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For my fantasy world, I want to prevent rapid modernization for as long as possible, yet have magic tools (or spells) exist that preform functions similar to modern technology (or even better than). How long can I (realistically) delay the widespread adoption of such innovations?

By "magic tools", I just mean technology or trinkets enhanced by or run on magic. Wireless video transmission, anti-gravity magic propulsion, arcane blow dryers; you name it and I'll probably think of something. And spells, well they're spells, techniques preformed by people using skill, and little to no technology. I want my world to make sense, and don't want observers to think, "why isn't insert_innovation_here used by the peasants in the village, or the commoners in the city?"

For this, assume that Magic_Innovation_A has been invented on the same continent as those cities and villages. All of the things, processes and techniques necessary to making/using it have been discovered, and the innovation's dissemination will start within the lifetime of the inventor. If it's a skill or spell, then it's not too hard for the average person to learn/use, and if it's tech, then it's not to hard or expensive to produce. The countries on said continent have their fair share of wars, but are not completely isolated from each-other, allowing it to spread across borders. Nothing is going to stop the spread of Magic_Innovation_A; it's adoption is inevitable, baring an apocalypse that's not happening.

Could I use cultural factors as an excuse? I know those can influence the adoption of technology or practices, but I don't know to what aspects or extent. And I know preventing the invention of something simple like rubber can prevent other things from being invented or discovered, but I don't know how long I can prevent those things from being invented either. Could I make the innovation a state secret, and delay its' release to the general public that way?

Really, what I need is general information and examples to real technologies and skills, but a rough timeline would be nice. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

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    $\begingroup$ Sir Terry Pratchett would let some god or other strike people with lightning should they become too ingenious. I guess that's too direct for your story? $\endgroup$ – Burki Apr 3 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ You need your existing magic be better than technology. And also better in warfare. Example is Japan. Tradition lost because technology had much more hard hitting arguments. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Apr 3 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ "I want to prevent rapid modernization for as long as possible, yet have magic tools [and] delay the widespread adoption of such innovations" Do you want to delay the adoption of magic innovations? Because if the magic technology is superior, why would anyone adopt anything else? $\endgroup$ – jpaugh Apr 3 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ In other words, magic, to the extent that it is real and can be controlled by humans, is a technology. From Wikipedia: "Technology is the sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used [...] in the accomplishment of objectives" So, anything you do to reach a goal is technology. $\endgroup$ – jpaugh Apr 3 at 23:14
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Superstition

In a magic world, believing that what the orcs do has to be unclean. Prior to the French revolution, peasants starved rather than eat potatoes because they came out of the ground and were thus devilish. Maybe the widgets from the union of soviet Dwarves are safe, or maybe they're secretly cursed or in league with demons. Who knows? Did you know that if you spell-fix a crack, you break your mom's back?

Greed

If you have to pay for the rights to use new tech, old tech is just fine. Damn those wizards in arcana city and their copyright protection! It's magic, so maybe there really is a copyright spell limiting the use of magic. Local widget makers ban the use of widgets from foreign countries. Making horse gear and wagons was a huge industry until cars came along and wiped them out. Maybe the state is charging huge taxes (leading to smuggling)? Items are simply too expensive for regular folks to use (think third world countries today)

Pollution

Maybe more magic is seen as contaminating (or really IS contaminating) the land and poisoning the Dryads. The druids are telling everyone the crops will fail if they cast those foreign spells.

Lack of education

Do your peasants read? If priests and nobles don't tell them this stuff, they don't learn it. Make all the incoming merchants only go to trade centers and the spread of knowledge slows.

Power

Oh, no commoner. You can't use that spell. It might let you shoot my soldiers with a magic missile! How did you get the money for that? I guess I need to raise taxes again. But not for your neighbor using good old safe magic.

Terrain

Well, just because the people on the other side of the mountains know stuff doesn't mean it gets here. Then there's the river monsters, not to mention the dragons.

Timeline

I can't really tell how much any of this would affect the timeline of technological infiltration - that depends on too many variables.

