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Note: The word "culture" refers to a collective of peoples and countries using the mentioned technologies.

So I'm running into the problem that I want multiple technological environments in my world without one completely coming in top of the others making them obsolete. The main technological culture is a kind of magical-infused steampunk, though I'd like to implement some other, more disperse cultures. One of them (and this is an important one) is a more technology-focused culture, a culture that makes significantly more use of electronics and computers than the rest.

Now, the world is big, and I mean really big. It has it's surface plus three altitude-sorted layers of floating islands.

The thing is the world's population density is pretty low as a way of keeping nature the ruler of the planet, but I also want countries to be in contact with each other, so the "have the different kingdoms isolated" is not an option.

The question is: How could I explain the fact that the most advanced culture doesn't make the rest obsolete?

Examples depicting real world cases are preferred.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by StephenG, Ash, JBH, Aify, jdunlop Jul 31 '18 at 17:33

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you think that cultures of the Andaman Islands or the Brazilian rain forest are at the same level of technological development as the USA or Japan? If you don’t, then I’m not sure what your problem is. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Jul 31 '18 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ Isolation is not required. Do you think Cameroon is as advanced as the US? How about Bosnia? Are they as advanced as the US? $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Jul 31 '18 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ Being obsolete doesn't make things stop working. For example, Egyptians still use Archimedes screws and rural Chinese still use leg-powered water pumps. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Jul 31 '18 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ I'm curious how come that in the 18th century a British private company came to control the Mughal empire. Or how come that the Dutch ruled Indonesia. Or how come that Russia found itself in possession of Siberia and most of Central Asia. Or how come, in more recent times, that in 1967 tiny Israel defeated the coalition of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The world is a very diverse place. As the famous saying goes, vive la différence! $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 31 '18 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ They can't just hate each other ? It couldn't just be plain old national self interest ? Or religious principles (or other dogma) ? Can't feel you're better than everyone else if you treat them like equals and share with them. :-) $\endgroup$ – StephenG Jul 31 '18 at 16:53
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I can think of a couple ways:

Resource Contraints You could make the most advanced culture be dependent on a limited and only locally available resource. For example, your magic-steampunk could be dependent on some sort of magic ore that is mined in the region and not available anywhere else. As such, their tech wouldn't be very viable elsewhere (at least not in any large scale, as it would depend entirely on imported magic ore.)

Culture Human culture is very powerful and malleable. The high tech society could be extremely secretive and reclusive. They have contact with other societies, but only through highly controlled interfaces. They do not allow the export of tech, nor do they allow any outsiders access to their society in any meaningful way. If the tech gap is wide enough, this would effectively prevent the tech from spreading outside the culture (if the gap is insufficient though, merely seeing or hearing about tech would give enough leads for outsiders to replicate it, or something like it.)

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Institutions. Just because people see that another realm they are in contact with have better technology doesn't mean they're ready to change their whole way of life - after all, you can be perfectly content with lower tech. Institutions that advance a society - monogamy, property rights, legalism - can't easily be adopted without significant changes to society. Look at the Westernisation process of Japan, they didn't just say "Hey, this will give us cool guns, let's do it!"

Technology isn't just pure knowledge. It requires infrastructure, resources, environmental conditions - some people might have the blueprints for this new thing called railway, but simply lack the iron. There is also the problem of having a critical mass of people to make bigger technologies economically feasible - you might perfectly well know how to create a gun and really want one, but the fixed costs are so high that you'd need 2000 people to want one.

Especially in your low-density world, it might simply not be worth it - the more land per person a civilization has, the less incentive to really make any major effort to innovate.

Cultures don't become 'obsolete' because they do not serve a specific purpose. Cultures aren't means to the end of providing some observing entity with the best technology, they are there for themselves. If the Aragonesians use waterwheels while the Burgundosians use nuclear power, that doesn't suddenly make all the waterwheels stop spinning. As long as it's enough for them, it works.

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You can get inspiration from the real world.

I get that most users here should be from North America or Europe, and the thought that there are people living nowadays in an enviromnent less technologically adanced than the norm for the 21st century must come as a surprise. But as the world is now, if you can move to anywhere, you can live in any technological level from what we see as state of the art to stone age tech if you wish.

The most technologically advanced countries nowadays are China, Japan and Korea. They put the western world to shame when it comes to innovation.

In China Alipay knows who you are by tracking the way you move, and you can pay for a purchase by smiling at a camera when requested to do so. The machine is not taking a picture of your face, it is tracking the unique way in which your muscles move. In Japan farm workers wear exoskeletons to help them pick more load and with less fatigue. And in Korea, when you go to a restaurant your waiter may be a robot.

Meanwhile in this side of the world... This guy is using WWII level technology to try to prove that the Earth is flat, which would debunk a scientifical fact first determined by the ancient greek.

Still in the US, some people like the Amish refuse to use things like rubber tires or electronics. They use some things from the 20th century, but mostly they stick to older technologies. Even the link in this paragraph ends in .asp, therefore predating the the wheel.

