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My interstellar empire, the Dynasty, draws some inspiration from the Gao’uld of Stargate. Encompassing the entirety of the Hyades cluster, it is ruled with an iron (or platinum) fist by the Sovereign-Lord, who the various areas of government and state-run corporations ultimately answer to. He is also the only known human who possesses the necessary supernatural abilities to create the wormholes that allow interstellar travel.

Like the Gao’uld, the Dynasty prevents uprisings and resistance movements by withholding various key technologies from its subjects. However, the degree to which it does this is nowhere near their late-90s-sci-fi counterpart. The most significant of these withheld technologies is advanced computers. While civilians are stuck with junction transistors and ferrite core memory, the nobility and their close-knit associates have at their fingertips silicon-based MOSFET processors and electric RAM. Otherwise, the technology in this setting is roughly equal to The Expanse, with fusion energy and linear-acceleration engines being commonplace.

This means people can fly a fusion-drive spaceship as their day job, hauling people and supplies across vast gulfs of space in the absence of AI autopilots, all the while consulting a microfiche navigation manual projected onto a CRT status display. Then, they can go back home to their centrifuge station city, buzz into their apartment, and relax to a nice cassette mixtape of Space Beatles.

This also means that any aspiring rebellion won’t stand a chance. In space combat situations, they would be facing advanced point-defense systems, decoy-proof missiles, and near-flawless weapon tracking software. In communications, they would have to dodge swarms of autonomous signal interceptor buoys, and any signal that gets caught can be easily decoded with the Dynasty’s superior decryption algorithms.

There is, however, one detail I haven’t figured out. How does this empire prevent its people from accessing 21st century computer technology? Can they feasibly prevent pirates from stealing their shipments of Space AMD Athlons? Would it really be possible to suppress the manufacturing of MOSFETs?

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    $\begingroup$ if the Sovereign-Lord completely controls interstellar travel, why would you need any other means to control the empire? this looks more like a Dune situation than Goa'uld to me. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Oct 27, 2021 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ Reminds me of the novel: smashwords.com/books/view/378268 where the empire tries to keep worlds pre industrial for as long as possible. $\endgroup$
    – sdfgeoff
    Oct 27, 2021 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ @ths The Americans had no navy when they rebelled against the British empire. They just wanted the lands where they already lived to be their own. So, even without interstellar travel, the colonists may still choose to rebel. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Oct 27, 2021 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ "the technology in this setting is roughly equal to The Expanse" How do you handle FTL, because the ability of the empire to react quickly to threats on an interstellar spatial scale requires FTL. If it takes e.g. decades to react to events 1000 light years away, it is, in all likelihood, too late to do anything useful. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2021 at 2:19

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You can't just make modern computers in your garage

Manufacturing modern microchips is a very big and expensive operation to get off the ground, and requires a unique set of niche tools and skills to make. Each new electronics factory literally costs BILLIONS of dollars, and that is with the assistance of modern computers to help design and plan everything out. Making computers if you do not already have computers is a very difficult task. If you leave it to paper-and-pencil engineers to setup, such factories would like rise into the hundreds of billions of dollars range at least ... or rather a long series of multibillion dollar factories each designed to be used to make the next iteration happen.

The amount of capital it takes to get from a 1960s computer to a 2020s computer is far too great for any random criminal organization to muster which means that the Dynasty only needs to keep a close eye on the accounting records of a small handful of major corporations to make sure no one is investing in a micro-processing electronics factory. On top of this, it can keep an eye on the handful of companies that produce things that could be used in the manufacture of microchips like high-end air filtration systems or lower tech computing systems.

So, you basically control it the same way you do nuclear proliferation. Any business that wants anything to do with computer technology has to go through tons of federal oversight. That said, policing the development of computers is much easier in this case than preventing nuclear proliferation. For starters, you only have one nation to worry about. The Dynasty is not trying to keep computer tech out of foreign powers that they don't really have any authority over. Also, if someone does create a microprocessor, it is not like a nuke where it immediately becomes too big of a threat to deal with. You can just go in, arrest the guilty parties and destroy their research without any real threat of reprisal.

As for stealing a shipment of Space AMD Athlons... so what? Without a wholly compatible chipset, those processors will not do you a lot of good. And even if you do steal a whole computer, where do you get software for it? It took the collective intelligence of our whole planet openly working together decades to get software as useful as it is now, and a good missile guidance system is still hard to come by. So if a small rebel force were to steal some computers, and try to figure out how to program them in secret, it would take them generations to figure out how to do anything overly useful. That is plenty of time for the Dynasty to solve the crime and bring the criminals to justice before the computer technology can be misused.

