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(note I believe this is not a duplicate of Would relatively primitive people really confuse technology with magic? - that person's question is if there were precedent for primitive people finding modern technology for their era magical, I am asking what the era would be where someone would start not even being able to understand what modern devices were used for at all).

Looking for the earliest era I could have someone be able to travel from to the present day and still be able to sort-of-function on their own with modern technology.

Assume the person is otherwise normal and basically educated for their era, and the location is relatively similar to their original place of residence (farmer in a rural area, a city dweller on a street, etc). Define function as within the first 12 hours of arriving in a location find shelter, feed themselves, get some rest, tend a minor wound and start trying to figure out where the heck happened without being so mystified and overwhelmed at all of the things and noises and sounds or unable to understand their surroundings.

  • For example, if someone came to the present from 1965 they would have a lot to learn about modern politics, etc and the capabilities of our devices, but they would already know what the devices' original intent and use cases more or less well enough to operate in a modern residence. They'd know the refrigerator held food, the device on the wall turned the lights on, the screen in the corner was probably some kind of television, etc. They would know the big box with wheels outside was a car was and more or less how to operate it, what the planes going through the sky were and what they were doing, etc.

  • Someone from 1945 would be able to do the same, though the television and phone might be a mystery to them but if they somehow accidentally activated it they'd be able to map those devices into a functional model - the tv is like a radio with pictures, the phone has numbers it, maybe I can use it to call other phones, etc.

  • Someone from 1925 wouldn't know a TV, but they might see a device in a room's central location and start to map it into being like a radio. They probably wouldn't recognize a cell phone but a land line (receiver on a hook) would be something they'd likely be able to take a guess at.

    They might pick it up and ask for the operator, then believe it wasn't working when they heard the dial tone or got no response, but once they understood that device was called "phone" they have a ready understanding of what phones are used for, even if they didn't know specifically how to operate it. Cell phones, probably not so much, maybe if it received a call and rang like a phone, even if they didn't know how to touch the answer button they'd understand it was a phone and what could be done with it.

  • Someone from 1905 would get the buildings, the streets, probably the cars and inside a structure they'd understand things like the refrigerator, the toilet. They'd recognize the thing on the wall as a light and have an idea that if something, somewhere was operated, the light would turn on. They're likely to understand if they needed medicine it was likely in the room with the water fixtures and toilet.

    The other devices would just be mysterious objects to them, wouldn't they?

    Not that the person from 1905 couldn't discover or learn/be taught how to operate them, but they wouldn't have any initial mentel model for a television or an air conditioner, though they would understand the furnace.

  • Someone from 1885? I don't know.

  • I'd think a person from 1605 would be non-functional about where to find food, etc beyond a very basic level - they'd recognize people and buildings which would could act as shelter and could hold food, etc,, but everything else seems to me like it would be unbelievably incomprehensible to the point of being alien, wouldn't it?

I'm excluding language a little bit, as that's a whole complex topic unto itself - for example, a person from the state of Virginia in 1776 would recognize and probably read a map of the United States of America, but beyond proper nouns there would be many words, idioms and pronunciations that would be utterly foreign to them.

And the smells! We think of the ancient world as including the stink of open sewers and limited bathing and animals but think of what the smell of ozone and deodorant and car emissions (plus the absence of the scents they knew well would be like to an ancient person.

Not to mention the hum - the sound everyone living in electricity-using societies know and only notice when it's absent, like being in the country or during a power outage.

I also know this varies by era - if an Andaman Islander from 1605 dropped into the same place in the modern day he or she would be more likely to easily orient, but wondering what the cutoff would be for first/second world societies.

Electification is a big milestone, I know, but gas lamps were in homes for a long time before and I think someone of a late 1890s era would see the fixture, especially a clear one, and know what it did, whereas someone from James Fenimore Cooper's 1820s era might just see it as decoration.

At what point would the cognitive load of not -how- to operate modern technology but what it even did start to become so alien that the person would not be able to function?

