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Given a remote island colonised by modern day (2023) explorers, with a total population of about 200,000 but cut off from the outside world for political reasons, what level of technology could they maintain for long stretches of time? They have starting technology that can be carried with them, including access to basic electricity, and smaller machines like small tractors, but no larger industrial devices weighing over a few tonnes. Would their level of tech degrade over the generations after being unable to be maintained? Or would the tech level be able to be held steady or even improve?

I have seen a few questions on the site about "minimum population for modern day tech" and the number tossed around is usually 20-40 million. However, I'm not sure how to scale that down, as it seems the number is not linear, and that a lot of that total number is just logistics concerning computer chip manufacturing.

The island is around 6,000 sq. miles, and has enough arable land to reliably support 200k people with early 20th century farming methods, maybe more for sporadic seasons of really good weather, but not enough for a major increase in population.

The island is rich in most common metals, (iron, copper, tin etc.) And combustion sources (timber, coal, natural gas) and sea life for fishing. There are rivers and waterfalls large enough to support a small number of hydro-electric dams, and water mills should the colonists be capable of maintaining them.

The explorers DO know ahead of time that the move will be permanent, and plan accordingly, taking enough pre-packaged food for 2 years, and machines like milling and CNC machines small enough you could fit them in a domestic garage, and any other types of similar equipment. They also take any kinds of beasts of burden that could be useful, such as horses and cows, alongside animals for meat. They carry whatever crops would be most hardy that they could reasonably get their hands on. (Hardy weather resistant crops, but no GM super crops or anything like that) And by "long term" I mean 300-400 years, long enough that all of their original machinery would eventually break down, leaving only what they could make.

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    $\begingroup$ Please clarify your specific problem or provide additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it's hard to tell exactly what you're asking. $\endgroup$
    – Community Bot
    Feb 21, 2023 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ What resources are on the island? Is there oil they can drill for? Other fossil fuels? Can they find iron ore for making steel? Is there copper for electric cables, plumbing etc., Are there diamonds for machine tools? Do they have rare metals for electronics? Do they have abundant fresh water? Is there room for agriculture? etc. etc. $\endgroup$ Feb 22, 2023 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ Does “cut off from the outside world” mean just people, or resources as well? $\endgroup$
    – Telastyn
    Feb 22, 2023 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ Do the founders know this is going to happen? Preparation radically changes what can be achieved here. $\endgroup$ Feb 22, 2023 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on how much hand-waving you're willing to do $\endgroup$ Feb 22, 2023 at 17:40

10 Answers 10

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1900s tech level.

If they keep the knowledge base, the main issue will be a lack of resources. They can't rely maintain complicated oil refineries, or get rare elements or materials. They can build simple trains, steam powered boats, machines which rely on burning wood, have a fairly limited chemical industry to make a few fancier things.

They probably can't maintain electronics, which rely on rare resources and knowledge and very expensive factories, or mass produce plastics, or have enough factories to reliably build complicated machinery like cars, except as bespoke models for their leaders.

