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Imagine a continent the size of Africa.

At the coasts are sophisticated cities, where people use digital technology, electric cars, and whatnot.

Travel inland, across a mountain range or through a dense forest. Here there are petty kingdoms with castles, making war on each other with swords. There is no electricity or motorcars.

Travel further inland into the deep dark heart of the landmass. Here there are Stone Age tribes battling dinosaurs.

So why haven't the kingdoms picked up electricity? Why haven't the cavemen picked up metalwork?

This is somewhat the case on Terra: parts of Terra are currently in the Stone Age (e.g. the Sentinelese islands), but I am talking about a more extreme version.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd be more worried about: why haven't coast people conquered the kingdoms and especially why havent the kingdomes enslaved the cavemen. $\endgroup$
    – SBF
    Jun 15, 2023 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Well that's not very nice, SBF $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Jun 15, 2023 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ Agree, I've told the same the history of humans. It did not reply though. $\endgroup$
    – SBF
    Jun 15, 2023 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ but for the dinosaurs that actually is a somewhat fair description of some parts of Africa... $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Jun 15, 2023 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ @wokopa As with my question yesterday, this isn't 'nicebuilding SE', let alone 'nicebuilding by one person's standard SE'. History had a lot of things good, bad, and still debated. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jun 16, 2023 at 1:03

14 Answers 14

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Frame Challenge

There are multiple places in the world that pretty much fulfill most of your description: International coastal cities with all the modcons - then Feudal-esque societies, then tribal-esque societies with no knowledge of Metal working.

The 'common' elements as to why this happens is a combination of:

Geographic isolation - in a few thousand miles, you can easily have a Mountain range or a Forest or other geographic barrier. Or you can have islands - something that will keep the most low-level tech society relatively insulated.

Resource isolation - if there's nothing that is in-demand from where the Tribes people are, then there's no incentive to interfere with them. You might get the occassional Dr Livingstone esque character who explores for the sake of it - but without something to drive enough people to result in cultural/technological change, they will stay as is.

No means of sharing/preserving knowledge - AKA Reading, writing and education. That's a biggy, once a civilization comes up with a system of writing, they can preserve knowledge. New learning from old books. If this is never introduced to the isolated tribe or they never come up with it - they will stay pretty much as is.

Government protections - If there is an isolated tribe, it's becoming increasingly common for Governments to explicitly protect their isolation.

The fact that this isn't uncommon in the real world means you need very little in order to justify it - but if you want to - some combination of those elements should be more than enough.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was about to say exactly that myself. In particular, why take over the troglodyte territory, if there is nothing of use there. Morals might not stop the coastal people moving in if there were great oil resources. But, if it is resource desert, or just no economical to extract, why bother? $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2023 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for being the most plausible mechanism. Easier to justify if the continent has only been recently settled. Biggest problem with the argument is that it is very hard to be certain that there are no economically valuable resources in the interior that make it worthwhile for the coastal-dwellers to move in and grab them. (Geographic barriers make it much easier to justify the castle-dwellers leaving the cavemen alone.) $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2023 at 3:11
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    $\begingroup$ @PonderStibbons colonialism ≠ technology transfer $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Jun 16, 2023 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ I think the problem with this answer is that OP specifically mentioned "petty kingdoms with castles, making war on each other with swords". That would imply the low techs are not tribal, but bronze or even iron age organized and resourceful/rich civilizations. Drop one firearm in the hands of one ancient Egypt polymath and see how quickly they have rifle-armed armies. $\endgroup$
    – lvella
    Jun 16, 2023 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ Start in France circa 1800 and just keep travelling east: France, Germany, Poland, Russia, rural Russia, Siberia/Mongolia. Or south: France, North Africa, Mali, the Congo. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jun 16, 2023 at 20:30
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Most likely their primary energy sources are more expensive to harvest than is the case currently on Earth, making complex technology uneconomical except in places where a lot of economic activity can be clustered into a small area. For a real-life analogy, imagine life with oil say 5 times more expensive than today: it would still be useful, valuable and available on the market, but many things will be straight up cheaper to do in ways that do not require it.

Coastal cities would be the most likely places to have more complex technology because they tend to be places where economic activity is concentrated, especially if they have a major port through which all sorts of resources are funnelled. But further in the interior, and especially away from major navigable rivers, the resources required to keep the complex economy running would soon become prohibitively expensive. Those economies would only develop to the level of complexity which can be supported with local resources and stay there: they do not have the advantages of coastal cities, so adopting a complex economy would be both more expensive and less profitable, and an inland kingdom which tried it would soon find itself being outcompeted by the already more complex coastal cities, or by their own neighbors which remained less complex, or both.

The same logic applies to the tribes not adopting a medieval technology level: in their circumstances, it would have been a net loss, so why bother?