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  • $\begingroup$ I suggest adding guild and/or trade union rules. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Apr 3 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ Religious beliefs would also be a reason, For a real life example take a look at the Amish communities in the US. - Even surrounded by 'modern technology' they shun the use of it as much as possible - Nearly all Amish forbid telephones in the home, public electricity usage, and the operation of motor vehicles.(In some Amish communities even a simple bicycle is seen as 'too worldly' and so forbidden) $\endgroup$ – EdHunter Apr 3 at 13:41
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This is a problem that often comes up in "Fantasy" settings and there's quite a few solutions. Here's my personal favorite, and with it you can suspend the technological revolution indefinitely and maintain a technology-capped world:

To use this solution, you implement three principles:

  1. Magic is unsuited for mass manufacture. Every magical item is produced by a skilled professional.
  2. God, gods, or other powerful immortal beings exist and are the "hands-on" types of deity
  3. Divine beings have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, especially their power

The first principle ensures that you can have magical hair driers, flying carpets, and indoor plumbing, but only for the rich or "magic caste". Because everything that's enchanted requires a magic user to craft it, and there are only so many skilled magic users, peasants won't get their hands on wands of fireball because they simply can't afford them. This can easily be explained by, for example, making non-living things unable to cast magic and therefore curtailing any assembly lines of magical items.

The second and third principle go hand-in-hand and rely on the idea that with enough technology, humanity's creations can reach apotheosis and allow humans to directly compete with gods. For example, maybe gods have determined that if "information age" technology is discovered, then it's only a matter of time before some scientist creates a superintelligent AI that rivals the divine or they determine that while nuclear weapons aren't a threat to the gods, anti-matter ones are. In short, the gods fear what humans could create in a short period of time if they underwent a technological revolution. That's why they suppress technology and prevent technological advance.

As for how the divine actually suppress technology, that can be done in many ways. Most directly, the gods could just smite people who are getting too smart or thinking about things the shouldn't. More indirectly, religious organizations could have "inquisition" arms which investigate and string up "heretics" or the religious organizations influence the governments to such a degree where they do the technology-suppressing work for them.

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How long can I realistically prevent a society from adopting innovations (technology, skills) in use elsewhere?

Real life example: North Sentinel Islanders

The Sentinelese, also known as the Sentineli and the North Sentinel Islanders, are an indigenous people who inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal in India. They are one of the world's last uncontacted peoples.

the Sentinelese appear to have consistently refused any interaction with the outside world. They are hostile to outsiders and have killed people who approached or landed on the island.

Some of their practices have not evolved beyond those of the Stone Age; they are not known to engage in agriculture.

The Sentinelese have been widely described as a Stone Age tribe, with some reports claiming they have lived in isolation for over 60,000 years. But Pandya speculates that the Sentinelese arose either from a deliberate, more recent migration or from drifting off the Little Andaman.

The first recorded contact with them dates back to 1867

During the late summer monsoon of 1867, the Indian merchant-vessel Nineveh foundered on the reef off North Sentinel. All the passengers and crew reached the beach safely, but as they proceeded for their breakfast on the third day, they were subject to a sudden assault by a group of naked, short-haired, red-painted islanders with arrows that were probably iron-tipped.

Few kilometers from them, people can use their smartphone to post questions on SE communities.

If we rely just on the recorded contacts, as long as you have the right conditions, like those pushing the Sentinelese, 160 years are possible.

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Because Magic.

For this, assume that Magic_Innovation_A has been invented on the same continent as those cities and villages. All of the things, processes and techniques necessary to making/using it have been discovered, and the innovation's dissemination will start within the lifetime of the inventor. If it's a skill or spell, then it's not too hard for the average person to learn/use, and if it's tech, then it's not to hard or expensive to produce

How magic works is, the mage connects with the local "magic field" and harvests/channels as much or as little they needs, then they shapes this amount according to specific rules and algorithms (the "spell" proper). They then can bind the finished product to an object or a location.

It is possible to "industrialize" magic because it is possible to imbue an object or location with the power of gathering and shaping the ambient magic: the object becomes a mage, even if a mage that can only perform one, or very few, spells. This is your magic factory, that can churn out magic objects.

There are three types of magic objects:

  • talismans. They contain a certain quantity of magic and use it in accordance to the spell. When the magic is exhausted it must either be replenished within a given time, or the spell itself will dissolve, rendering the talisman inert.

