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What could allow a spacefaring civilization to actively construct and maintain ships, stations and weapons, but stop them from actually manufacturing the individual components?

First, let me try to define "components": I mostly mean more complex devices, like energy sources, advanced computers, space weapons, drives, artificial gravity, etc. They know how these things behave, but they can't replicate them. They are not incapable of building their own basic components, but they are highly inadequate (perhaps on the level we have today).

Perhaps, to make a few more clear example: they could know how to build a normal computer, but quantum computers can only be salvaged. They could build rocket-propelled ships, but can't build those fancy sub-light or even FTL drives. They can build a basic slug-thrower or rocket launcher as a weapon, but those don't even come close to the advanced weapons they find in wrecks. Essentially, they have lego bricks; they can stick them together in many creative ways, but can't make their own.

Going with the "lost knowledge" approach (like after an apocalypse), that wouldn't stop that civilization from quickly reverse-engineer those components and eventually manufacture their own; especially since they already know how to repair and maintain them on a superficial level.

All their components come from scavenging, from old shipwrecks and ruins (from some prior galactic civilization). Existing ships and structures are recycled. Scarcity isn't a bit issue either - there are plenty of these components lying around, like sand on a beach, to the point where they are considered completely expendable. At least for as long as they keep finding new ship graveyards.

I was thinking of a few approaches that might achieve this:

  • All these parts come with some sort of advanced DRM that can't be cracked (yet) and perhaps even damages the part if attempted.
  • Since a lot of this is military hardware, perhaps they are designed in a way that makes reverse-engineering almost impossible (but would that ever be possible to do?)
  • Perhaps this DRM doesn't come as part of the component, but instead, as some external force ("call home" feature). Trying to duplicate or modify it results in some AI/drone incursion - that old civilization is gone, but their mechanical servants are still around and watching.
  • The availability of these components makes manufacturing them pointless, and eventually over generations it just becomes normality. This could work on the surface, but I doubt that will stop anyone from trying to learn more.
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    $\begingroup$ This is not that different from how military technologies on earth have evolved over the past 50 years, rather than trying to do board level repairs at the unit or command level now it is much more common to diagnose and say this card or module is bad and replace the whole thing. Then depending maybe it gets sent back to a depot where it might be repaired or thrown out. Many things are also now made not to be repaired. $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Sep 9, 2022 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ This seems easy to explain. In the current planet we live on, only a couple countries have the ability to manufacture chips. If those countries evaporated, yes, humans could again figure out how to do it, but it would take some time. "from quickly reverse-engineer...." it would be absolutely impossible to reverse-engineer chips. we'd have to just re-do our existing knowledge. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Sep 11, 2022 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Fattie Yes, I was just looking for a longer-term solution, or at least long enough to make this problem more "cultural" / something that's going to stay this way for a long, long time. If reverse-engineering would take 10 years, or even 30 years, the problem would persist for only a generation and be gone afterwards. $\endgroup$
    – Katai
    Sep 12, 2022 at 7:28
  • $\begingroup$ Small frame challenge: You don't need them to be unable to manufacture ALL components, just a few key ones. Maybe they can create computers, but can't replicate a quantum ROM chip that has the program for space coordinates and navigation (and good luck reverse-engineering THAT!). Maybe they can build a spaceship from scratch, but can't build an FTL drive (so good luck traveling to another solar system) $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2022 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Blueriver Yes, that's pretty much what I had in mind. They can still do the basics (similar to our tech and understanding, with more space-focus), just not the very advanced stuff. My main issue was on how to stop them from reverse-engineering those components for long enough to have it become the (cultural) norm that they just scavenge them. $\endgroup$
    – Katai
    Sep 12, 2022 at 14:43

14 Answers 14

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Can You Build a Microchip?

How many people actually know how to build a microchip? An auto mechanic can work with a microchip, install one, possibly even adjust the programming to do something off-market, but they can't make it. The same goes for all the other parts of the car. They can do body work, but don't know how to make sheet metal from raw materials. They can MAYBE recondition a part, but casting the metal or designing the basic engineering is beyond them.