Also, choosing to not develop the economy clearly works, because these medieval-ish kingdoms still exist as kingdoms and have not been overrun by the coastal communities despite their more complex technology, and the Stone Age tribes in the deep interior have not been overrun by either. So they may not even feel the need to advance technologically.

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    $\begingroup$ If they use the primitive technology only to survive, then yes, such tribes exist even today which don't use modern technology (although they might occasionally trade for some modern tools, like plastic containers, water bottles etc.). However, if they are actively building kingdoms which conquer each other, then even if they don't use modern infrastructure, electricity, etc, and don't produce modern tools, they will buy modern guns from the coastal cities. Just like today, many warlords in Africa use machine guns without the capability of manufacturing them. They just buy them from smugglers. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Jun 16, 2023 at 5:26
  • $\begingroup$ @vsz, thank you. If energy is sufficiently expensive, so too will be guns, especially as imports, and swords might be more cost-effective as a standard tool of war. Just field many swordsmen for each enemy gunman, and destroy their countryside until they can no longer afford guns: there comes a point where the gunmen cannot stop the swordsmen because they cannot be everywhere due to their lower numbers. Of course that can be prevented by having more swordsmen instead of fewer gunners, which defeats the point of adopting guns. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Jun 16, 2023 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ No, more swordsmen doesn't defeat the point of adopting guns. Guns are such a big power multiplier, that they will be used even if in small numbers. It's actually the opposite, guns are great at hit-and-run, so the gunners can raid to destroy the countryside. But realistically, a combination of both gunners ad "swordsmen" will be used: just take a look at tribal fighting in real life in extremely impoverished regions of the world: the warlord and a few elite bodyguards have automatic firearms while the rest of the gang goes in with machetes. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Jun 16, 2023 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ Take a look at the recent Rwandan genocide, which killed over half a million people. The paramilitaries used machetes a lot, but a small part of them likely also had guns. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Jun 16, 2023 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ @vsz, thank you. And note how easy it would have been to protect against this type of warfare by building some very basic fortifications: just enough so that the enemy cannot enter the population centres at will. An earthen wall built with the soil dug out of a trench in front of it would do the job, while also protecting those inside from gunfire. It can also be done in the off season by local population without the need for expensive imports. Then the gun's power multiplier becomes irrelevant because it cannot be easily brought to bear. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Jun 16, 2023 at 9:05
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Because dinosaurs

Well. The continent itself is powered by something unusual that gives animals strength of unnatural origin, the deeper in there, the harder it is to survive, and the harder it is as well to maintain technology. For example, the force powering this place is hostile to something not made by the same force, this means to electronics, glass, smelted stuff, down to clay or bones, and the only way to retain at least some man-made thing in there is to perform some actions using that exact force.

So, while the coastal civilization could use electronics, petroleum, solar power, AI etc, when they perform an expedition into the depth of that continent, they all of a sudden discover that their sophisticated stuff starts hanging up or decaying, from the tiniest bits to the biggest parts. Say a machete taken by a tracker would last the entire journey, but the aPhone 8 of a tourist would irreversibly change into silicon dust within days. This hardens while people travel deeper, making any dwellers within stronger and less wanting to use technology, perhaps because of inherent conflict of that with The Force, or by some other reasons including religions. "Whatever was good enough for our ancestors is good enough for us" (c) Harry Harrison "The Ethical Engineer", quite easily could be their motto. Deeper still, and people rarely get iron smelted into a sword successfully, or probably the local animals' bones get better than smelted iron as weapons, as well as some humans manage to grasp the concept of The Force, making shamans of visible power. Further still, and maybe a single archmage could live in there, in an attempt to learn what is The Force and how to best use its manifestations, and mundane technology does not interest him anymore.

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'cause it's a simulation.

People aren't aware of it, but they are actually bits of data existing inside a very complex RTS-style game being played by a super-advanced alien species.

The game is so complex it can simulate the entire life and sentience of uncountable different lifeforms, down to the molecular level.

The people that are more advanced are just those belonging to the better players, that already managed to advance on the tech tree, before the other people.

In other words - those people live inside a matrix-like match of Rise of Nations.

