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A large ring gate appears on Earth that leads to other planetary bodies that vary between being able to sustain human life and just barely allowing humans to exist on the planet for a while.

Another sentient lifeform exists on the planets. The quick and dirty is that they are only capable of moving and living on a sludge-like liquid. If the sludge is in high enough concentrations, the local atmosphere is saturated with particles that are toxic to humans but beneficial to these organisms.

Most importantly, advanced digital computers simply do not work. Either bringing a computer from Earth or building one natively on a planet yields a machine that either doesn't turn on or is inconsistent in operation at all times. Note that this is in reference to advanced digital computers that explicitly use a lot of software. Something like a smartphone isn't going to work. Things like calculators, and some digital computers that use lower-level software work (think pre-2000/late 90s). Analog computers work planet-wide. However, machines that make use of heavy/high level software (ie. levels above say assembly or C) don't work. Note that not "working" in this case doesn't have to mean that the machine is frying itself. It could mean something as simple as a computer is always giving wrong or erroneous output.

What is causing my advanced digital computers that rely on advanced software from working planet wide when simpler analog and digital computers work?

The goal here is to stop advanced software-based machines and solutions from ever working on such planets. Things like AI based drones or automated machine learning based factories are impossible on such planets. A planet wide internet network that mirrors ours today is impossible. The cost of human labor in settling the planet, economic, and military sectors is a major point for the setting. Computer technology resembles that of the pre 2000s ideally due to the effects.

Somethings that might help form an answer:

  1. There is significant radio interference due to properties of the atmosphere and clouds. Long range communication is done through wires. Short range communication can be handled through radios.
  2. The organism on the planet that utilizes the sludge releases a particle that can interfere with radio waves. Killing off massive portions of the organism and sludge throw up particles into the atmosphere that impact weather. But they're manageable for humans. An answer can utilize or even add effects to the particle if need be.
  3. There are minerals, particles, biological compounds and elements that are completely alien to Earth.
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  • $\begingroup$ A planet wide internet network already existed in the late 90s. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 24, 2022 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, the point I’m trying to make is that a late 90s computer is absolutely sophisticated enough for JS to come into being. Your limitations on the tech’s capabilities aren’t matching the limitations of the tech you’re trying to match. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ What current digital computers don’t use software? $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ How could you have a computer that runs assembly fine, but can't run higher level languages? Fun Fact: Higher level languages are compiled into machine code just like assembly is. It's an abstraction layer, not anything physically different. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2022 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Have to agree with SurpriseDog here - there is no distinction between a piece of software written in C and a piece of software written in Java and compiled to machine code. The "abstraction" they were talking about had nothing to do with complexity, and just to do with helping human developers. Unreal Engine 5 is written in C, and I don't think anyone would accuse it of being unsophisticated. I can see what you're broadly after, but you need to be aware that the definition of complexity you're using is incorrect. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Feb 2, 2023 at 0:50

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Your sludge emits radio noise

Computers are compliant with FCC 15 that states "accepts all interference, including those that may cause undesired operation". So in order to make a modern computer unstable, you only need to provide interference on its data lanes strong enough to cause random bit flips. It can be done in numerous ways, one of them is actual communication in radio by the alien lifeforms, which could require them to produce quite a power in order to be heard at a distance. This alone could cause enough interference for computers to fail. Calculators would still work to a degree, because they process data faster (in fewer steps) thus less possibility for a data corruption, yet the calculations should be verified anyway.

The particles in the air are fissile/unstable

Another way to cause random bit flips is high radiation, this works due to modern RAM chips having a very small area designated for a single bit, thus a collision of a random high energy particle with a chip will either break that storage cell or randomly set the value (0 or 1) inside, probably leading to "bit sticking" problem known to aerospace engineers. Either way, simple computers could plain break from the amount of charged particles that are the result of alien particles' fission.

The magnetic field on the planet is absent or too weak

Kind of self-explanatory, without Earth's magnetic field whatever solar flares would cause massive radio bombardment; there were even events, historically, that penetrated Earth's magnetic field disrupting communications, inducing voltage peaks on power lines, up to destroying some weaker parts of telecommunication systems of that time, though not exactly "modern computers". Calculators survive due to not requiring an external power supply and also being small enough to not have enough current induced by particle flux.

