I've noted an interesting trend in Netflix, specially on Sci-Fi and hero series.

The worlds often have these aesthetic characteristics:

  • Computers are rare, very big or non existing
  • Phones, but not mobile or smart phones
  • Cars are old fashioned
  • Colors are often diverse, but the world is often very dark on every other aspects
  • High tech, when existing, is often more powerful than our own technology

Some examples are The Umbrella Academy, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Maniac.

I'm sure the purpose is to make the series timeless and prevent using elements that would get obsolete, but also it rises the question: Would it be possible?

Could an technological civilization like ours exist for centuries, or even thousands of years, without widespread computers, or no digital computers at all?

Image from Maniac Series

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    $\begingroup$ Same general principle as Steampunk, I guess, just based on a different age. Anyone know if there's a name for this trope? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 3:44
  • $\begingroup$ The Umbrella Academy and A Series of Unfortunate events are very different there. The first is set close to modern technology levels, seemingly, with the usual dichotomous superhero technology that's essentially magic and unavailable to the masses. The latter is quite clearly retro in style, with some anachronistic literary references, and basically nothing more advanced than the 1990s. $\endgroup$
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 4:24
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    $\begingroup$ Yes: simple example, humans in the "middle-age" : pretty advanced technologically without any kind of computer :) What do you mean by "technologically advanced"? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 7:40
  • $\begingroup$ Computers can be also analogue/mechanical/quantum/... $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ @nicolallias Good point. Compared to some ancient cultures and even some cultures today, the middle ages were relatively advanced, even when technological development was slow, but it seems odd that such high tech could exist in a world without computers. $\endgroup$
    – Joseph Anglada
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 3:07

3 Answers 3


Sure they can. There several ways to make computers that aren't digital. Think mechanical like the ancient Greeks experimented with, basic analogue ones that we simply started out with, quantum computing and you can even go biological.

A computer at it's essence is a calculating machine that can run several predefined programs:

A computer is a device that can be instructed to carry out sequences of arithmetic or logical operations automatically via computer programming. Modern computers have the ability to follow generalized sets of operations, called programs.

This can be build with all four of the above mentioned types. Now a great advantage so far of digital computers is that they're both small and fast. This allows for mobile technology like a smartphone, smartwatch, gameboy and a self driving vehicle.

If computers remain large and cumbersome it's unlikely they get widely adopted by the masses. But they can still dominate large institutions and companies. I suggest you look up futurism from the 60's and 70's. They largely predicted a future without portable computers. They did however focus extensively on robotics. But if you ignore that you get a decent idea of an advanced civilization without widespread computers, at least very different from our own. facetime in the not future For example here we get the idea of video calling without wireless technology. This entire setup can easily be analogue.

By not going digital you run into two possible downsides. Either your machines are slow or they're large. This limits their utility. Perhaps super computers in that scenario require huge structures to support them, not a basement but an entire skyscraper. With slower calculations space flight will be a dangerous and slow affair.

Quantum computing and biological computers have no known constrains like that but getting their without digital computers might be hard. Biological can grow from a society that perhaps focuses on bio-engineering. Cloning brain like structures or even using human brains.

A bio tech focused civilization could be interesting. Domesticated bio engineered slaves perhaps, bred for different tasks. They might not share our system of ethics. Science that relies on number crunching might be a slow endeavor without digital computers but it can be done. We put people on the moon without it. Polish analogue computer

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    $\begingroup$ Worth noting is the etymology of the word ‘computer’. It originated as a job title meaning ‘one who computes’ and the original computers were just people at desks (or in the case of warfare crouched behind artillery pieces) doing arithmetic. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ We did not put people on the moon without it, we did do a lot of the design with slide rules, etc. Apollo Guidance Computer $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ My bad, I thought that was still analogue. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 9:53

This technologically advanced civilization could have evolved past the need of machines and computers. They would probably have mental capacities high enough to let them do what computers were supposed to do in the first place - control the world around them, communicate with each other (telepathy) etc.


An abacus is effectively a digital counting machine, instead of using 1 and 0 or on and off, they use a bead or not a bead to represent a range of information. Early electronic devices such as radio, television, and computers relied on a valve or vacuum tube which will only allow electrons flow in one direction acting like a switch. The size of these valves made the devices non portable and the infrastructure to run these machines was also very large. A valve type computer I used in the late 1980's had no less than three diesel engines to provide power to it. In theory, electronic valves or switches could be replaced with tiny pistons opening and closing points. Liquid or gas contained in the piston could be heated or cooled to make it function. The only limit to how small these engines could be made is the number of molecules needed to create enough expansion to move the piston. An example of this type of engine was created in Germany measuring around three microns in size, however, I believe it utilized a laser which is a very bulky piece of equipment. A machine of this type, although portable, would still use binary logic and there for still be digital


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