Hand a cave man a gun. Spend a day showing him how to use it. That's an amazing tool. So why can't he just go out and make one on his own? Your technology was designed by beings who's basic understanding of the universe was different. Perhaps they understand underlying physics principles that aren't well conceptualized by these people's brains. Or perhaps the engineering needed to make the parts is too many steps beyond the understanding of the people using them for them to have a shot making new ones.

Unique Origin:

Unobtainium is made in the heat of a collapsing blue star. The mystery civilization figured this out, and when the chance to use a collapsing blue star came up, they got lucky. Only there are only so many opportunities to get to a collapsing blue star. You can move an entire industrial system to the nearest one that will blow soon, and it will only take you 36,000 years to get there. Or you can wait until the next local one blows. That will be about 2 million years (give or take).

Cost:

Unobtainium is absurdly expensive to manipulate. You can make a part for your space cruiser, using up the output of an entire star for three years. The mystery aliens had a growing civilization and needed more parts, so they had to make them.

But your people have a vastly smaller civilization. They can just hit the local ship graveyard and take a part for four magnitudes less cost and effort. There's nothing your people need that isn't already there for the taking.

Or perhaps the up-front costs of building a manufacturing facility is intense. You need a Dyson sphere (not the cheaper swarm) to build an integrated manufacturing center. All the Dyson spheres were destroyed. If your civilization works hard and devotes their entire output for a hundred thousand years, they can build one. Or they can just (I think you know where this is going).

Your People aren't That Clever:

This tech was lying around on your people's home planet. The local equivalent of the ancient Egyptians started building space ships. So your people really don't have any history of reverse-engineering - they just figure out how stuff works. They may not even have scientific theory. If the computer says the ship needs to do this to go from A to B in X days, you do that. If people die when you open the hatch, DON'T. If they live when wearing the red suit, then it's okay.

They're making progress. Perhaps in 2-3,000 years they'll figure it out. Someone recently figured out that Grey plague came from little particles in the air.

Retail Sales:

Your aliens were entrepreneurs. They had a brisk market in exporting hardware. But the civilizations they were selling to wanted the science, not just the parts. To keep their monopoly on sales, everything is designed to be as difficult to reverse-engineer as possible. Maybe they even built in false clues to make it look like the part worked for different reasons than it did. That burnt-out circuit in there was added for show. But the actual function of the unit works on a completely different principle. Those reverse-engineering are led down false scientific pathways that don't pan out. So your society now believes several completely false scientific principles. I mean, experimentation seems to contradict it, but the aliens made it work, right?

AI:

Your parts are intelligent - in a sort-of way. There are thousands of ways each set of components COULD work, but the part knows how to BE a specific one. Being an antigravity auto-feedback initiator is a big job. So the key isn't what the components do as much as what the components know.

This software doesn't interface. The parts, to be sure they keep doing the right job, will only do that job. The other components signal them what to do and when, and they do it. Try to break it, and... "Hey, this one's got exactly the same parts in it as the other one."

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  • $\begingroup$ This pretty much covers all the bases. Even knowing the processes I would need to use to produce silicon logic, I can't possibly hope to correctly dope semiconductor materials, and somebody who isn't aware of that aspect would need a lifetime to either reverse engineer it or discover it from first principles. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Sep 10, 2022 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ Actually it’s not that hard to make basic microchips (if you can get the wafers): sam.zeloof.xyz/second-ic But your point is still mostly valid. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Sep 10, 2022 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ Even if you can make one, is it good enough to be a replacement part? Continuing with chips, 1990s tech should be able to make an equivalent of 2020s processors, but they'd be massive, slow, and use way too much energy. $\endgroup$
    – jaxad0127
    Sep 10, 2022 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ For extra fun - the chips in today's smart cards actually include protective features that make it much harder to extract information from them. I remember one of them being a superfine mesh overlaid on top, so that probing with electron microscopes would not work. The alien's technology could have similar anti-reverse-engineering provisons, for whatever reasons. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Sep 11, 2022 at 9:27
  • $\begingroup$ I like your "unique origin" idea a lot, or at least, the aspect that it could take ten-thousands of years for the next opportunity, even if they figure out how. Throw in some political problems that hinder such a massive undertaking, and they all become scrappers :) Perhaps that alien civilization was so successful because of their unity, having traits (longer lifespan, wisdom) that supports such long-term undertakings; which fickle humans just are too short-sighted for. $\endgroup$
    – Katai
    Sep 12, 2022 at 7:38
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+1 @DWKraus.