The planet's core emits heavy radiation, and sludge is just a protection layer

This one is harder to implement IMHO as constant or semi-constant high energy radiation originating from below won't allow high-organized life to evolve, at least the life as we know it, yet you can assume that sludge appeared first as some pseudo-living substrate that feeds on radiation converting it into usable energy gradient, so life could emerge within while being protected from too much extra damage. Eventually that life should cover the entire core with this sludge, though, and humans discovering a planet full of sludge might have to plain retreat due to its overall toxicity and depth. (In fact water is sort of this kind of protective layer, both from below and above high energy radiation, but you depict sludge as non-liquid)

Yet, all these things can be overcome

Ye olde Faraday cage with an air lock could allow bunkered PCs to still work, any data coming to and from them could use optical media to be passed through the cage, as well as providing galvanic protection to internal communication lines, in the field various protection systems could be employed like for example ECC-based memory with fine-grained control over what cells still are working reliably and what are stuck/damaged, together with analog computers that control navigation by radio emitters, analog data channels being used similar to say PAL TV system to transmit image data, additional telecommunication protocol design to implement error control over L1, maybe more. So while initially Earth-based PCs will NOT work, eventually the humanity could overcome any difficulties and design computers that WILL work in alien planetary conditions.

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  • $\begingroup$ Upvoted for the faraday cage comment. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:45
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Almost every problem can be solved by placing a computer inside a box that shields it from various things. But you could disrupt things for a short while with one simple trick.

The entire digital infrastructure has one critical dependency.

See this relevant XKCD #2347:

XKCD #2347: Dependency

In building the advanced software infrastructure, your world's software developers got very complacent and built everything on top of some unnecessary dependency. You can come up with any fun dependency you want and increasingly silly reasons why it stopped working.

But here's one example:

For some reason, all software is built on a dependency that determines the time accurately (which seems reasonable because knowing the time can be very helpful). Unfortunately, it tries to ping the GPS network around Earth to do so. How could this possibly go wrong? There's always a GPS satellite in range. Especially for software applications that operate over a long range, you would always want to be able to determine the time correctly (perhaps to manage time zones). Why would anyone need advanced software infrastructure where there are no GPS satellites available anyway. So buried under mountains of critical code is a tiny dependency that requires a GPS satellite to respond, and perhaps has a very long timeout.

Now, if the GPS satellites around Earth can't be reached for any one of a number of interesting reasons (such as being on a different planet), most software probably just hangs. Depending on how poor the software engineering practices are in your world, this could take quite a while to disentangle!

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, the time dependency in real world is however present, but desktops do not require any external time source to ever exist, neither on hardware not or software level. Therefore, while tempting to have their computers depend on some extraterrestrial things to be available, this won't cut as "not work", there are still PICs in our world that don't care about time source, or any external data source, to function. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Nov 24, 2022 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ … so in this world, computers stop working if you go in the subway? And every single computer has a GPS antenna? $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ Also you could “stub out” this requirement by bringing a GPS satellite transmitter and tossing it in your server room. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ GPS satellites don’t get pinged and then respond — the communication is strictly one-way, from satellite to GPS receiver. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Feb 9, 2023 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ @XYZT But individual PCs and laptops don’t have any of those single points of failure — they only apply to much larger and more complex systems. (They have plenty of single points of failure, of course, but they’re all in hardware and not something that can affect all of them at once.) $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Feb 9, 2023 at 9:52
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Non Newtonian Sludge

enter image description here

The planet is bombarded by radiation from its sun. The shower of high energy particles and high frequency photons damages the delicate circuits in complex computers. Simple computers work for a while because the have fewer circuits, made chunky and less delicate.

The radiation also damages living creatures:

. . . just barley allowing humans to exist on the planet for a while.

This is why the natives live in the sludge baths. The sludge absorbs the radiation. Arnold had the right idea:

enter image description here

Not only does a layer of nutritious slurry make you invisible to the Predator. It protects you from radiation so you do not get horribly scalded or mutated.

But try to put a computer in the sludge and it will overheat. There is no way to suck in cool air like a normal Earth computer. Even specially designed sludge-cooled computers fail because the sludge is like cornstarch slurry. It hardens when put under stress. To cool properly we must pump the sludge through thin tubes. But pumping it too hard makes the sludge solidify and crack the tubes in half.