Wish to go even less advanced? In some places of war-ridden Afeghanistan people trade cattle for tools made by a blacksmith.

Even less advanced: there are indigenous tribes in Africa and Brazil where people make a living by hibting with bows, which they make from wood they gather. They use fibers from the intestines of the game they catch for the strings.

Seriously, I don't think I have ever seen Fantasy literature more technologically diverse than the real world.

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Within reason differences in development are the default situation during periods of technological development, absent something to homogenize them like a shared national government. Somebody is going to innovate first and it takes lots of time for new ideas to diffuse.

In the Neolithic era, for example, food production technology from domesticated plants and animals took about 1000 years to diffuse from expanding first wave Neolithic farmers to neighboring hunter-gather populations with whom they were in contact, who were also often reduced in numbers but not obliterated entirely.

In the Bronze Age, the Hittites kept their iron working skills secret from everyone else in a thousand mile radius for many centuries and used that to give them a military edge and expand their empire.

In the early modern period, China experienced bureaucratic stagnation and went from being a technological leader to halting virtually all technological advances for centuries.

There is a huge diversity in levels of development today. While some of the more extreme examples involve uncontacted people (Andaman Islanders, isolated Papuan tribes, Amazonian jungle tribes), even with regular contact there are huge disparities in development. For example, cross the border from California or Texas to Mexico, take a boat from Florida to Haiti, compare Afghanistan to pretty much any other place in Eurasia, compare Egypt or Algeria or South Africa to Cameroon or Zaire.

Huge gaps aren't unprecedented even within a single country, for example, at the moment there are huge gaps between the U.S. Appalachians or Mississippi and Silicon Valley or New York City; between rural inland China and urban coastal China; and between different states in India.

With contact between more and less developed areas, however, you do get weirdness.

For example, in Somalia you have cell phone based banking and widely worn manufactured rubber soled shoes existing side by side with animal powered farming, thatch huts and outhouses (or just shitting outdoors in fields and alleys). In Nigeria, you have both Internet access and widespread extralegal witch trials. In Nepal, traditional "witch doctors" practice in the same villages and medical doctors employing allopathic medical techniques.

In general, some technologies and economic arrangements and life styles are more portable than others.

One doesn't need complete geographic barriers to establish cultural and technological isolation. For example, the thin shallow strip of ocean between China and Japan, together with regular typhoons, proved a significant barrier to invading armies that allowed Japan to avoid Chinese hegemony and conquest at their hands for many, many centuries even as trade between the two countries and bride exchange continued steadily during that time period.

More advanced countries may be ideologically opposed, or just not bothered given to the cost involved, to conquer other countries. And, some technologies may be better suited to some conditions than others. Kansas style farming doesn't adapt very naturally to life in the Amazon or the Congo. It is harder to build highway systems or rail systems in mountainous areas than on flat plains.

Ideology and history and local conditions also influence the path that development takes. Islam retarded portrait painting and mortgage financing, but in the early Islamic empire you could use the equivalent of checks drawn in Morocco in Indonesia, abstract art was advanced, and algebra flourished.

The United States has an awesome interstate highway system, good commercial aircraft service and world class universities, but lousy passenger trains and intracity bus systems, and relatively mediocre K-12 education and public health institutions.

There is no reason that this couldn't be true in your world.

For example, in the steampunk genre, it is almost cliche for one country to advance mechanical sciences while a rival develops biotechnologies instead. Another common trope is to have one place use magic while another relies more on science.

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Cultural differences? Each society is locked to it's technology type by it's own history. They all grew up separately before they met. Not only does the technology differ, but the worldview differs.

Consider Native Americans meeting Europeans for the first time. NA people did not want to adopt european culture. (Though they were happy to adopt guns and alcohol :).

Native Americans did not understand how you could buy and sell land. The land just "was."

So your technology focused society does not have magic, making it necessary to substitute technology. Why? Maybe genetics. Maybe physical environment on that part of the world. Maybe religiously prohibited. You choose.

Meanwhile the magic users eschew the technology since they have an alternative. If they are all nice people, they just agree to disagree. If not, you can have a war :)

Good luck with this. If it gets done, let us know where we can read it.

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In a realistic world, I'd call this mostly impossible as soon as one civilization reaches early industrialization. Imperialism will follow unless they don't want it, and then someone else will fill the gap.

But you have a magical world.

  • Certain types of magic do or do not work based on the distance to mana poles. When civilizations depend on magic, they might be restricted in their expansion. (Example: Kingdom A depends on magic-based fire elemental/steam engines. They cannot expand where they have no water to make steam and where the fire elementals do not work. Kingdom B depends on air magic. It is inferior to A in most conflicts, except where A cannot do their magic and B can.)
  • Harsh climate (hot, cold, dry, humid ...) favors magical semi-humans like orcs, half-orcs, elves, half-elves, etc. over humans. The tech of the most advanced human kingdoms is not quite advanced enough to overcome that.
  • Similar, but with species-specific plagues instead of climate.
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Well, the answer may not please many people, because it is a quite philosophical and debatable, but what you are asking is already reality. The short answer: It is indeed mostly dependent on culture, which is diverse enough to allow you to go wild with your fantasy.