  • magic objects. They do not contain magic (or not much), but the spell enables them to access the way more potent local magic field, and shape it as "programmed" to achieve their non-magical purpose (e.g. boiling water, drilling a hole, etc.). They do not exhaust their magic unless severely abused.

  • magic shapers. These are magic objects that produce a magical effect; namely, either talismans or magic objects. Producing talismans is way more expensive, because larger quantities of magic are required to not only manufacture, but charge them.

And now the clincher - the magic field is neither homogeneous, nor uniform, nor constant.

  • Its intensity increases in time, unless depleted by reorienting it, as magic seeps from wherever it comes from, at different rates depending on the location (crossing between ley lines are much valued to install magic shapers). There are dead zones where the recovery rate is very low.
  • The magic is actually a blend of at least five different tastes or essences - traditionally Air, Earth, Water, Fire and Spirit. They seep at the same rate, but in different proportions.
  • These proportions vary very slowly. The two sides of a river might be completely different in their Water-to-Spirit ratio, but otherwise you might walk one hundred leagues and the ratios would stay the same within one part to the hundred.

The consequences of this are as follows:

  • talismans work everywhere, but they can only perform very simple tasks and can only be recharged in a suitable area, or at a factory. "Recharging talismans" (essentially large magical batteries) are possible, but ruinously expensive and quite massive, so not easy to transport.

  • magic factories are not moveable. Relocating them slightly far from a nexus is antieconomical, relocating them in a different magic area is impossible - and very dangerous.

  • magic objects will work forever in the area they were built, but will start malfunctioning if you take them too far, or across a magical border. The function of the spell can be reverse engineered and the spell often, but not always, adapted to a different area (a 200:1 Water:Earth spell will not be useful in an area where the ambient magic has very little Water and too much Earth). Modifying a spell to use different elements is sometimes possible but often dangerous and requires terrifying amounts of skill.

and the above is the desired outcome.

So, while the adoption of a gimmick can proceed at industrial speed in a given region, diffusion beyond that can only happen at highly skilled artisanal availability speed - so, very slowly or not at all.

Duplicating a spell within the same area only requires a Prentice Witch, or almost any talented individual that has a knack for sensing magic. It is almost the same as operating a magic object. Reverse engineering a spell to take it across a border, on the other hand, requires an experienced Engineer Mage, so it would only be done for highly valuable spells, and experienced Engineer Mages are rare and expensive.

Then there might be the fabled Spellmasters, that have the twin abilities of seeing what a spell is doing - they can access its source code - and knowing in their minds how to twine whatever ambient magic is available in order to achieve the same result.

It would be roughly the equivalent of reading "MOV AL, 0", understanding that it means zero a CPU register for Intel 8086 CPU, and know that this can be done with "XOR A" on a Zilog Z80 or "CLR" on a Motorola 68000.

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Go for a society relatively stable and isolated, with little social mobility and knowledge being concentrated at the hands of few, and give them a strong cultural/religious basis.

You're basically looking for what we had in medieval Europe, which remained with relatively few major changes during the period. This was due to a series of factors, but the most important might have been isolation. With the constant threat of invasions, everyone was terrified, which led people to group together in societies where money became secondary over survival. Peasants worked to feed everyone, knights and nobles trained to defend everyone and priests prayed and preached to save everyone's souls from hell. This resulted in a society where, safe for things like the Church noble relation (a noble can become part of the Church), there was little to no mobility (a peasant could become a knight which meant going up a class, but that was rare).

So, after this poor explanation of the middle ages, your society would have to be divided in many relatively isolated kingdoms and follow a similar path, in which classes are strongly determined and social mobility is reduced, everyone has specific functions and they are more focused on themselves and their surviving than they are about making business with the outside world. This could have many degrees, likely kingdoms closer to the borders being more open to business than those in the middle of the country, distributing their goods at a higher price even. The reason for such isolation to the outside could be justified by religious or cultural beliefs, maybe a sense of superiority to other countries or even with them being considered heretics, and you'd have the ideal conditions for items from the outside to take long periods to be available to everyone.