They will be more advanced in some ways, since they'll have textbooks which show them society and computer designed machines, but they won't be able to build anything that relies on a complex supply chain and rare knowledge.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 24, 2023 at 3:46
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    $\begingroup$ They could maintain simple electronics - things like electric lighting should be fine. But definitely no microchips. Even transistors are probably too much. But as with most limited population scenarios, the biggest challenge is going to be maintaining a food supply. Hopefully they'll have access to plentiful fish (as long as they can maintain their simple boats), but they'll also need to retain highly efficient agriculture, which might be a bit of a problem without the plentiful sulphur (and energy) we get as a by-product of oil refining. I'd also worry about wood sustainability. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Feb 24, 2023 at 7:50
  • $\begingroup$ It's absolutely impossible to achieve 1900s tech level with only 200,000 people. The mining industry would be at least 10k, the steel industry at least 10k, the engine industry at least 10k, the building industry at least 10k, the loom industry at least 10k, the electrical industry at least 10k, and so on an on - I'd say, even two million people would be a stretch for 1900s technology. Could it be you mean 1800s technology ie the very early part of the industrial revolution, when we had some toy steam engines and so on? Zero chance of building the world of 1900 with 200k people. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Feb 24, 2023 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ They have the advantage of likely bringing in pretty high quality seeds and farming knowledge, so they can afford to have 10k people working in a number of industries, and they need less people for mining and building since they have a high tech start so they can gather a lot of resources early on and recycle them. Of course, if there's a famine or their gene edited seeds don't take, then society might devolve when most people need to turn to farming. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Feb 24, 2023 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ I have been really suprised by the amount of attention and debate raised over trying to answer this question, as It appears far harder to get a definitive answer than I originally assumed (and I know what they say about assuming). However, there does seem to be some consensus that a tech level somewere between the 1890's and 1920's wouldnt push suspension of disbelive to hard. In 1920 about 30% of people were farmers, and horses were not replaced by tractors until the 40's (if this site is right, link below) which answers the farming problem as far as I can tell $\endgroup$
    – William.L
    Feb 24, 2023 at 16:42
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Given modern knowledge (this itself is measurable in population... for that knowledge to be extant, you need x university professors, y applied scientists, etc), a population of 200,000 would devolve to a medieval agrarian civilization within a (small) number of generations.

Modern society probably requires no fewer than 100,000 specialties, and you simply don't have that many adults. Sure, you may think you don't need that specialty oncologist who deals only in the rarest cancer, but then you get unlucky and the person that runs the robotic steel plant dies from it.

At which point you no longer have a robotic steel plant, and you have to hurry up and conscript 150 other citizens to become steel workers (probably more, many will die doing this job until they get good enough at it that they can be safe). But now you've just lost 150 more specialties.

But they can't keep that manual steel plant running forever either. One of the specialties you lost was critical elsewhere, and now farming is somehow less productive. This brings about eventual famines, that further reduces your number, and you can't win. You're scrambling to hold onto the tech you have, but it is a burden that is simply too great for a population so small.

It regresses. In fits and starts at first, until one day they all wake up and realize that unless they start scratching in the dirt as subsistence farmers, they're all going to starve. And god help them if they try to (somehow) remain at pop. 200,000, that will just put more strain on their inexpert gardening (non)skills. This is pretty grim.

If we ever move out into the galaxy, we'll find a strange phenomenon among all those other civilizations (at least of those organisms that are comparable to humans)... the level of technology is always roughly proportional to their total population. Larger populations can specialize more, and technology advances. Smaller ones, even if occasionally some genius skips them ahead a bit, just don't have the person-hours to stay ahead.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 23, 2023 at 19:24
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It is hard to answer this based on current society. People buy phones, and discard them for a newer model in five years. These people will not have the driving force of mass-production. There is no need to improve the mobile phone, and then bang out as many copies as possible to recoup their R&D costs. Instead, devices may be made to last hundreds of years. It may take twenty or fifty times the effort to produce a phone, but if it last longer, the cost per phone-year might remain the same.

Electronics of a sort is not entirely out of the question. OLEDs are organic transistors that can be produced with water-based printing technologies. They won't have the speed of silicon, but they might get us to 1970's clock speeds.

Would they maintain the technology of our society? They may not need jet fighters. They may not want fast cars if they can walk across their island in a day. They might not be able to make a simple pencil if there is no graphite to hand, but there are alternatives.

If they had some time to prepare, they might have packed some self-replicating machines.

  • Postscript

You can make a scanning electron microscope with 1960's technology. An ion beam implanting and milling machine is much the same. It would be possible to write integrated circuits one element at a time without the enormous investment and toxic chemistry of conventional semiconductors. This would be a lot slower, but we are going to make the devices last longer. I think sustainable silicon semiconductor manufacture could possible with a population of 200,000.

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The major issue is, how big (in percent) will be the agricultural sector of that society. Because this is quite critical to the amount of people who can afford to do other work.