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    $\begingroup$ stone age uga buga or even before that. because depend on the civilization or region, even bronze age people already know several technology that still use today. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Jul 21 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ I think it strongly depends on the person involved. Just try giving a smart device from today to some old fox and you will understand why. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 21 at 7:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think you underestimate how developed things were in the past, and how adaptable humans are. You could drop some "auto-chariots" and "pocket lamps" into ancient Greece and they'd be amazed, but not so overwhelmed they couldn't cope. $\endgroup$ – David258 Jul 21 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ This is very opinion based, and is going to depend on the individual, where you got them, where you drop them, and how long they have to survive on their own. there are people alive today that would be overwhelmed if you dropped them in times square. $\endgroup$ – John Jul 21 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ This question is very opinion based. Anyway you seem to leave out interactions with the locals. The first thing the time traveler would do would be to try to communicate with people if they don't look menacing (we don't, we are just weird). But it's mostly based on the person. I think a Fibonacci or an Ibn Battuta would do just fine. $\endgroup$ – Duncan Drake Jul 21 at 15:34
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I think 1880 to 1920 is a good bet.

Electricity is just invented, making it a wonder with all new possibilities. Together with other inventions in that aera (1903 flight) it might seem that anything is possible. Someone in that mindset might have a basic understanding that electricity can power a huge range of appliances and accept these changes. They can function with automobiles after learning a bit more about the rules and stricter seperation of pedestrians and cars. They'll probably be able to walk into a shop and pay by cash if they can get any, as well as go to a hotel. Depending on the person, he or she can even use firearms.

They will certainly be bewildered, uncomfortable with the amount of signals everything is pushing at them and if you would repeat this a lot plenty will die for not understanding traffic for example, but they have a good chance to still survive. They will be overwhelmed, but functional. There is no way they'll not be overwhelmed for days if not years to come.

Incidentally, the literature at the time had a lot of doom (Kafka) despite the new technologies. So they might not be too surprised at everyone wearing face masks due to a disease or pollution.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure someone from a city in ~1900 would really be so surprised by cars or traffic, they knew not to step in front of horses + carriages (London ~1900: youtube.com/watch?v=dtRiMS34KxQ there are even some motorcars in there!). Paying by cash to stay at an Inn/Hotel would be something even someone from an ancient civilisation would be comfortable with. $\endgroup$ – David258 Jul 21 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ @David258 speed of cars, compared to carriages, was a big game changer in the early 20th century. Things like crosswalks and traffic lights came to life after many incidents. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jul 21 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ All of the answers are interesting perspectives,but this is the most relevant and specific to the intent of my unfortunately wordy question. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – lonstar Jul 21 at 21:55
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It depends more on the person than their origin time.

The standards you've set for "functionality" - food, shelter, rest, first aid - are not high, but they're also tasks that humans were much more familiar with historically than they are now. An urban human from any of the past two thousand years would be aware that a house would have a place where food was stored, and humans of antiquity would probably be a lot more effective at identifying the crude nutritional properties of modern foods and working out what was safe to eat - and their immune systems would probably allow them to eat just about any modern food without complaint. Their biggest risk is probably over eating.

I'm channelling a stereotype of urban humans being intrepid, inquisitive types, though, which is generally not true. The vast majority of people do not function well outside their technological 'comfort zone'. The cliche of giving a new whizz device to a 'crusty old fart' is only half the story: for anyone with any familiarity with the tech watching 2016 teenagers try to use Windows 98 is truly painful. But there are exceptions, and I'd argue that it's generally the case that people are often more adaptable 'forwards' than they are backwards: my nonagenarian grandmother has readily adapted to navigate this current crazy world using an iPad, but I'm sure very few people from today would be able to use the Turing Bombe she operated during the second world war.