Another thing that would help would be assigning to outside products a connection with the higher classes. Maybe because trading goods isn't as predominant in these isolated societies, even the cheapest outside products would be seen as goods that only the higher noble classes and members of the "church" should have. That way, with the culture already established, a peasant wouldn't use noble items, for they'd be likely ridiculed for such "petulance".

Lastly, concentrate the knowledge available to a few groups. One alternative would be to have something like what the Church did, saving many archives from the Greek and Roman eras and keeping them safe, but partially out of reach from those who weren't part of the Church. With the knowledge kept in the hands of few, you'll prevent your society from making their own technological advances, as long as you attend to the last main problem: keeping it from changing.

One of the main reasons the middle ages ended was the end of the invasions, which allowed many structural and political changes. People could leave the fortified castles with less fear of being killed by invaders, cities could grow again, business could become more prevalent, populations could grow more, etc. And it was exactly this series of changes (along with issues such as the plague, the crusades and the hunger caused by population growth and deforestations, but changes nonetheless) that would cause the middle ages to end, giving place to the modern age.

To sum it up, if you try to follow the middle ages pattern, your society needs to remain partially isolated from the outside and have as little changes as possible, so the systems that exist within it don't collapse. Your society can expand its territory, but it must have a reason to minimize exposure to the outside and prevent drastic structural changes to its insides. I'd love to explain in detail how it all worked, but there simply isn't space to do so. I strongly recommend you to research about feudal societies to understand what made them tick and see which traits would you like to use on your own world.

[Note] - sorry, I pretty much remade the answer as the last one had a decent amount of innacurate and partially biased information. I still think something like what we saw with the catholic church (a strong institution with vast power, positioned as the highest elite) would be beneficial to ensuring a society from suffering too many changes too fast, as it has the power and influence to prevent such changes from happen or to at least mitigate them as much as possible.

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    $\begingroup$ "Just like the catholic church did a good job at slowing down our scientific development during the middle ages due to their aversion to changes and aggression towards opposing views" weird how many early scientists were Monks or Priests then, or that the Catholic Church introduced the concept of Peer Review (which Galileo famously objected to, publishing his book where almost everything except the already-well-known "the Earth revolves around the Sun" was very quickly proved to be completely wrong!) Do some historical research, don't just recite the false propaganda. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Apr 3 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ Yup, like I said, slowed down development, not stopped. I am aware that many areas of science started thanks to priests, the studies of the echolocation of bats being a great example of their contributions to science. However, I focused more on their traditional view towards other advancements and ideas that were contrary to what they said or that they'd see as a threat to their power. In a similar way, I suggested a society where religion runs a good part of the scientific development and controls a good part of knowledge, but not everything they discover and know is shared with the rest. $\endgroup$ – ProjectApex Apr 3 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ @ProjectApex The Roman Catholic Church did not slow down advancement; in fact, without it we would have lost all of the (considerable) knowledge that the Roman Empire had built up. Let me rephrase what Chronocidal said. All of the important European scientists during the Middle Ages (and many of the Renaissance ones) were Catholic priests. The Church was not against the advancement of science; the reason why scientists such as Galileo were repressed was because such scientists had one or two good ideas interspersed amongst hundreds of clearly fallacious ones. $\endgroup$ – The Daleks Apr 4 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Marvin the Paranoid Android I'm sorry, you're correct. The society itself remained relatively unchanged for decades due to a series of factors I'm not sure I'd be able to describe in one answer. $\endgroup$ – ProjectApex Apr 4 at 20:38
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In short: If you are committed, indefinitely.

The way you put it sounds a bit like "If there are any and all requirements for something to spread fast and wide, how can I make it spread as little as possible?"