A small agricultural sector (about 5% of the working people are employed there) is possible when there is mechanisation of the agriculture (tractors, combines, etc.) and a supply of fertilizers. This is possible with a small factory building the needed machines. A critical issue may be the availability (or rather, the non-availability) of natural rubber. It can be circumvented by using iron wheels or iron chains for the tractors. This society can probably maintain a technological standard of today minus modern computers and cell phones, and minus all things needing rubber tyres.

A medium-sized agricultural sector (about 30% of the working people are employed there) that is probably horse-powered (take care of having suitable cold-blood horses!) will maintain a lower level of technology—maybe an electrical network with renewable power stations (water mills, wind mills) and an electric railroad, electric light, and telefone network, a strange technology mix which feels a bit like 1920ies, perhaps. There will be a rather high level of improvisation and people who are doing several jobs in one person. The well-maintained library (all on paper) will allow the people to recreate specific artifacts using the recipes given there when needed. There will be a small university covering all major disciplines.

A large agricultural sector (about 90% of the people are working there) will directly bring back medieval or early modern tech level since there aren't many people left to work outside agriculture, and you need medical doctors, some government, police, judges, teachers, and craftsmen of different crafts, clerics for religious rituals, and this pretty much exhausts your potential workforce. Probably there is a small mining sector and a factory producing metal (mostly iron and copper). The society may use electricity, but I won't expect an electrical network. There will be rather few people left to follow science and invention, or cultural activities. Even a good and fiercely guarded library will not save you in this scenario. There is a small high school having faculties like medicine, law, religion, and arts.

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    $\begingroup$ Car manufacturers did seriously consider other sources for rubber than rubber trees (and of course, Nazi Germany had to use them). It's doable, though of course it's a lot more trouble and a lot of land. It's hard to say if they could maintain such alternatives, how stable they could make this work and how catastrophic the results would be when they fail. Which is really one very problematic thing here - a few unlucky accidents might be all that stands between "we're doing fine" and "we're quickly regressing back to a 95% agricultural society". They'd certainly need to simplify everything. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Feb 24, 2023 at 8:03
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The answer(s) applicable depend on something not touched on, but mentioned in some of the answers and in comments: what are the resources they have available? That, in the end will determine your answer.

For instance, consider one topic people have been discussing, food. What is available and how easy it is to get will determine both a reasonable population size and how much of that population is required to participate in food production, which will then spin-off into how many "surplus" people you have to do other things.

On the East Coast of North America and in Central America, you had largish-populations that were supported by agriculture, hunting, and foraging, allowing for a settled societies with permanent communities that didn't have to roam around and where not everyone was required for food production all the time. In the Arctic, that wasn't a possibility: you couldn't have permanent settlements as people were constantly roaming as hunter-gatherers. On the Pacific Coast of Canada, there was another, different situation. You had permanent communities, but a great deal of the diet was fish and seafood, not just agriculture.

So say your island is surrounded by rich stocks of fish and other seafood. You might not need that much agriculture (or people involved in it) at all, just enough to top up the primary ocean-based diet, and you'll get a higher yield per person-day of work collecting those resources.

And, of course, the climate of your island makes a difference. I live on Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic, which is roughly the same size as the island of Great Britain. The capacity of indigenous food production to support a population of 200,000 people is a bit different between the two, regardless of tech level.

Obviously, you need to discuss availability of raw resources and such. Arguments of how many people are needed to support an iron and steel industry are moot if you don't know if there's even iron ore available.

Without that information being provided, any other discussions are basically pointless.

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There is another thing which nobody really touched upon yet, which is the question of what technology will be considered valuable by this society. We sort of assume that they will follow our own preference for the most advanced technology possible. But they are supposed to be cut off from the rest of the world, meaning no trade, and I think it will shape their judgements in two important ways.

First, it would do them no good to spend effort and resources, or even worse to shape their society to become dependent upon, a technology which they cannot rebuild from their local resource base if it ever happens to fail.