There are also processes you cannot reverse engineer; for thousands of years the best we could do in agricultural or livestock is to employ artificial selection and take advantage of random genetic mutations; to make modern chickens for example.

But with genetic engineering, we have done genetically what no amount of artificial selection could have done; by transplanting DNA sequences we have made carrots that manufacture essential vitamins, and are correcting chronic vitamin deficiencies in areas that have suffered them for centuries.

It is possible your parts are so complex and require microscopic engineering that is beyond not just the capabilities of your people, but currently beyond their comprehension.

In 1850, nobody on Earth would have bought that space and time were the same thing and interrelated, or would have bought relativistic time dilation, or would have bought quantum tunneling of subatomic particles -- Heck they wouldn't have bought even the notion of subatomic particles, much less quantum mechanics.

Lost knowledge can be lost forever. I had the same idea as DWKraus; it is not remotely possible to reverse engineer a modern x86-64 Intel processor, or to know what an NVIDIA GPU is doing, or to unravel a modern program from its machine language, without any instruction on how to do it or what a programming language or processor even is.

They are not going to reverse engineer an FTL engine, which likely has hundreds of processors involved, subatomically engineered materials, and operating on a theory of physics that we, today, cannot even comprehend. As far as we know, FTL is not possible, period. Despite trying for nearly a century, we still cannot reconcile General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and it is quite likely neither is completely true; because they both have discrepancies and unexplained experimental observations (like the mysteries of dark matter, dark energy, neutrino mass, and on and on).

Your civilization doesn't even have the scientists or equipment to DO these experiments -- The Large Hadron Collider cost us $10 billion.

There are plenty of reasons to think all they can do is reuse what is left, or left behind, of a scientifically super-advanced civilization.

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    $\begingroup$ Reading your reasoning, you make me think that in a scenario like this is actually more likely than unlikely :) $\endgroup$
    – Katai
    Sep 12, 2022 at 7:33
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The old technology isn't just more advanced version of these people's own tech. It is based on theoretical knowledge which they have no concept of. Say, they understand the universe on an atomic level but the precursors had a complete understanding of the universe on a subatomic level. So the precursor tech utilizes materials and states of matter which these people simply don't understand because their own theoretical science is so far behind.

It's like if the contents of a modern warehouse somehow ended up in Ancient Egypt. People there would quickly figure out what happens if you push this or that button, and that certain things won't work without batteries and probably that rusty contacts or a broken wire will stop a machine from working. But without understanding of electricity and many other things they will never be able to build any of the necessary components.

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Exotic materials

Your advanced technologies like supercomputers, FTL engines, etc. are built using materials that simply aren't able to be made under normal conditions. Maybe they need to be made in some exotic location like near a pulsar or black hole. Maybe they require such gratuitous levels of power, temperature, or pressure that highly specialized infrastructure is needed in their manufacture. So much so that despite the obvious benefits of having more of this stuff, that infrastructure is not very widespread.

New output is only a trickle compared to demand for super-materials, but fortunately their superior properties can survive being reshaped, salvaged, and remade into new forms. So while it's hypothetically possible to have new materials instead of recycled ones, for most people it's out of reach. Widespread recycling also makes it less economical to expand production (since you'd have to compete with recycled materials in price, and setting up new production is massively expensive).

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    $\begingroup$ What I like about this answer is that it categorically prevents any kind of reverse-engineering or overnight revolution. If the fabrication process requires exotic materials, there can be no substitute for laboriously inventing and constructing the entire supply chain. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Sep 9, 2022 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom That was my thinking. They fully understand what these materials are and how they're made, but that doesn't mean they can do it themselves. Supply chain management gets short shrift in sci-fi but it's a useful thing to think about with these kinds of problems. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Sep 9, 2022 at 18:09
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DRM-locked fabricators

All of their technology was manufactured by highly advanced automated fabricators that could convert raw materials into whatever advanced technology with the ease of Star Trek holodecks. However, you could not use them without cryptographically-impossible-to-crack DRM permissions, and due to Right to Repair not being a thing in the setting, all those fabricators are rigged to self-destruct if they detect being opened or otherwise tinkered with by anyone who does not have a special DRM permission, as the companies that produced them hoped to profit from monopolising the repairs of their fabricators.