If you take a colonial-era American southerner and drop them into the American south, all but the most refined of social classes would have no difficulty - or lack of familiarity - in finding a tree or rock to shelter under. How successful they'd be at finding food would depend on how they're expecting to look for for food. Someone used to foraging and hunting would struggle on a ten-thousand-acre monoculture farm with not a prey animal or edible tree in sight. Anyone who expects to find food in a house would find a lot of the rural architecture eerily familiar, but anyone used to having servants prepare their food for them would struggle to even find the kitchen, let alone eat anything from it. But I'd back the majority of nineteenth-century to find (and more importantly, I'd buy into a story where such a character found) enough to sustain themselves, mainly because they would be more used to needing to sustain themselves by such ingenuity.

Even further afield temporally, you'd find some people intrepid enough to survive even a very great culture shock. There weren't many widely-travelled people in medieval Europe as a proportion of the population, but those who did would be familiar with the principle of survival: find another human who has something you need, and trade with them (or take it by force, the success of which would depend on whether they were bringing a sword to a gunfight or to a fistfight). While a clerk in Walmart might not accept a silver dollar or a gold florin at the checkout, I suspect many modern humans would trade a day's food for one more for the novelty value than because it was a profitable exchange.

True modern technology would be out of mental reach for all distant travellers, but I think the point is that you'd be surprised how feasible it is to function, by your definition, without it. No, they're not going to be watching Netflix or calling their great-great-great grandchildren on Zoom; but for food, shelter, health, sure.

PS: don't forget that before the mid-nineteenth century no one with a minor injury would even think to look for any medical resources beyond a cloth bandage, so the fact that they'd probably do themselves more harm than good with modern pharmaceuticals is probably irrelevant.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer, but I think your logic about tech being more forward compatible than back is wrong. Your grandmother may not have had iPads growing up, but she's been in this world for the past 30 years as all the steps leading up to them have happened. Jumping forward in time without those 30 years of experience is far worse. Before using her first iPad, she probably at some point used a PC to log into something, or used an electronic ATM, used a digital camera, owned a cell phone, or at the very least watched someone use a tablet before she ever tried using an IPad herself. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 21 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer and insightful - I was looking more for a demographic-type answer about when probabilities across various eras/generation would drop beyond the point of being able to basically self-function for a brief time, but there's many dimensions to consider. Your point about money and commerce is very relevant. $\endgroup$ – lonstar Jul 21 at 21:57
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(This answer refers to the question in the title: who will find the technology overwhelming. The body of the question asks for something entirely different, namely for the time traveller to be able to function on their own; which is a lot trickier, and depends fundamentally on the availability of money, and on pre-existing knowledge of what money even is.)

Any person can learn to operate any modern device.

Proof:

We were all born illiterate and without any knowledge of how to operate any device. We all eventually learned to read, to write, to type and to operate any device we have an interest in operating.

At no point in the historical past were people less intelligent than us, or less knowledgeable than a two years old.

Historical proof:

When the Russian Empire changed its name to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, three quarters of its people were illiterate. Forty years later, their children built rockets and went to space. (Fun factoid: they invested a lot of sweat and treasure in an empire-wide campaign to eradicate illiteracy, raising the proportion of literate people from 25% to 90% in twenty years.)

We all remember moments when a new device puzzled us, but we eventually understood what is did and how to operate it to get it to do what it was intended to do. For example, from personal experience:

  • An espresso machine, the kind with a metal cup a.k.a. a portafilter.

  • A bidet. (Both the bidet and the espresso machine encoutered for the first time when I was 21.)

Honestly, I believe that social aspects may be much more challenging than technological aspects. Think of someone coming from a society which doesn't use money, or doesn't have fixed inflexible laws, or doesn't measure time rigorously, or has fixed gender rolers etc. For example, someone who comes from a society which doesn't measure time rigorously will have little trouble understanding how to read a clock, but will find it hard to adjust their lifetime habits to be on time to the minute for a Microsoft Teams meeting.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the Russian literacy factoid $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 21 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ Though, it's not like every single Soviet person in the 60s would have been able to build a rocket. Sure lots of people were involved in the space program in a way that they would have had to be literate, but nowhere near ¼ of the population. And more relevantly: there's a difference between learning something yourself, and your children doing it. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Jul 21 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ There are things that easily learned by children and not easily learned by adults. Proof: I still speak English with accent despite years of practice. My child speaks with no accent despite much less time practicing. My parents' English is worse than mine despite them studying it longer. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jul 21 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander On the other hand, he's been practicing his entire life :P $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 21 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it's 100% true that every person can learn to operate every device. Some are designed (either deliberately or through ignorance) in such a way as to practically exclude some people. Perhaps the most obvious case is user interfaces that use colors that colorblind people can't differentiate. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 21 at 17:32
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You would be surprised at what they found surprising; mass production and standardisation may be more amazing than new technology