Second and even more important, their basics such as food, water, fuel for heating and food processing etc. cannot ever run out, unless they also happen to like mass mortality.

So based on that, I would expect them to value technologies which are above all durable, even at the expense of efficiency, and to be very conservative regarding their choices of things such as agricultural practices. I wouldn't be surprised to see them voluntarily revert to horse-drawn ploughs, for example.

At the same time nothing would stop them from rapidly becoming more advanced than world society in other areas, simply because at that size they would be unable to maintain institutional research, and this would allow them to once again adopt a much cheaper personal research. The advantage of personal research is that it can be done by amateurs, which are much more numerous than dedicated scientists; put together, they would run many small experiments instead of having a research institute which runs a few big ones. Since we don't really do personal research anymore, there are whole branches of technology which we didn't really explore, and where a lot of low-hanging fruit can be found as a result; they may for example develop ways to run chemical processes using specially bred bacteria, rather than with fancy machines and copious amounts of energy as we currently do.

So their eventual technology level is best explained not by comparing it with our historical technology level at some specific date, but rather as a strange mixture of old, new, and things which never occurred to us.

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I saw the accepted answer, stating it would be a 1900s tech level, and I disagree. I mean, 200k people is nothing to scoff at.

For one thing, the science itself should not be lost. There will be many electronic records, and there should be paper versions, in case the electronic devices fail in some way. The settlers might not focus on education at the very start, focusing on immediate survival instead, but once they have a basic living established, if they wish any kind of long term survival, they WILL train new people to keep sustainability.

So, they would likely not make many great discoveries, but they should have at least a few specialists in every domain, able to at least understand the established science base.

As for production, hand labor isn't very effective, and would obviously severely limit what can be done - but that's exactly why setting up an industrial core would be a high priority.

Industry needs power. So, one of the first things would be to set up a power station, along with rudimentary resource extraction. That power station would probably be using renewable energy (probably hydraulic, or wind-based), unless some better energy source is located (volcano for geothermal, or a nice oil patch to dig a well and start polluting anew, for instance).

Industry needs resources. The problem, here, will probably mostly be around accessing resources, more than exploiting them. But, if the resources do exist, then there are ways to create small-scale exploitation facilities, which should produce enough to create better tools, and with that, scale the production up.

So, yeah, obviously, at the very start, manual extraction won't be that efficient, but the efficiency should rise exponentially, as long as the production serves to improve the industrial base (create better tools, machines, and the like. Even building a small excavator, for instance, would allow replacing several worker's worth of manpower in a mine, building better foundries should help with metallurgy, etc.)

As long as the preparation was done properly, small high-tech tools and spare parts to keep them working for a reasonable time should be available from the start. Which means having the means to duplicate them, as long as the materials needed are available.

Keeping the population alive would probably be the highest priority, but keeping the industrial base, and the knowledge level, would be very close seconds. Possibly even to the point of being ready to sacrifice a few lives if it means keeping the ever so precious machines, or knowledge. Imagine lava flows and WILL engulf either the Central Library, where you store rare science and technology books which you have (no/no longer/not yet) copies of, or a small hospital ward with 20 or so wounded workers, which you cannot evacuate at the time. Would you sacrifice the knowledge, leading to a very hard loss for the whole community, or some people, so that the community can thrive ?

So, keeping that priority level in mind, it's not that hard to think that crude but efficient machines could be built quite quickly in order to get that industrial base going. Of course, agriculture would be a severe limiter at start, because it would tie a lot of the workforce, in order for the population not to starve. But, even so, even thinking (conservatively) that about 80% of the workforce has to keep farming at start, because of low productivity, that would let 20%, which would still mean 40k people, work on industry. Which is nothing to scoff at. I suppose that the new settlers would be YOUNG, educated people, with maybe some older (but not eldery) people, for their experience. So, all in all, the whole population should be of working age, with no children to take care of in the first year(s). After all, the first priority would not be to "pop out" a lot of babies, but to build something sustainable ASAP, and only then think about adding new mouths to the equation.