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    $\begingroup$ Man, have you ever heard of a water-cooled radiator, or a geothermal plant? Essentially you describe a problem as not being able to radiate heat into the sludge with resultant overheat. Wrong, say 80286 PC did not require external cooling at all, and here in 2022 we have immersion-cooled devices with radiators elsewhere - these could be developed to transfer heat to sludge even if it's solid. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ Faraday caged computers solve this pretty neatly. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 24, 2022 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Vesper Ah you're right. There is no reason to pump the sludge itself around as coolant. Just pump water through sealed tubes from the processor into the sludge and back. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielB Hmm. . . Will Faraday protect you against every form of radiation that could possibly harm you? What about neutron showers? $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Daron great, so build something underground and cover the roof with a few meters of it. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Nov 25, 2022 at 16:43
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Angry microorganism

Your planet hosts metal-eating air-born microorganism, which specifically targets high frequency wires. On the planet, fast switching electrical field is a sign of it's natural predator, so this microorganism evolved to destroy it on sight, digging if necessary. Such microorganism would be very light, to travel far into the atmosphere and would be able to produce an extremely corrosive or hot oils, to degrade the shielding of any machine housing the sweet high GHz CPU. Any calculators with low enough frequency would not be sensed by those microorganisms.

Perhaps this planet was colonized in the past by machines and this organism evolved as a defense mechanism. Perhaps the planet is otherwise very rich in air-born nutrients as the organism can focus only on electronics destruction. Perhaps this microorganism lives in a hive-mind kind of state and the hive mind really doesn't like machines.

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Zones of Thought

Sci-fi titan Vernor Vinge invented something called the "Zones of Thought":

Diagram of Vernor Vinge's zones of thought

From the TV Tropes summary:

In the Unthinking Depths near the core of the galaxy, no intelligence is possible; in the Slow Zone, where Earth is, Mundane Dogmatic rules apply; the Beyond allows soft SF tropes such as Faster-Than-Light Travel or Antigravity; and in the Transcend, everyone is Sufficiently Advanced. Thus, as you head out of the galaxy, you see the same progression of advancing technologies as you'd expect to see over time if our technology went through a Singularity. In the Slow Zone, Vinge posits that human technological advance reached an apex with the "Age of Failed Dreams", during which it was discovered that faster than light travel, immortality, strong AI, and a few other things are impossible.

My point is not that you ought to explicitly copy Vinge. My point is that this kind of wildly imaginative thing, which has zero basis in our real-world science, is entirely workable. The Zones are the backdrop in three novels, at least two of which are utter masterpieces of engaging science fiction. (I haven't yet read one of them, so can't say whether it's a masterpiece.)

If Vinge can just make up a galaxy-spanning gimmick to impose narratively useful limits on technology, so can you.

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  • $\begingroup$ Also, you really ought to read A Fire Upon the Deep (the prologue of which includes the most terrifying sci-fi horror I've ever seen), and A Deepness in the Sky. They're just staggeringly good. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 2, 2023 at 5:31
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I'm not sure how to get 90's computers, they are basically like modern computers but slower. But an idea for something that is "more like calculators:"

It isn't just radio interference. Good news: the planet actually has a fantastic global network! Bad news: it is inhabited by extremely advanced computer viruses which aggressively attack (Perhaps draw inspiration from Battlestar Galactica, and also Maelstrom by Peter Watts). It looks like radio interference, but it is actually fuzzing in some sense -- it doesn't know what kind of network interfaces you have, so it is just trying everything. Assume the Virus will find and exploit any possible gaps in your defenses.

Some examples:

  • All the obvious things that people find all the time; stuff like bugs in encryption schemes

  • Slightly less obvious stuff like attacking your wifi and bluetooth radio, which probably have bugs in their drivers.

  • Your computer probably has a microphone and/or camera, and that's probably got some software, that software probably has bugs, which the Virus will try to exploit.

  • The Virus will play Rhythm Nation at your hard drive.

  • A long trace on a PCB can be an antenna, surely we can get up to all sorts of mischief by inducing some current here and there, maybe flip some bits.

Essentially, anything which can be reprogrammed will be reprogrammed in the most malicious way possible.

The Virus doesn't have the ability to emit an infinite amount of power, so simple communication schemes like a sufficiently powerful radio with some kind of truly random frequency hopping (coordinated beforehand on Earth) should still work.

Your humans might develop simplified computers which store their programs in read only memory (programmed on Earth) and don't have any network interfaces. Minimal data will be stored; any state which accumulated over more than a couple cycles will be regarded with suspicion as bits may have been flipped.

Likely your humans will also want to take sensor readings and process them. These sensors are an opening through which the Virus will attack, so whatever the sensors feed into will be scrutinized. Maybe they will feed directly into hardware combinatorial logic (no memory to corrupt or general purpose computers to try and infect). Or if they must feed into a computer, it will be as simple as possible, the computer and any programs run on it will need to be formally verified and robust against flipped bits.

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Toy around with the quantum realm

What if some quantum rules/parameters are slightly different on those planets?

Modern CPUs and other chips are made with high component and trace density, so compact that quantum rules definitely have a say in whether the chip works or not.