Many things which you would think seem magical might not seem so incredible to people from previous times. Television seems like it should be incredible, but there have been stories since Ancient times of people looking in to pools of 'magic water' and being able to see at a distance what their friends/enemies/other are doing (either live or in the past). Flying chariots are a mainstay of many ancient gods, as are people making wings to try to fly themselves, cars/planes/helicopters are noisier than they may expect, but essentially comprehensible. They may even be surprised they're not more commonplace than they are.

What I think they would find incredible is the ease of availability of pre-made things and their quality/regularity of them. Streets with 50 identical houses, all of which stood straight would seem pretty amazing on their own, but add to that how easy it is to replace precisely engineered parts and it becomes incredible.

Imagine being a carpenter and being used to precise jointwork with non-standardised tools, then seeing someone screw-and-glue a set of flatpack shelves in half an hour. I can't imagine how mindblowing it would be to an ~1800s craftsman to have someone turn up with a box of 1000 self-tapping screws that he purchased for less than the price of a meal.

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    $\begingroup$ I really agree with this, many of the abstract concepts behind modern technology can be found evne in ancient historical records, albeit under differing names (for example, what we call robots would have been called golems or homunculi multiple centuries ago), and it's only when you get into the details of how modern technology works that it gets complicated and confusing. The level of standardization present in modern society though is something that most ancient civilizations wouldn't have even dreamed of. $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 21 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ @AustinHemmelgarn Put another way, if the Enterprise showed up from the future and beamed you board it, would you be overwhelmed? Or would you be merely in awe? $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 21 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Probably mostly just irritated about being abducted, though maybe a bit in awe about time travel being real and the implications of working transporter technology on the development of quantum mechanics, though I'm a rather atypical individual. Realistically though, the thing likely to overwhelm most people isn't the technology, it's it's ubiquity, uniformity, and the culture around it. $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 21 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ @AustinHemmelgarn You should ask them how they go to the bathroom...and what people really use the holodeck for. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 21 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen DS9 covered 'actual' holodeck usage about as well as they could while maintaining their TV-PG rating. $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 21 at 18:31
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I don’t think there is a singular cut off but there are a number of areas where the rate of change has been particularly steep. Language would be critically important, but as it is out of scope I will say no more on that. But equally important would be social standing and education on some ones view of the world, because basically educated and normal will change out of all recognition going backwards in time.

So the first step I would put at around 1900 – perhaps a little earlier in cities and a little later in the countryside but roughly in line with the introduction of electricity or at least of people being aware of it even if they did not use it themselves.

Second step around 1850 +/- 20 years with steam trains and the idea that fast and non-horse drawn locomotion was possible.

Third step mid eighteenth century say 1750 again with very broad margins depending on location in line with steam power and the industrial revolution.

Fourth step very roughly 1600 with the reformation and the enlightenment. Before this time peoples whole world views would have been very different. There would have been very little education except for the aristocracy. Religion and superstition would have provided all important knowledge of the way that the world worked.

Fifth step the Bronze age and the use of metals and transition from hunter gathered societies to farmers

Sixth step around 80,000 BC +/- 20,000 years – development of modern human cognition. Before this time human behaviour and understanding would have been more archaic.

All of these would have major effects but I suspect that the fourth step – the reformation and the enlightenment especially coupled with the vast amount of change following it would be the cut off “point”. Before this point peoples world view would have been so different that it would go beyond confusion and ignorance into fear and terror.