Infrastructure, too, would be needed, but that doesn't require a high tech level, or high means (except for tunnels and bridges - or, at least, some versions of them) - merely a lot of manpower. However, the benefits would be quite evident, too, meaning less effort for better returns later on.

So, considering "ideal" conditions (that is, there are deposits of everything that is needed), I'm pretty sure a (very) basic industry of just about everything could be established in the course of a few years, with a modern tech level. Maybe not with our miniaturization standards, but that's not needed at the beginning. And obviously, not with any kind of large scale at first. But, then again, scale isn't that important here - what is important is to be able to build what you need, even if it takes time.

Because once you are able to replicate tech, you are able to scale your operations up. Need more materials ? Just build things which will improve materials production. Materials keep piling up, but you cannot process them fast enough ? Build more of that, then. One more machine, one more furnace, whatever. Etc, build what you need most urgently, so that you improve the efficiency.

Then once you have the means to improve agriculture (and it's not that hard to do, once you have workable fields - even without synthesizing chemical fertilizers, herbicids, or pesticids), you'll be able to move more people from farming to industry, thus getting more and more production, and thus, improving your industry again.

If the conditions are NOT ideal, however, resource shortage could hamper whole parts of the industry. I mean, if you do NOT have copper, for instance, it becomes harder to do some things. Sure, you could make electric wires out of many other metals (or even use carbon, for instance), but the applications wouldn't be the same. Without natural oil, you could create bio-plastics instead, or burn vegetable oil. But that would put a much higher strain on your farming. Without rare earths, electronics will need replacement products, or will have to develop brand new techniques to circumvent the problem. And THAT would be the real hurdle.

Because what limited the industry development during the 20th century was mostly knowledge. It's easy, if you have early 20-th century means of production, to create 1930s tech, for instance. And with it, to create 1940s tech, leading to 1950 tech, and so on. But it's only easy to do if you know how to do it with the materials you can procure. So, if you have the know-how and the resources, you can upgrade rather quickly. If you do not have that, then you need to research new ways of doing things. And that's what takes time, people dedicated to finding these solutions, and also a bit of luck (where a large population helps, because it increases the odds of a researcher getting lucky enough to find a solution).

So, to summarize: With resource abundance, it shouldn't be hard to keep our current tech level. I don't mean that everybody would have consumer goods in a few years, because resources would have to go to improving the industry (and food production, which is also an industry) first. But still, the capability for creating such things would not be lost, it's just that the scale would have to be expanded first in order to be able to "waste" production on things like music players, or personal entertainment, when there are way more urgent things to produce.

Without resource abundance, it is possible to get "stuck" at earlier tech levels. For instance, if you can't create an electric grid, you can still power small workshops with compressed air, or with axles, belts, whatever, from, say, a steam engine. Or a simple water wheel. But, obviously, you'll have a hard time getting modern things to work...

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Given how much time? A Frame Challenge

I upvoted @JohnO's answer and invite everyone else to do so, too, but I'd like to point out that theoretically, given infinite time a population this small could achieve infinite technology. After all, genius is occasionally born and a lot of the specializations John talks about could be dealt with using computers and automation — eventually. With each advancement in automation a greater percentage of the population is available to pursue technological advancement.

Worse, there's really no proof that they couldn't — given infinite time. There's nothing to say that they absolutely can't achieve every advancement any other society or civilization achieved. It's a bit like asking, "if you only had one person working at a time, and you always have that one person 24/7, can you dig a tunnel from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.?" Answer, "sure... eventually."

What's my Frame Challenge?

This is one of those questions that seems logical on the surface, but really isn't. It's not quite "Too Story-Based" (Sure! They can develop as far as you, the author, wants them to), but it's also not rational. After all, who cares if that 200,000 population civilization achieved that last, final technological advancement on the eve of the Universe's heat death? ("Yay, we did i...," fizzle.)