What if they acquire a bunch of fully functional computers?

So let's say some unscrupulous or disloyal imperial lord decides to offload a bunch of old computers to the rebels. Again so what? Now the rebels maybe have a copy of MS Office that will stop working when it fails to find a registration server to confirm your license. Maybe a few videogames?

The problem is that most computers don't just have a compiler and instructions for how to use it; so, unless the rebels are specifically stealing targeting computers, they will still have to learn how to program the things from the ground up.

What if they also steal a compiler and instructions for how to use it?

This is where you start to meet an actual security concern, but your setting already gives you a really good tool for managing this:

He (the Sovereign-Lord) is also the only known human who possesses the necessary supernatural abilities to create the wormholes that allow interstellar travel.

This gives you a huge advantage when it comes to keeping colonial rebels out of your computer technology to begin with. Colonials never actually go to the capitol world where all the computer technology lives; so, they never have the opportunity to infiltrate anything. My suggestion here is to make all government appointments be for-life. So, you have imperial citizens with no previous ties to these worlds, that are going out to the colonies now and then, but no one ever comes back. Or if you do let them back, you can forbid them from ever leaving again. This way, the colonies have no way of sending their own spies to you, or sending you back one of your own people after wining over his loyalty to return with pilfered technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ The trouble is, they have access to fusion. Money is, at its most fundamental level, just energy. It's calories (if food), fuel, it's some plumber crawling up underneath your cabinets to fix the pipes. All energy. And they have fusion. And access to the local system in which to hide a fab. Though it might take decades as you point out, short of brutal and genocidal annihilation, these people are getting computers. Even their 1960s-level tech is enough to start training up a generation of computer software specialists. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Oct 27, 2021 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO Just because you have abundant power does not mean all things are cheap. Without better computers things like Engineering, Accounting, and Logistics will remain just as expensive as it was in the 60s because those things will still require immense levels of specialized human labor. You are also ignoring the fact that computer research in this case is being intentionally suppressed. It takes way too many people collaborating to invent computer science to achieve that in secrete. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Oct 27, 2021 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ By the time you ring in enough key people, someone will talk to the wrong person and your criminal enterprise will be exposed. Once the dynasty learns of your attempt, it does not take genocide to shut you down, just a few good public executions and book burnings and your civilization is back at square 1. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Oct 27, 2021 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ The bigger problem is that just as it has taken vast numbers of people, resources and time to get to our current computer technology, it takes a lot of people to maintain the tech, including manufacturing replacements. Which gives a lot of security risks who might channel a written-off but actually functional computer with software to the rebels. The second potential problem is whether it is possible to run a spacecraft fusion drive without serious computing power - my bet is "no", but as we can't build fusion drives yet we can't be sure. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2021 at 2:59
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    $\begingroup$ As an addition, I heard there is a Dutch company that manufactures the chip construction equipment that every major chip company in the world uses. As in a multi-million dollar piece of equipment the size of a room that no one else in the world can build right now unless they spend millions themselves. That is a big problem for any would-be manufacturers of high level computers. They would need to build the facilities to build the equipment and work on the coding etc etc all without being detected. Tall order. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Oct 28, 2021 at 15:16
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Have lots of DRM.

Make it so that any technology that you use needs a genetic sample from the nobility. This prevents them from forgetting the password and having a servant do it, and makes it impossible to simply rip out a random computer and have it work.

Spy on people a lot.

As others have noted, a large computer industry costs billions to set up. Spy on people and find what's going on. Unless someone can hide tens of billions of dollars of building and research they can't hide a computer program.

Invent a reason why they shouldn't research computers.

When you find computer operations don't always shut them down. Let them run, but have your spies insert rogue chips. Have the automated systems kill a ton of people, and shake your head at the foolish primitives who made an AI.

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    $\begingroup$ Third point is a good one. A lot of people today fear AI becoming skynet, but not enough to stop making it. If you were to reinforce that fear with real world examples, micro-processing could become a major taboo. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Oct 27, 2021 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ As an add on to 3: Tracking chips that call in law enforcement (or cruise missiles) or even just straight up explosive charges in the processors could work. Try to steal the power of the gods? It will literally blow up in your face. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Oct 28, 2021 at 8:20
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ASICs (Application-specific integrated circuit)

Who says the subjects need general purpose computing anyway? The Empire can just supply them with ASIC. Everyone gets nice sealed box with standard connectors that does single thing and single thing alone. The range can vary controlling your fusion reactor to radio or navigation database reader. Could also support some type of read only memory or storage.