Then, due to some cataclysm or other, everyone lost their DRM permissions, taking the manufacturing foundation out from under their civilisation and leaving them with a choice to either go several tech levels back and manufacture things manually or just use whatever advanced tech already exists, which turned out to be much more convenient and so most people went with this.

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    $\begingroup$ Besides the tech being way too advanced, this is the most realistic one for high tech manufacturing who want to keep their edge $\endgroup$
    – qwr
    Sep 10, 2022 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ I think it was David Drake did this in several books too. Colonies are kept in line by simply not giving them access to the technology needed to become independent. They must trade with the home planet (or home corporation). They can assemble space ships but they are never given the means to manufacture the high tech parts. Those are import only. There's a revolution? Or a union dispute? Okay, no more imports, now you can all starve. And the corporations all cooperate so, e.g., Amazon will never sell to a Walmart colony or vice-versa. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Sep 12, 2022 at 20:49
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Social Limitations

Humans can get a lot of amazing things done with hundreds or thousands of people working toward the same goal. But what if your race couldn't or wouldn't cooperate on this large of a scale?

If your civilization is limited on how many people can cooperate on a single task (for whatever reason), then you could easily imagine a scenario where an individual could be very good at fixing or tweaking an existing piece of technology, but couldn't make one from scratch even if they knew exactly how to do it, the job is too big for them.

For example, I can fix or assemble a computer with new or salvaged components all by myself with no help, but I could never produce one on my own if I had to start with taking the raw materials out of the ground.

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A somewhat abstract example from history might be mathematics and the Romans; you get what you prioritise, followed by respect for ancient knowledge.

Romans took mathematics that was developed by the Greeks, and were able to maintain it and use it for centuries. They had lego bricks, they could stick them together, but they couldn't make their own. They weren't set up to advance mathematics. They sent their brightest sons to be generals in war.

As a compounding effect, after some centuries of this, the Greek mathematics acquired a patina of ancient knowledge; when advances in mathematics resumed, it took some time and effort to break that hold. Euclid's Elements dominated the field into the 19th century, and that's with sections that could be used to demonstrate its own inadequacy (eg. list of open problems that could be proved to be unsolvable within the system).

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They lack the tools to make the tools

In both scientific understanding and engineering practice they no longer understand how to build the necessary pre-steps in making any of these exotic items. Highly advanced tools must be made to exacting standards and anything out of spec is wasted time and effort.

For a current example, building a new jet liner requires there to be facilities to produce nearly atomically perfect ingots of titanium, facilities to make toolheads that can cut that titanium repeatedly to very tight tolerances. So far that's "just" metallurgy and manufacturing. But now you need someone who understands the chemical science of petroleum engineering in order to refine jet fuel.

All these disciplines overlap and result in a highly skilled workforce crossing a dozen industries and that's just to produce something that would be considered unimaginably basic in comparison to a FTL drive.

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They can't reverse engineer the devices because they're not actually there.

The ancients figured out how to make pocket universes that have different physical laws--that's how they manage to do things that are "impossible" like FTL. Study it down to the molecular level but without an understanding of the part you're not seeing and you'll never figure it out. Make what appears to be an atom-perfect replica and it just sits there.

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TL;DR: Some things are better off forgotten.

The Politics of Technology

Radio isotope thermoelectric generators are FANTASTIC long term power sources. They just... sit there. And make power. For decades. There's one crucial problem keeping them from being in houses - the best, most easily shielded, longest lasting isotope to use for a heat source is Plutonium 238.

