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I'm interested in exploring an advanced society where electronic technology and infrastructure were not developed. What plausible natural phenomenon or context would prevent, or at least strongly discourage, the widespread utilization of electrical energy?

Some possible ideas that come to my mind are disruptive magnetic fields or frequent geomagnetic storms. I'm sure there are many other possibilities as well, perhaps including aquatic civilization or inaccessibility of suitable mineral resources.

Bonus points for considering:

  1. Technological alternatives that might emerge more prominently in the electrical void (e.g., fluidics)
  2. The phenomenon's other potential impacts on humanoid life

For reference, see these two semi-related questions:

Edit: In response to concerns about broadness, I'm happy to provide more structure to guide answers. Ideally, let's imagine a terrestrial society that develops similarly to human civilization through the dawn of electricity. Needless to say, some complications may arise from the phenomenon that curtails electrical technology. While I think this question could help other related questions, the "best" answer will be one that yields a society most similar, at least temporarily, to 19th Century Europe.

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    $\begingroup$ As I don't have enough experience nor the time at the moment to flesh this out for a full answer, I'll suggest it here. Some kind of charged atmosphere or a change in the magnetic field of the planet, or especially increased solar activity could cause electrical components to be unreliable at best. If there was enough interference the field may be considered upon discovery as being largely useless given their respective environment. Therefore no further development would take place, and instead research might be done in harnessing the interceding force. $\endgroup$ – Michael May 13 '15 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ This is very broad. You may want to start with something more defined, like whether the society creating the electronics is aquatic or not. There are so many possible equally valid solutions when we're creating the entire world in which electronics don't work. $\endgroup$ – Samuel May 13 '15 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroFlux Understandable. That's called idea generation, which isn't really on topic for this site. You should create the world and then ask us what needs to be tweaked inside that world which disallows electronics. $\endgroup$ – Samuel May 13 '15 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel - Fair point! I'm simply hoping to encounter a few new ideas. If it helps, I would probably prefer a terrestrial society. $\endgroup$ – ZeroFlux May 13 '15 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel I think a little broadness is okay, per the related Area51 discussion, but I've provided some additional (optional) guidance to the question to help ease that concern. discuss.area51.stackexchange.com/questions/14298/… $\endgroup$ – ZeroFlux May 13 '15 at 21:51
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Absence of electricity: Religion

The Thunder is sacred and thou shall not harness It.

It's not a far stretch - actually, it's a minimal one, considering how the huge Aztec empire did away with the wheel, an object so common and idea so trivial it's impossible it could not be invented - but being the sacred Face of the Sun, it was forbidden from such mundane use as transport.

Absence of electonics: Solar Flares

Solar storm of 1859 disrupted all electricity-based communication but didn't destroy it.

Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases giving telegraph operators electric shocks. Telegraph pylons threw sparks.[8] Some telegraph operators could continue to send and receive messages despite having disconnected their power supplies.

Had it happened today, most of electronics would have fried. Electron lamp based circuitry would probably survive in major part, but the computers, satellites, even airplane avionics up in the air, would have suffered greatly.

If solar flares of such magnitude were a monthly occurrence, development of integrated circuit would be stopped in its tracks. We'd still have a standard circuitry with discrete transistors, but we'd never achieve the scale of miniaturization of today's computers: instead of several nanometres of raster, it would be several millimetres, a million times bigger circuits to do the same job; and top speed (currently severely crippled by speed of light) at least a million times lower too - not to mention total size restrictions - make the lines too long and the solar flares will fry them.