Perhaps surprisingly hunter gatherers from before fixed point civilisation and organised religion took hold might have fared a little better as they would at least have been able to rationalise within their simpler world views, without having a very rigid and fixed world view imposed by an elite. That said they would also be dumb founded, ignorant and fearful, but might find it easier to adapt eventually.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a great perspective, thanks for sharing. Agree about the era, and -eventually- anyone would learn, I'm just looking for what era would be the earliest where they might be confused, but able to understand on their own (because they don't speak the language) what basic devices did and how they could be used. $\endgroup$ – lonstar Jul 21 at 21:46
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20th and early 21st centuries

Indigenous peoples in many countries face relocation of their communities for projects that are supposed to bring economic advancement. Cambodia is one such example. In order to build a dam for energy-poor and dependent Cambodia, the government and the Cambodian-Chinese consortium wanted to relocate an indigenous group from their traditional territory, providing families with a compensation.

Apart from the negative influence such relocation can have on the traditional way of life, connection to ancestors, and indigenous collective identity, the new land they received brought damage to their community as it was not good for farming, too far from the forest, and eventually affecting fish migration and water quality. Fierce opposition to building of the dam has caused confrontations between indigenous people on one side and officials and the company on the other. As in many such similar cases around the world, indigenous people were threatened with murder and destruction of their property, and in some cases treated as political opposition which brings its own adverse consequences...

https://impakter.com/indigenous-peoples-part-two/

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    $\begingroup$ Just trying to get some people from... less-advanced... communities to understand why they had to quarantine in a 5 star hotel for a week instead of drinking in the park with their friends has shown that many people alive today do not understand the current world and the life-threatening events going on around them. Even the supposedly-educated leaders of a number of large nations have displayed a frightening lack of understanding of basic high school science and maths. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Jul 21 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ this seems like it's more related to the other question than to this one. $\endgroup$ – lonstar Jul 21 at 21:36
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No era would find it overwhelming.

Some places, like big cities, are pretty overwhelming to most people. The flash of light and sound is pretty overwhelming. But very low technology people often come into contact with high technology societies, and immigrate fine and adapt.

I've worked with immigrants who have come from villages without much electricity. Humans are fairly adaptable and flexible in terms of handling new technology, and while there may be a bit of awe, they can manage. They don't generally have to handle most of the technology immediately, and can manage fairly well.

A person dropped in a random city is gonna have problems in general, since you're basically homeless. Finding food and shelter and rest is feasible, and finding people to talk to is feasible (though you'll have a lot of trouble if you don't speak the language) and medical care is very dependent on your charisma and is a major issue for Americans already due to the cost.

All of the objects you mention in terms of tech are things that only matter if you have a home. Homeless people rarely need light switches, refrigerators, cars and such, and undocumented immigrants (which this person is) isn't gonna have much of an advantage over such a person. They're not using planes, why do they care about large birds in the sky?

Issues they'll have

They won't recognize police, or guns or modern authorities. They don't know who to avoid to avoid an ass kicking.

They won't know to use seat belts, or how. If someone gets them into a car, they'll be pretty weird.

They'll not know to not shit inside or on the streets. They'll cause major social issues with this.

They'll not understand traffic signals very well, or how to read cars. They might get hit by one. They'll know that large metal objects that move fast are dangerous, but not really understand them.

They won't speak the language, or be able to communicate well.

So, it's gonna be tricky.