To get deeper into the topic: Societies which employ more liberties and less state power will have a faster progression in technology, wealth and art. However, liberty comes at a cost - it requires societies with sufficient average IQ in order to value philosophy, liberty, peace, property and free speech over control, slavery, exploitation, warmongering and totalitarianism. Both methods seem to genetically-culturally perpetuate well enough to exist even today, so in a Darwinistic perspective, both methods are successful - despite the horrors.

That being said, sufficient average IQ is not all that is needed. But it is one major requirement. If you go through all countries below average IQ 90, you will see none of the countries can be considered to value freedom, free speech, small state power, etc - meaning overreach of state power may very well be the norm of daily life, along with (near) poverty.

Another major requirement is actually valuing liberty, moral and free speech itself. East Asia has higher average IQ than Europe, yet their freedoms aren't really high either, rendering them economically less prosperous as the West - even though they have a significant advantage in average IQ. Ashkenazim Jews for example have an average IQ of ~115 and do tremendously better than natives with an average of ~100 - just as East Asians do much better on average than natives in the West. Also, we know some examples in which countries employed socialism/communism/fascism (all of which disfavor or outright despise individual liberties) despite similar Christian cultures and relatively high average IQ. So there is nothing that seems to guarantee freedom - and the most advanced seem to be the most prone to losing it drastically. Be reminded that totalitarian systems have a high tendency to collapse - as they burn the resources inherited from the past (including human productivity, work-ethics, ambition) until all is gone. In order to maintain that, any of expansion, imperialism, slavery, warmongering are necessary methods.

Now, back to your question - I do not know what you mean by "obsolete". If you refer to muslim countries, their influence on the West is already very high even though their technological level is basically only what they can gather from the West. Their ideological influence is significant, just as the ideological influences in the West supporting that. So technology is no necessity for being relevant (not obsolete). Average IQ neither seems to be too relevant, unless it is too low - regarding Africa.

It may very well depend on culture and ideology, but not only from the culture in question, but also on globalist agendas and ideologies existing in the "most advanced culture(s)." Another factor is time. As your world history progresses through time, technological divergence will increase and likely increase even more over time. In times in which people fought with melee and range weapons, the differences caused by technology were not too significant. If you want the "non-most advanced" cultures to remain relevant, you should find a sweet-spot at which the divergence is not escalating too high (as of modern warfare vs swords and bows).

And if you use magic or similar fantasy world elements, you can bypass or compensate said disadvantages - and reduce the divergence mentioned above. For example you can have a totalitarian-ideological regime, a freedom based country which is however small, some technologically backwards but nature/freedom affine countries - and all of them could be similarly relevant. It would be very well realistic.

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  • $\begingroup$ "East Asia has higher average IQ than Europe, yet their freedoms aren't really high either, rendering them economically less prosperous as the West": South Korea and Japan are in East Asia. Are they really "less prosperous" than "the West"? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 31 '18 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ Nevermind, how you quantify "their freedoms". Also IQ is a bankrupt concept independent.co.uk/news/science/… IQ is, at best, a measure of how well-fed someone was as a child. The idea that IQ implies specific social values is preposterous, and relies on a pseudoscientific interpretation of badly operationalized correlations. You can't use things like whether a society "values philosophy" to determine whether and how quickly they adopt certain technologies. $\endgroup$ – user49466 Jul 31 '18 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ @user49466 - Freedoms as of free speech, low taxes, free market, property protection, individualism. One simple measurement is taxation - the more is taken, the more powerful the state, the less freedoms remain. IQ is among the most well researched areas in science, and it is clear that 50-80% of intelligence is determined by genes at the age of 18. Also, I do not care if the "idea that IQ implies specific social values is preposterous." It is n% true, so the question would be what n is. It's likely close to 100%. We can gladly argue about that, but you should try to control your emotions. $\endgroup$ – Battle Aug 1 '18 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - Yes, they are. Japan has accumulated 200%+ of its GDP as debt. But maybe I should rephrase it: East Asia is doing roughly as well or worse than the West, without being among the top, even though their average IQ is ~5-8 higher and their work ethics are comparable to Germans (very good). In short: They are smarter and work at least as well as the West - yet they do not come out better economically. The reason is a higher adherence to collectivist values, an overabundance of discipline and obedience to authority. They are much more tolerant to government overreaches. $\endgroup$ – Battle Aug 1 '18 at 11:28
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - That being said, it does not mean that the West has superiority because they value freedom. There are indeed forces, which are dominating the political-medial landscape as of today, which push for socialism and more state power (less freedom) for the sake of collectivist goals. These will cause a significant decline. But to answer your question... GDP per capita: Japan: 39k, South Korea: 28k, Hong Kong: 44k, Singapore: 53k ::: Germany: 42k, US: 57k, Norway: 71k, Switzerland: 79k. So the answer is a clear Yes. $\endgroup$ – Battle Aug 1 '18 at 11:47

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