A more sensible question is, "Given X amount of time, what technological level could they achieve?" (read my note below!). Could they develop as fast as humanity did? Absolutely not. Technological advancement doesn't just require time. It requires motivation: problems to solve, crises to overcome. The Sentinelese people might be the last stoneage1 people on Earth, but they're an example of having never had a series of problems to solve that motivated or forced them to advance. They don't even need (or want) help from the outside (trade, assistance, etc.).

So what limited terrestrial examples we have suggest that your 200,000 won't advance at all unless there's a reason to do so. If we give them reason to do so, there's no reason why they can't advance forever.

As a programmer I once knew once said, given enough time and money, you can do anything.


1An edit was attemped to change "stoneage" to "metal-age." I'll address this in a moment, but first, a citation. From a report in The Guardian we read, "While their cannibalism has never been proven, little has changed here in the remotest parts of the Bay of Bengal over seven centuries and Delhi's furthest-flung outpost is still occupied by aggressive 'stone-age' tribes who hunt wild pigs and fish with arrows, believe that birds talk to spirits, and lack both the skills to make fire and a word to describe a number greater than two. ... The 'Stone Age' moniker, so regularly applied to the islanders, refers to the fact that the Sentinelese have lived in isolation for 60,000 years: genetically, therefore, there is a direct line between them and their pre-Neolithic ancestors. Unlike real Stone Age tribes, though, they probably use metal salvaged from shipwrecks, although their hostility to outside incursions means nobody has properly studied the question." A society is not "metal-age" (e.g., bronze age, iron age, etc.) simply because they salvage metal and repurpose it. A society is a metal-age society because they can mine, manipulate, and craft the metal. They have the skill of metallurgy. The sentinelese, who apparently do not have fire, do not have that technology. Though some may disagree, they are at worst a tainted stoneage society — but were it not for the metal they have salvaged, they would not have metal at all. They are, therefore, stoneage.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the biggest problem is that you have to deal with maintenance issues and lack of specialized workers. Your approach only works if you had materials which allowed you to build machines which never require maintenance and never break down and you have an extremely long lived or fast learning population (or technology which allows fast knowledge transfer). A group of immortal humans in a completely static environment could probably build a modern city and everything in it from raw materials, given enough time. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Feb 22, 2023 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael We have both the technology for fast knowledge transfer, called books and even better, schools, and we have virtually inmortal humans, via reproduction. After a thousand years, this 200,000 original inhabitants could be millions, or, even in the case of a non-growing population, you would still have 200,000 people. Sure, not the same ones, but still the same number, with all the old knowledge and a lot of new knowledge they have acquired meanwhile. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Feb 22, 2023 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft Book knowledge transfer isn't all that fast. And reproducing humans are lossy. The amount of book this population of 200,000k can sustain is going to be insanely tiny; they'll never reach wikipedia scales, let alone anything more advanced. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Feb 22, 2023 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ "The amount of book this population of 200k can sustain is going to be insanely tiny" I absolutely don't understand this phrase. I am sure I could care of a library of a million books by myself. Books don't eat. They don't use power. The only thing you need to do is keeping rats away so they aren't eaten. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Feb 22, 2023 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft Archival preservation of books is actually a lot more complicated than that unless you have ideal storage conditions, the books were made to last in the first place, and nobody is ever actually reading them. Paper (and parchment, and vellum, and most other options) is far from permanent even in the absence of things that want to eat it, most pigments do degrade over time, and simply reading a book puts stress on the bindings. $\endgroup$ Feb 23, 2023 at 15:35
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The question here, IMO, is one of the preservation and transferring of knowledge and whether the population allows for sufficient specialization.

If we make an assumption that for someone to be competent in a highly technical field (Engineering, Science, Math, Medicine, Law etc.) that they need to be in the top N% of the population - for 120 IQ and above, that's about 10% of the population - so 20,000 people.

For the people that really make a difference, that's the top 2%, so about 4,000 people. Are those 4,000 people enough to keep the technology running and to teach that knowledge to the next generation? Possibly, possibly not.