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  • $\begingroup$ No, solar flares do not fry electronics, that is completely wrong. Electricity 101: a change in a magnetic field over a conductor (such as a power line or telegraph wire) induces a voltage. Solar flares can cause geomagnetic storms. Geomagntic storms give long-duration, but slow changes to the Earth's magnetic field. This means that in long transmission lines, there can be over/under-voltages in case of a geomagnetic storm, and these can be troublesome. But very short conductors — such as the insides of electronics — are not affected by this. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 22 '17 at 8:50
  • $\begingroup$ What you are thinking about are Electromagnetic Pulses. A pulse is a very short-duration and intense event. So that even the tiny conductors in electronics generate enough voltage to cause problems. But EMP's and Geomagnetric Storms are two different things. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 22 '17 at 8:52
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelK: while disconnected portable electronics would be merely disturbed (radio wave noise suppressing signal but no direct damage) about all of infrastructure is based on devices connected to wired energy and data networks. Cell phones are useless with cell towers fried due to overvoltage in power grid; surge protection usually helps against momentary disturbances, not ones lasting for days. Never mind if a couple miles of line can shock the operator, a couple meters of PSU wire can easily damage a 5V+-5% USB device. And events like those repeating monthly, would cripple progress. $\endgroup$ – SF. Nov 22 '17 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ The only reason we do not have surge protection now is because we have always been spoiled with a relatively well-behaved star. If we change the conditions of that and makes Sol constantly spew CME's at us, this means that we start developing electricity under those conditions, and so we already from the start engineer solutions to that problem. We may even use that phenomena to make electricity. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 22 '17 at 9:49
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Absence of metals

One thing that all electronics that have been developed on Earth rely on is metal conductors. What if your society didn't have access to the right materials to make these things?

Your humanoids, for instance, could have evolved on giant floating islands of vegetation on the surface of a world covered with water. These islands, floating miles above the sea floor far beneath the waves, have all of the elements that humanoids need to evolve, but without any solid ground, the humanoids that evolved on them don't have any metal mines. Without metal mines, no metal. Without metal, no wires. Without wires, no electronics.

It's possible, even probable, that said humanoids would one day develop technology to reach the bottom and then start developing metallurgy, but a lack of surface from which to mine metals would significantly delay the development of electronics.

It may also be possible to have a planet that simply doesn't have appreciable quantities of metal, though I'm not entirely sure how such a planet could form.

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I'm interested in exploring an advanced society where electronic technology and infrastructure were not developed. What plausible natural phenomenon or context would prevent, or at least strongly discourage, the widespread utilization of electrical energy?

I thought of two options immediately after this (the second is better because it fits with the fact you want the cause to be natural):

  • 1 - Moving backwards after devastating consequences of a technological singularity:

    • Example: Technology has evolved so much, robots took over and there were a lot of deaths. Humanity prevailed and has sworn never to go back that route again by forbidding anything electronics related. Everything went back to purely mechanical machines.
  • 2 - Not having made the technological leap in the first place: This is the better option according to what you asked in your later comments. Humans never made the jump to electronics in the first place and still lived in a 19th century setting. This can be done by thinking about the chain of events that has actually led to the advent of electronics, and breaking a link here, another there...

    Technology is what it is today partly because some materials violated Ohm's law, and some people noticed it: What if the semiconductor technology has never been what it is? There can be a bunch of reasons for that, but let's screw with the people side of Physics:

    • Antoine Becquerel died in Spain and never had his son, Edmond Becquerel (who'd never discover the photovoltaic effect, neither have his son, Henri Becquerel, who'd never work on radioactivity with the Curies).
    • The University of Göttingen was never built (can you imagine the dramatic effect on humanity? All the great people who'd never set foot there, or meet.)

    • Bernoulli never taught Euler, who'd have made great contributions to religion I suppose.

But you'll have to do a lot of that.. And since technology followed a hockey stick curve (which is funny, since it's the non-linearity in semiconductors and the fact they're characterized by a hockey-stick curve that makes them interesting), the difference between 19th century Europe and the 20th century would've been marginal if we didn't hit the inflection point... Which brings me to this:

You can toy with it and set History to a major fail that would have wiped clean most of the talent that was required to get to the wafer. Maybe a disturbed person put a bomb at the Solvay Conference. Can you imagine the consequences? Most of the big names would have died and we'd never have integrated circuits. If you want to go hardcore (and lamer), you can put a population terrified by science who'd try their best to sabotage any progress.

You can force it by going the "What if there was no silicon in our galaxy?", but since it's one of the most abundant elements, this would be pushing too far.

That's what came to my mind for now. Maybe I'll have something better

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By some freak occurrence the inhabitants of your civilisation develop EHS or Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. This makes them unable to work with or be near electronic devices. Being an advanced civilisation they look for and find alternatives.

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Not quite an answer to your question, but perhaps close: A world without digital electronics.

Give analog computers, both mechanical and electronic, a better start. Digital computers could be overshadowed in the way that VHS defeated Betamax. It might help if there was no world war at the time to push code-breaking applications. Punch card machines for digital sorting would remain incompatible with computers for analog calculations.

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