The biggest problem with that is, of course, nuclear weapons proliferation. If you have or are developing the technology to produce this material in significant quantities, weapons of mass destruction are within reach. Not only are they within reach, but depending on the scale of the production facilities, you might be able to quickly and quietly build a planet-killing array of weapons. The implications of that change the behavior of whole worlds.

A perhaps more extreme example comes from 'The Regiment: A Trilogy' by John Dalmas. As part of the background of the setting, a war had been fought that was so bad, they surrendered the ability to do science. They developed a working set of spacefaring grade technology (dubbed Standard Technology) and a bureaucratic set of cultural and managerial protocols (Standard Management), along with a bit of brainwashing and a dash of propaganda. The people of this fictional society's nations have a difficult time thinking outside the box, because for the most part they can't see the box, and recognizing this 'box' causes something like a physically unpleasant cognitive dissonance.

This may not be the direction you want to take things in - not every story needs to talk out loud about the politics of their universe. Regardless, when building your world, make sure you consider not only the ramifications of what your people can produce, but how fast they can produce it, what other additional abilities that suggests, and how others in the story feel about that and respond to it.

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    $\begingroup$ Another two examples: The Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross multiverse contains civilizations which thrive off the scraps of others, including scraps of technology. One of the technologies is "magic" which brings about an apocalypse. To prevent "magic", they set up an AI and doomed some universes. The Horizon series (Zero Dawn, Forbidden West) has multiple civilizations all using scraps from spacefaring races. One of the technologies is "plague" which corrupts other technologies and attacks people. $\endgroup$
    – Corbin
    Sep 12, 2022 at 17:10
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Examples from history: having the science doesn't mean having the industrial capability

The last century has shown a lot of places where cars and trucks were used, adapted and maintained but not manufactured, and scavenging (in bad times) or importing (in good times) was the sensible or possible alternative.

For example, in Spain in the 1940s, after the Spanish Civil War and while the rest of the world was busy with the Second World War, car factories were scarce or destroyed, although there were engineers enough who knew how cars work and how to make them, given the necessary resources, these resources were lacking. However a lot of workshops were making working trucks from scavenged parts or the few new parts that could be manufactured or imported. Even some parts that were in short supply could be manufactured by hand.

Even nowadays there are countries that use cars (and maintain and adapt then when needed) but don't manufacture them because it doesn't make economic sense. If the rest of the world stopped selling cars to them, they would set a factory, but until then it's more efficient to import cars.

For your spacefaring civilization it's the same: They know how their technology works, but it's very expensive to set the factories to make it (the microchips example in another answer is great), and they aren't going to set a factory as long as there is an alternative (even scavenging), and probably when there were nothing else to scavenge they would switch to an alternative technology or stop doing some things.

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Space patents

The aliens that can make the technology, decide that no one else should be allowed. So they either only give the technology, initially, to people who are willing to agree to make laws saying no one can manufacture the tech. Or, (and probably in combination with the previous one), they fly around and simply kill anyone who tries to build things from scratch.

Perhaps these aliens even use the creation of new technology as a sign that their should be a purge (wouldn't want anyone getting powerful enough to defeat them). While simply allowing the reuse of their tech does not trigger a purge.

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Trade secrets

Porcelain dishes and teacups were hugely valued in Europe for centuries, but no one outside of China knew how to make them. Europeans tried to reverse-engineer the process, but some details of how to mix and age the clay are simply not obvious from examining the finished product. These details were guarded by Chinese families as trade secrets for a very long time. Eventually they were discovered with a mixture of experimentation and spying, but it took a lot of effort.

In your world, if the technology in question is as common as sand on a beach, there's very little incentive to spend centuries on experimentation and spying to discover a trade secret.

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Environmental Pollution

Just like today's technology, manufacturing of specialized components has a high cost in terms of generating a LOT of a variety of environmental toxins. Either you have a huge amount of space and resources devoted to capturing and reprocessing of those toxins or you have access to a huge amount of water to essentially dilute them into harmlessness (or at least flush them out of your responsibility).

Either approach generally implies planet-scale access to resources because closed environments cannot tolerate much in the way of toxins buildup. Yes, you can fire rockets containing the toxins into a handy sun or moon but that still requires wasting a large amount of precious resources.

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