For a widespread adaption of those things, several conditions need to be met:

  1. Advancement_A is reproducible
  2. Advancement_A is fairly understandable for the next person that does not use it yet
  3. Advancement_A does not require great funds or specialization to use
  4. Advancement_A has benefits that are more visible than the costs or threads of using it
  5. All necessary steps to use Advancement_A are either visible or self-explanatory/ easy to backward engineer
  6. Users of Advancement_A do travel to or are visited by people that do not know Advancement_A yet but would like to use it

So to prevent Advancement_A to spread, we need to eliminate at least one of the points above. I will give an example for each point:

  1. If the spell comes from a magic crystal that has been created by chance, there can only that many spells that can be cast or scrolly that can be crafted using that one cystal. Obviously, the spells become rarer and more expensive further away from the home of the crystal
  2. Constructing firm stone structures is not that hard, but you won't learn how to do it just by visiting a church/ castle. You can steal some ideas but you won't be able to reproduce it the way you can learn how to say the magic words that are all it needs to cast a spell in some magic systems.
  3. If it requires years of training to learn the arcane affinity needed to control spells, not many people will be able to copy your new spell even if anyone who has that level of training knows how to cast it just from watching you do it once.
  4. As long as any step required to use Advancement_A is perceived to be expensive or dangerous, people won't tend to try it as long as they have other options. Both flame throwers and gun powder have been invented twice because the first time they have been seen as evil and were condemned but you can add in real threads or arbitrary costs at any point.
  5. It might be cheap and easy to create a spell scroll and it might be easy to use one but the only place they are created is in the sanctuary of the magical or religious society that invented the spell and espionage is night impossible since only the inner circle may enter there. As long as one can not learn how to make a scroll by analyzing one, that will ensure the monopoly on anti-gravity spells until another order makes up their own anti-gravity spell but they will keep it secret too, don't worry.
  6. India might have had a spell that allowed elephants to safely travel through mountains and it was vastly available there. There even was a chain of countries with good relationships between India and Carthage but no direct trade. No one but Hannibal had use for that spell so no one bothered mentioning it and he never learned about it. If the advancements are less specialized, they will slowly travel step by step as long as there is contact between users and non-users.

Combine difficulties at several of the points I mentioned and you can slow down the spread of Advancements severely but the only points that can really stop them are 1 and 6. If it can't even be reproduced by the inventors and only a certain area can be supplied with it or if there is no contact with others, the advancements won't spread outside of those boundaries. Everything else is just a matter of time and demand and I would assume big innovations to travel to all trading partners within a generation.

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8 existing answers and not one of them has mentioned...

The Amish

Just because people of your society can see these innovations in use elsewhere, know exactly how to acquire or reproduce them, and have the no barriers to doing so if they wanted to... doesn't mean they want to. They just value other things.

Every innovation that's worth anything will necessarily bring about sociological changes. Whether those changes are good or bad is not an objective thing--it is purely a matter of individual values. And furthermore, it is usually very difficult to predict ahead of time exactly what those changes will be, meaning you may not be able to accurately subjectively evaluate them, either. Just seeing them in use elsewhere isn't good enough, because the culture of "elsewhere" is not your culture.

It just so happens that in our modern globalized culture, progress is widely considered an inherently good thing, for its own sake. But that's not an objective, universal truth, either. It is a learned cultural value. So just give your society different values. Make them, like the Amish, value their interdependence and social stability, and treat any changes with extreme caution. That doesn't mean that they will never, ever adopt any new thing--but they will only adopt new things after a long period of careful consideration of exactly how introducing this new thing will affect the community, and a consensus that the changes are worth it and wanted. And even then, adoption of any new thing is likely to be voluntarily limited to circumstances in which it provides the most benefit, with the least disruption--thus, why Amish communities may choose to adopt telephone service, but only in the form of, say, business phones which are only to be used in the office, for business purposes, during working hours. Or they may choose to adopt internal combustion engines... but only to run farm machinery when enough manual labor is not available in a given year.

Religion may be a factor, as it is with the Amish, but it need not be. And there need not be any malignancy or lies to suppress the new magic or technology. Merely a general agreement that we don't want to live that way.

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A famous case from history which you may be able to apply is that of the Luddites. Broadly, their livelihoods depended on skilled manufacture of handmade crafts, but textile mills made their work and skills obsolete. This began to return them to the economic servitude that was even more popular at the time with wealthy factory owners than it is today.

They fought back by actively destroying the machines (what they are most famed for) and through occasional violence.

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Similar to an institutional religion, if you have a malign ruling body, they may host public charades "demonstrating" the dangers of the magicks used by nearby areas.

Tell your children and punish those caught with it! This magic is not to be used, or it'll bring terrible and mysterious consequences as before.

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