With some expense you could order from official manufacturer a new box that does what you need for your new factory or product. These boxes or anything removed from old systems would be useless outside single specific use case. As a bonus, the subjects would not be able to operate on their own without steady supply of new and replacement parts, causing potential collapse in economy if they dare to rebel.

Anything military or state critical is shipped in escorted military vehicles. Juicy target for sure, but with same risks as taking over any military ship.

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Aggressive AI systems as public utilities:

The Dynasty has loyally programmed AI's that run the systems behind the scenes. So the tech that John and Jane Q. Citizen have access to are primitive, but interface with advanced AI systems that compensate for the system limitations. However, if anyone starts messing around with advanced tech, the AI is hardwired into all the advanced chips and monitoring the very primitive internet for advanced computing signs. These AI's immediately come down on the transgressor like the hand of God, or just call the dynastic police to investigate. Without interfacing, computers would need to be huge and very advanced to compete with the AI's for function.

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Not practical

You need an industrial base to build your high-tech fusion powered spaceships (for the masses) and the like, let alone the computers for the elite.

That industrial base is going to require computers. Human brainpower doesn't scale correctly to build stuff in the modern era, let alone future tech. We have robots that build pieces of cars, we don't hand-carve them, not only because of the price, but because you can't get the required reliability and performance characteristics out of the part if a human was directly controlling how it was built.

Unless your technology is unrealistically simple, you aren't going to have fusion-powered rockets that where built using 1950s industrial automation techniques.

The computers for the elite are the same problem. The level of computer technology on Earth is basically proportional to how much we spend on computers. If we spent 2x as much, we get 25% faster computers for the same dollar.

The same is going to be true of most industrial technology. If the ruling caste has access to supercomputers, that means a huge industrial base of producing computers and people designing them and using them.

Things break down, you can't even "well, we once did computer design, now we just run the factory". You need huge numbers of experts with experience in building chips to know how to deal with a material impurity, rebuilding a widget, or working out why yields are down for the process that has been working for years. The same is true of software and integrating the computers into other systems.

The US military was once the place where the most advanced computer work was done. When industry grew in size and spending to outpace it, they fell behind, because size really does matter. Today, they try to use off-the-shelf technology as much as possible, because it is simply more advanced than the in-house stuff.

More tiers would work

Instead of "all civilians have no access", what you need it tiers of population.

The lower classes can have no legal access to computer automation.

The middle classes have access to computers, and are the engineers and enforcers of the regime.

The upper classes rule and administer things. These need to exist because a dictator cannot run everything themselves.

The size of the middle classes determines the technology level of the empire, basically. With a multi-star-system empire, you could have billions of people in the middle classes, and trillions in the lower classes.

People will cheat

Giving access to more advanced computation than allowed will allow the lower classes to be more productive, which in turn makes the middle and upper class "owners" of said lower classes gain power. So lower classes will get access to computer technology beyond what is "ideal", sometimes via black markets, sometimes because their superiors turn a blind eye.

There will have to be periodic purges to deal with that kind of thing. The upper and middle classes will get very good at deflecting blame from such purges.

Revolt comes from the middle classes

Dictatorships tend to be really good at oppressing the lower classes. This oppression requires the middle classes to do the oppression, and the upper classes to coordinate.

Revolts usually require that the middle classes decide this situation is a bad idea. They get support from the lower classes and upper classes, but by the definition of middle classes, they are the people who run the machinery of your society. They can redirect it.

And they are exactly the class of people who needs access to said computers and designing and working with said computers to keep your industrial base required to have said computers intact.

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It's all supernatural.

The real world scenario is military tech. Why can't I have those bullets that go around corners? Here I am shooting straight line bullets like a chump. How come I don't have military drones with solar panels that I can fly around? Or one of those robot dogs I can harass the neighbors with, barking robobarks in the dead of night? The military keeps all that stuff for themselves.

It should not be a big ask that your government has military tech unavailable to the hoi polloi.

But I might try making my own robodog. Why not? That does not happen in your world. Your government has supernatural wormhole making dude and everyone knows it, and knows the wormholes are real and no-one else can do it no matter what, and they have all just got to be at peace with it. The Sovereign Lord is a supernatural type dude. The Dynasty says all of their tech is spooky Lord-doing like the wormholes. No-one has a chance to replicate the drones or the other advanced stuff because it is all from the Sovereign Lord's superpower. So no-one even tries to duplicate that stuff. What's the point? It is supernatural.

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