One obstacle that has plagued chip manufacturing for a long time now, is the fact that electrons can jump from trace to trace prvided the right (or rather, wrong) conditions are present.

Slightly different (possibly localized) quantum rules can easily throw something as complex as a modern CPU out of whack - either producing different results or disabling/frying it outright.

Earth could be in a "sweet spot" concerning these quantum rules, but other planets - including "Sludgeworld" has some twisted parameter that doesn't allow for working computers if, say the CPU, is produced with a fine enough manufacturing process.

Result: On "Sludgeworld", anything more advanced or recent than around a Pentium III (late 90's CPU) wouldn't work. That will affect pretty much any computer technology after that era, including smartphones. Older or simpler technology (including cheap calculators) would work fine, however.

This could be extended to other worlds in the "ring gate" network as well. On planet A, nothing more advanced than a C64 would work, while on planet B, they could have the ability to make even more advanced electronic CPUs than on Earth. It can positively or negatively affect the inherent tech level of the different civilizations, or produce effects/non-computing tech that seems almost like magic.

Some things, humanity may be able to overcome (eg. by developing photonic computer technology), and various aliens (including the "gate builders") have overcome or exploited these quantum effects in different ways...

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What is causing my advanced digital computers that rely on advanced software from working planet wide when simpler analog and digital computers work?

You want PCs from 90s to work while modern ones should not.
The main architectural difference that you may use for your purpose is the different process size of the CPUs.
For instance an i486DX2-66, production started in 1992 (my first PC by the way) has a process of 800nm.
A modern I7 has a process of 14nm.
The huge difference is relative to the size of the transistors of the CPU. Of course the smaller the transistors the more of them you can fit in a square centimeter.
There are many advantages in the miniaturization of transistors, less power drain, less heat but most of all more transistors in a chip means faster computing.

Unfortunately the smaller the transistors the more prone they get to be switched by ionising radiation, causing the CPU to be set in an inconsistent state by

COSMIC RAYS

This is not an Ed Wood's story, it's real. BBC - The computer errors from outer space

What causes this variation? Two factors are important. The first, as already mentioned, is altitude. The higher a location is above sea level, the less atmosphere exists above it to shield it from cosmic-ray showers.

Why, then, does Leadville experience more cosmic rays than La Paz, which is higher? This is where the second factor comes into play. This is something called 'geomagnetic rigidity', the minimum energy a cosmic-ray particle needs to have to penetrate to sea level at a given location. This depends on the geometry of the Earth's magnetic field which, apart from the atmosphere, is the principal determinant of cosmic-ray impact at ground level.

Nature - Cosmic rays and computers

So, you see, you have three elements you can play with that could fit in your story: the intensity of the cosmic rays reaching the planet, atmosphere of the planet and its magnetic field.

So unless the PC is duly protected (underground, under tens of meters of rock) modern hardware is not going to function.
Computers like the 486, 386, Amigas, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Arduinos are going to work.

I think I would like your world.

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Vespene Chlorine gas

The particles in the air that interfere with humans and computers is chlorine. Pure chlorine is a gas that is extremely lethal to humans and will damage anything made of silicon and many metals really fast.

Even if the concentration is low, it will be a pain. It will react with moisture in the air to form hydrochloridic acid, a.k.a. muriatic acid. It is a common household item that you can use to clean stuff. It can also burn your eyes, make it very hard for you to breath and in large enough concentrations some of it may become chlorine gas again. It can also damage computers.

By the way, mix one part muriatic with three parts sulfuric acid to make something that can damage even gold alloys. Fun stuff, but your chemistry teacher might hold a grudge for years, so don't do it in your school lab. So maybe thw monsters secret a lot of sulfur.

Say humans try to clean up the chlorine by throwing a lot of sodium compounds around. Now you got a very strong brine. Brine is usually healthy for humans, but the amount of sodium you will need probably means you will damage the ecossystem and your own gear in other ways, possibly explosively. Electronics also hate brine with a passion as it is a matter of time until something shorts. My cell phone is water resistant but in some beaches I've been to it kept complaining about moisture being detected in the USB port, even though it never touched any water.

You can make a device that resists brine by making it water proof (not just resistant), but even a scratch may be enough to undo that.

Brine also greatly accelerates natural rusting. In my home city home appliances don't last as long as mostly everywhere else. So it may be that not only computers have a hard time working, it is also hard having a infrastructure to support them there (facilities and power stations, for example).

You might say that this is just an engineering problem. It may be that the problem is implementing a server structure in place when venomous aliens want to kill you. Take a page from Starcraft Terrans, who could never build on Creep (a substrate used by, you guessed, venomous aliens).

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