound believable. And that is the world-building point of questions about technology: answers to these questions can help produce reasonable-sounding systems that have implications of their own, which helps authors develop their worlds.

So the two questions you linked that I can see seem to me to be asking for plausible science, not hard science. The cryo-pod question explicitly did not ask for hard science, and the recycling question asked for ways to make an existing idea sound plausible.

That is why I do not think I can make a proper general advice, because I have no will to punish good questions or make well-meaning askers jump through extra hoops. I frankly do not see great flaws in those questions. Perhaps I would be better equipped to formulate something if I had some more explicitly flawed questions to work from.

I am seeking answers that help users understand the practical limits of this site. In this instance, the practical limit to questions that ask either how to build or implement a technological device or process, or whether or not a specific implementation is considered plausible.

All I can suggest for now is to append this to the tag description for , and possibly also if I have indeed been using it incorrectly: "Keep in mind the limitations of human knowledge when asking about speculative technology or systems, and limit the problem area to what can be fully envisioned." I'm sure someone with a better grasp of English grammar can put it more succinctly.

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  • $\begingroup$ The only difference between hard-science and science-based is that in the former you have to prove it. In both cases, the expectation is that the solution is scientifically sound. My concern, expressed in the question proper, is that some users arrive with the expectation of being told "how to do it" to the level of receiving a design. I've had arguments with some OPs because I told them how the idea was expressed in various SciFi sources - and they got mad because they thought that was technobabble and they wanted more. That's the problem. There often isn't more. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 18 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Funny, that's not how I have been using science-based. I had always seen that tag as requiring use of the scientific method and principles (including the occasional new physics e.g. magic established in the question), whereas hard-science required adherence to the known scientific knowledge and strict rigor. I think there's a good place for "broad strokes science", like suggesting tonnes of jelly as a heat resistant, for answers that have some grounding but aren't required to be 100% practical. And that's the kind of science I would use to respond to a cryogenics question. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 18 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH That also applies to validating an imaginary technological solution. Example: I suggest using nanobots to clone a person. I ask for the limitations of that idea, and someone mentions residual heat as a concern, and does a rough estimation of the magnitude of that issue. Great, I edit my story so there's mention that patients undergoing the procedure need to be cooled. All parties are happy, and nobody had to actually come up with scientifically accurate nanobots (which do not exist in real life). $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 18 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH But if someone asks "How could nanobots work?" with a hard-science tag, then there are no answers since we cannot rigourously describe things that have not been invented yet. It's a big difference for me, and I have been using science-based vs hard-science for that division. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 18 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ I think you're overthinking the point. I'm delighted that you don't believe you have that expectation. But I've had far too many conversations with OPs to ignore the concern. For the record - you didn't answer my question. Your post is just a long comment intended specifically for me. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 18 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH You ask how to solve a problem of questions that ask strict scientific validation of imaginary technology, and I respond that I do not see the problem in the questions linked. I have said how I would answer such questions, using broad strokes science rather than strictly rigorous science. Two of your secondary questions: "What would keep such questions from getting closed? What makes them good or bad questions?" My answer is, make sure they ask for plausible science, not for rigorously accurate science. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 18 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH To better establish the problem you perceive, maybe link some of those conversations? $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 18 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ I've been perceiving the problem for years, Keizer. You just don't agree with me. That's OK, but my post asked for advice for people who ask questions with improper expectations. Please argue that you don't agree somewhere else - like your own question post. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 18 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I fully believe you but I do not see the issue in any of the questions you linked (possibly excepting the banknote question but that one has now been deleted and I can't see it). What do you want me to base my suggestions on? Please, link me some better examples so I am not formulating advice based on people who have imho already been doing things right; as they both asked for plausible rather than rigorous tech. I just do not want to punish good questions. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 18 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I rewrote my answer to focus more on my point and include a concrete suggestion. I hope you will believe that I am acting in good faith. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 18 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ It's ironic that @JBH is having an argument about the answer to his question regarding questioner's arguments about the answers to their questions. It's almost like... writing good questions is difficult! This answer (as currently edited I guess) addresses the question very well in my opinion and it's not their fault that the examples didn't clarify the question. It's also much more succinct than the OPs extremely long answer, which makes it more useful if what you truly want is to have a reference to show to impatient questioners. $\endgroup$ – Appleguysnake Apr 19 at 15:35
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Any act of creativity is a theft

... from those better than us who are entitled, someday, to produce the right prototypes and fill the right forms to claim that they, and only they, may work with the technology.

In online forums there are many people who are deeply, deeply concerned that someone might ask the wrong question, point out the wrong observation or idea. It might give someone the impression that ordinary people could talk out an invention before it is introduced by the people meant to introduce it, as if they were Jules Verne designing the air scrubbers and diving suits for a submarine before the first such vehicle had ventured into the water. The temerity to suppose that such things do not arise only in their due course by those meant to do them!

Nonetheless, those meaningful answers are possible. There is no idea too obvious to patent, and there are patents to prove it. Clearly StackExchange posters could steal such valuable intellectual property from its future owners, were there not sharp-eyed enforcers ever on guard against this dreadful threat. People who take as much joy in closing down conversation about anything too strange as others would in thinking it up.

In worldbuilding things become a little more mysterious because the obvious invention might require very implausible equipment. Building a track around a magnetar may be hard enough that no one would really bother worrying about what you might be imagining to do with it. So obviously the emphasis needs to be on stopping discussions about things that are conceivable, if not necessarily very likely, to happen in the "real world". Breaking a problem into parts, saying "you'd need A to do B", that obviously raises concerns.

Still - what would happen if we allowed ourselves to empathize with the slave who tries to steal himself, and the casual forum participant who asks for creative ideas to solve a problem that he should never be permitted to dream he can solve? Who would come after us? If creativity is a theft, why not be the companions of thieves?

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    $\begingroup$ Mike, you seem to be making a habit of posting ideas that aren't relevant. This site had rules for participation long before you or I started using it. The purpose of this site is to focus on building worlds - the infrastructure of stories. It is not to help people invent their next toy. Curiously, you don't seem to understand that in most cases, discovering the gory details about how a piece of tech works, unless absolutely necessary for some plot of a story, actually makes a story worse. Our very problem is that people expect that invention - and we already know they won't get it. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 9 at 4:28
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    $\begingroup$ Science fiction may focus on being fiction that is easily read, but its higher calling is the revelation of things to come. As in Blowups Happen or the artist-drawn computer monitors and spinning habitats of 2001, good sci-fi shows details about how things work -- long before they do. But surely world-building should surpass even what can be put into the story, because what is a "world" at all, other than a description of how things work? You don't have to believe that, but if there were any long-standing rules against creative technology, this discussion wouldn't have started. $\endgroup$ – Mike Serfas Apr 9 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ I wasn't clear and I apologize. Your answer doesn't help the situation. It doesn't clarify how questions can be asked to better accommodate both SE's and this Stack's rules. It doesn't discuss what expectations the querent should or should not have. To me, it's a rant about how we don't just answer any question presented to us. We all get the fact that, theoretically, just because one person can't answer a Q doesn't mean someone else can't, but many of us (with decades of real-world experience) have a very clear idea when it comes to invent-my-tech questions. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 9 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ My impression is that the real-world experience -- never mind the details, technology indistinguishable from magic -- too often ends up at Sharknado 17: Now They Work For Amazon. I was hoping to have a different sort of fun here, which is not explicitly prohibited by the posted rules. $\endgroup$ – Mike Serfas Apr 9 at 14:28

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