However... the idea that the 200,000 doesn't grow with time (especially since they've experienced a traumatic event - which tends to drive births...) seems to be a little silly - You'd see something like the post war Baby Boomers - and I think that so long as the practical intellectual class is maintained (your skilled Engineers for example) - the tech level would survive until the population had caught up.

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    $\begingroup$ "The people that really make a difference" is just wrong. Huge amounts of knowledge are baked into every level of a society. The idea that some elite 2% are the "ones who matter" is nonsense. The ability for the head of the PTA to run an excel spreadsheet matters to the productivity of a society, and that kind of general knowledge has a larger impact on societies efficiency than a genius in a tower drawing pictures of helicopters. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Feb 22, 2023 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Yakk, to add to that point, there are many things that it's cheaper/easier/faster to have done by a specialist, but it doesn't mean they're the only ones capable of doing it. If I need a sink and fixtures replaced, I could do it myself (and have), but I make the choice to have a plumber do it. It might not be done as pretty, and might cause a plumber to start twitching when they look at it, but it can be done. And then there's the stuff which I know can be done. I've never blacksmithed, but know enough that I could produce a functional knife if I had to. $\endgroup$ Feb 22, 2023 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison Ok, how do you make bog iron? How do you build a forge? How about an anvil? From scratch, remember. If I tried to make a sink from scratch, it would probably take me more than a year to get something usable with help. Maybe build a canal on a reliable stream to get some water pressure, make a clay vessel. Not sure how I'd make waterpoof tubes or a valve that wouldn't rot. Put together a pre-made sink with pre-made tools? That is a step higher than ikea, and isn't making a sink, it is assembling one. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Feb 22, 2023 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Yakk, seriously, come on. You are assuming everything being built from absolutely nothing, which is stupid. The premise isn't that they are dumped there naked. They have tools that can make tools, and once you can make tools, you're on the way. The major problem is resources, which isn't addressed in the original question. $\endgroup$ Feb 22, 2023 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison If you can replace the tools you came with, that is fair game! My point is any tool you can't replace is a short or at best medium term asset, not a long term one. They will wear out or break down. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Feb 22, 2023 at 18:14
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Leonardo Da Vinci had plans for a helicopter in the 1500s.

The ancient greeks had working steam engines and astrological calculators, in the BCE.

Babbage had complete plans for a working programmable computer, and Ada Lovelace wrote software for it, in the 1800s.

When the Wright Brothers built a heavier than air plane in the early 1900s, there was a dozen people who where days, weeks or months behind them.

Watt developed an improved engine in the 1700s over decades of work.

We didn't get Helicopters because someone had a flash of genius. We didn't get airplanes because the Wright Brothers are superhuman.

What is going on is that industrial development led to improved machining, better metallurgy, and larger scale economics that made the initial effort to perfect and mass manufacture a design worthwhile.

Today, we can get insanely pure metals or precise alloys or concrete mixes of a huge variety of properties via catalogue. And if we need something more specific, we can get it make bespoke, and if the need is large enough, scale up manufacturing to make it in large quantities.

The Wright brothers used bicycle parts, wires and off-the-shelf engines to make their planes. The quality of those materials was key.

The difference engine didn't work because the reliability of the parts wasn't high enough. The improved engine relied on higher quality components than you'd have a century before.

The actual interdependence of modern high tech society is insane. When you drill down into any single product, and look at one of its inputs, and drill down into it, and look at one of its inputs, and repeat, the complexity just keeps on going.

Over the medium term, anything you can't replace is gone. A 200,000 population isn't going to be refining and mining a large number of different alloys and ores; so you are going to devolve to impure bog-iron level of metallurgy. (You may get lucky and a single high quality surface mine of some metal might be in your settlement area, but not that likely; bog-iron and the like is more widespread).

With bog-iron, a cast-iron stove is going to be a super-expensive high-end product. Good enough iron for plows might be beyond you. So your agricultural techniques are going to be highly limited. Maybe you are in a warm and wet enough enough area you can do rice cultivation with bamboo tools?