That said, with a local guide they'll probably be fine.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the context- my assumption is that the person is operating independently precisely because they don't understand the language so they are just initially finding their way around on their own. And my scenario was time travel, so it's not a 2020 Cambodian villager suddenly in 2020 New York City - it's someone living in a specific place (city, rural, home) in 1965/1945/1925 suddenly appearing/waking up in 2020 in that same place or one like it (a farm if they're a farmer, a city if they lived in the city, etc). $\endgroup$ – lonstar Jul 21 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/50894/… Even if you go back much more than a century there will be language issues, because local remote areas often have unique regional dialects. That's gonna be the biggest barrier to understanding. Of course a mercenary time traveler could just abduct a local and force them to teach them the language. $\endgroup$ – Nepene Nep Jul 22 at 13:53
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Here's a Timeline of Innovations and Achievements to Help You Decide

  • 1994 Desktop Computers
  • 1950 Television becomes popular
  • 1927 First commercial airline
  • 1920 Ideas of black holes, space-time, and nuclear energy proposed
  • 1908 Automobile becomes popular
  • 1901 Radio begins to replace telegraph as long-distance communication of choice
  • 1883 Sterile techiques developed
  • 1881 Vaccines become popular
  • 1868 Transcontinental railroad
  • 1858 Transatlantic ocean floor telegraph cable enters operation
  • 1824 Telegraph enters common use for long-distance communication
  • 1804 First steam railroad in Europe
  • 1787 First commercial steam boat services
  • 1763 Bayes Theorem (statistics) published
  • 1751 First battery
  • 1745 First capacitor
  • 1670 First lecture by Newton on optics
  • 1621 Asphalt used for granaries and sewage systems
  • 1500 Printing press enters common use
  • 1300 Dry magnetic compasses enter common use in Europe
  • 1280 Building-size clocks enter common use
  • 1086 Fulling mills (automatic manufacturing of wool using wind/waterwheel power)
  • 586 Ship mills (boats doing milling - Constantinople)
  • 500 Hospitals (Constantinople)
  • 490 Theory of Impetus (similar to Laws of Motion)
  • 100 BC to 205 BC Antithykera Mechanism (computers)
  • 280 BC Automatic Servant of Philon (robotics; Byzantium)
  • 800 BC Alphabet introduced to the Greeks
  • 2,000 BC Oldest pottery (Brazil)
  • 4,000 BC Oldest dyed cloth (Peru)
  • 5,000 BC Copper mining (North America)
  • 7,000 to 9,000 BC Gobekli Tepe (carved stone, farming)
  • 40,000 BC Earliest cave paintings (bull)
  • 500,000 BC hundreds of flint axes found (Boxgrove)
  • 700,000 BC flint tools found (Pakefield)
  • 1.2 Million BC 50 handprints found (Happisburgh, England)

Based on the list above, I think there's not a time where anyone is going to be blown away by technology. I think a guy from Boxgrove 500,000 BC is going to recognize that a steel axe is just a much stronger version of what he's familiar with; and that houses are just better versions of the what he possessed. A guy from Byzantium 280 BC is going to see someone operating a computer and get an idea of what's going on, even if he/she will need instruction to use it.

On the other hand, you have cargo cults (1940s) that were pretty impressed by airflight. Certain things (airflight, spaceflight) might just be much more impressive than others.

I think it depends on the person.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a great list. Thanks for sharing it. $\endgroup$ – lonstar Jul 21 at 21:42
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I don't think a stone age person would have any difficulty after they had seen how to operate them. They might not have any clue HOW these things worked, but then neither do 99% of moderns. And they might be a lot more questioning about 'do we really need this?'

Turn on tap and get water, easy. And this one is hot water? Nice but pointless? Turn this and it cooks like a campfire? Fine. Pick this up and talk to someone ten miles away? Yeah, but what would I want to talk about? This box stays cold and keeps food longer. Yep, but only if you're an idiot at planning your food supply.

Turn this on and get meaningless noisy drivel 24 hours a day? You people don't have enough to do...

The problem is not that they are dumber than us but that they are smarter and will see through the hype much more easily.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's the scenario - what's the earliest era a person could come from where they would be able even know what things could be used for, not necessarily how to oeprte them. They are not dumber than us, and anyone can learn - I want to put soeone from a different time in the same place surrounded by a different era's devices and have it be from far enough back to be challenging but not utterly incomprehensible to someone -without- a guide. $\endgroup$ – lonstar Jul 21 at 21:44

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