This is labor intensive. So you should expect 80%+ of your society to be producing food or supporting their basic needs.

Hunting and fishing is a good source of food. You'll need to be able to make the boats from either wood or animal products, and same with the tools required. So a large percentage of the population spending much of their time making nets, for example, by hand.

Preserving the food is going to be difficult. Again, you can't rely on anything you can't make, so salted fish drying racks guarded by trained dogs or pickling.

Leveraging animals is great. If you have horses and cattle and access to grasslands, you could herd them and live off their meat and milk. The point here is that the biotech (cattle!) lets you do this with fewer workers, which is extremely important due to your low population.

Mills (wind or water) is something you can probably make. While very labour intensive, rocks, mortar and wood can make a mill. And processing stuff at a mill is food-calorie free: technology!

The mill can be used to preserve food (grinding grain to flour). Securing your preserved food is tricky; clay pots might be a good plan? Wooden barrels usually want metal bands, and metal is way too high tech/expensive. You'll need a lot of wood to fire pots, which is a serious pain, and luck with the clay and the like. The widespread use of pots means that glazing I assume won't be too hard.

Maintaining a mill to make paper seems unlikely. So you'll have to find a way to write down what you know or preserve it. Hopefully you brought along some hard-to-decay plastic instruction manuals with good UV resistance techniques or similar.

So in the medium term (a few 100 years), I'm thinking tech that varies from 0 CE to 1600 CE. The hard part will be maintaining the industrial base to keep mills working, the social cohesion to keep the herders and fishers from taking over or abandoning, preserving food well enough to handle the inevitable famines, avoiding destroying the local environment and causing economic collapse.

Planning this becomes insanely hard. Your initial technology -- tractors and electronics -- is insanely advanced compared to what you are going to fall back on. And knowing how to divide your society up when this technological collapse happens is hard.

Like, you can start off using your tractors to clear land to plant. But you don't know when your tractors will fail and you'll have to fall back on manual clearing; getting the technology and expertise to manually clear land for cultivation when you have tractors is both extremely expensive and hard to motivate.

But, when the tractors finally fail, if your economy requires the ability to clear new land and you can't, you are going to have an economic collapse, which will in turn destroy a lot of value and social stability.

This is going to happen everywhere. Some difficult to replace piece of tech is going to eventually fail, and figuring out how to do without it before it fails is going to be extremely expensive and hard. But fumbling after it fails could be disastrous.

But, it is plausible that 100 years later you'll have a farming, fishing and maybe herding economy, with a mixture of locally built shelter and leftover early shelter. A small cache of high tech components (solar powered, maybe alchohol fueled) might exist.

No advanced manufacturing (paper etc).

Iron, either from an easy mine or maybe from bogs, could be possible, but it will be expensive. Leftover tools would be not replacable. In theory a huge stock of tools might still be available. Tearing apart non-working tractors to get metals will be by far the cheapest source of metal. Some tractors might still work, modified to consume oil; but repairing them uses up a finite stock of machining abilities.

A few 100 years later and I'd expect a few revolutions and economic collapses. Almost no electronics left. Steam engines that use leftover parts, and difficulty in replacing it.

1000 years and you are pre-iron age, maybe with better mills.

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  • $\begingroup$ And taking care of modern cattle or even crops is quite a different proposition too. Even that relies on the industrial production all around. Modern horses are highly bred for size and strength - they can't subsist on grazing alone (and you don't want grazing anyway if you have anything better to plant there). That's what organic farming was all about (before it was hijacked by yet another marketing guy) - finding ways to farm efficiently without all those complicated interdependencies; replacing fertilizer and pesticides with different practices etc. That's what those guys need. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Feb 24, 2023 at 8:19
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    $\begingroup$ @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact lol, that was a horrible spelling error! At least I'm consistent. I was so focused on "remember the W, remember the W" I got it wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Feb 24, 2023 at 14:35

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