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    $\begingroup$ Careful with this one - it's a rather colonialist attitude that people in more technologically advanced societies are inherently better than others, some might find this a distasteful premise for a story. Not saying it can't be done, but depicting the third world countries of the setting as too inept to advance might be unintentionally wandering into a minefield. $\endgroup$ Jun 15, 2023 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Nuclear Hoagie this answer does not state that the people in more advanced areas are inherently better than those in less advanced areas in any philosophical sense since the people are being controlled by super advanced aliens. It doesn't say that the aliens with more advanced territories are better either, just that they are better at playing the RTS-style game. A goal of an RTS game is typically to get better economy and technology, use it to get an overwhelming amount of military units and use those to destroy all units belonging to other players. $\endgroup$ Jun 15, 2023 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ As someone who routinely got drubbed in Age of Empires, I assure you that I never considered the invading Turks shooting all my villagers and wiping out my towns as morally superior, nor their directing player. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jun 16, 2023 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ @GiantSpaceHamster "I'm not saying I'm better than you, I'm saying I'd be better than you if this were an RTS" - that seems like a very flimsy differentiating criterion. Especially since natural selection shares at least some parallels with an RTS, except in that some humans were quite happily playing The Sims, until they got steamrolled by their neighbour who was playing Call of Duty: World at War. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 16, 2023 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ @NotThatGuy The civilizations themselves are not at any fault. They are stuck being controlled by an unseen hand that is inept in handling them. If anything, the idea of a people getting stuck in bad situation because of who leads them is, if anything, quite an interesting angle to explore. $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Jun 21, 2023 at 14:10
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I think you should have been paying more attention during your Progress 101 classes. As you know, we have a moral code of not intervening with the civilizations on lower levels of development, so we do not contact with the inland kingdoms for now. The only interaction is exactly via progressors we send there to study whether how prepared they are for the new tech.

Fortunately for us, the coast is well protected by the tough terrain that lies between our cities and the inland, so people from those kingdoms have no chance of reaching us by themselves. From what our progressors agents tell us, these guys mostly believe that the gods have created them within this valley and they don't even wander of by their rivers to the seas: they seem to like everything they have in the valley, and all this water travel is too dengerous for their taste. So at least for the foreseable future this is not a problem.

This also saves the primal tribes of the mid continent from being conquered by those kingdoms. We're happy about it, since our code would not have allowed us to intervene anyways. Those tribes are quite unfortunate in lack of important resources though: their land is warm and fruitful, but almost does not have any readily available metals, so it make them a long time before coming to the level when they could challenge the people from kingdoms were they to discover each other.

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They may be in the same place, but that doesn't mean they're in contact

This country does not sit in some flat universe like our own. Instead, the country is made up of many separate realms that overlap to form a Non-Hausdorff Manifold

The coastal people can drive across the country with no signs of dinosaurs or castles, and if the inland tribes venture out to the coast they will only find yet more tribesmen doing battle with the plesiosaurs

Only a select few can find the shared regions of the different realms where it is possible to travel from one time to another

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  • $\begingroup$ This was my idea too. A kind of time-separation where they just don't realize it. $\endgroup$
    – stan
    Jun 16, 2023 at 15:05
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Quite a few aspects to cover here..

(1) To use electricity, you need to be able to produce it. For many sources that means a good, abundant fuel. The kingdoms might not have coal available and importing it from the outside world via the cities could be too expensive. If they are not importing the generator, they would not be able to build one, either. That said, electricity would not even be my first concern - they do not even use gunpowder ? There is a tech-gap of centuries here, including proficiency in manufactoring.

(2) The cities might actually only be trading or coaling posts of some global society (think of the Portuguese Empire during the age of sail). They do not extensively trade with the kingdoms, because those are isolated behind the forests/mountains you mentioned. Also, the kingdoms do not have much new to offer (not even coal, see above. The tech-gap makes the feudal products uninteresting).

(3) The kingdoms might not adopt electricity for cultural reasons (make up something about their divine right to rule being undermined here). Maybe it happened before and disaster struck (like a revolt or a natural disaster). The ruling class suppresses progress.

(4) The advanced societies might have their own taboos against colonization, in addition to it being too expensive to be worthwhile at the moment. So the cities will not conquer the kingdoms. Maybe nearly everything outside the homeland is considered cursed land, with the trading posts being seen as a necessary evil.

(5) The cavemen are again isolated, stretching the ability of the feudal kingdoms to project power (also remember, that an army in dinosaurland is not an army defending the homeland against neighboring powers). Their land is not very fertile, making it less interesting for conquest by the feudals. These lands might be rich in coal and other resources, but those resources would only help the cities, which do not venture there at all.

(6) Metalworking does imply a given surplus in food production, which might not be easy to come by for the cavemen. Also, while they have seen metal (from the last expedition sent by the feudals), they do not have seen a smithy (the feudals did not bring one!). That stuff is magic.

The most important aspect in my view is to prevent the advanced societies from colonizing their less advanced neighbors. As soon as that is a profitable venture, some good arguments against it are needed. Those could be cultural, religious or political. Similar reasons can be given not to provide development aid (why would the cities share tech at all?)

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The formula for this is pretty simple. If the cost/risk of transporting goods and services across a geographic boundary exceeds the value to be extracted from that transportation, then it won't happen.

The first problem you face is how to prevent the overpopulated high-tech areas from blasting holes in the mountains, chopping down the forests, and taking the land of the indigenous people. The second is how to keep people from transporting high-tech goods to the "underprivileged" and taking their raw materials back with them.

Overall, the only thing I can think of is "because it doesn't work over there." There are a few good books with that kind of dynamic. The first is Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon The Deep," where the further you travel towards the center of the galaxy, the less technology works. At a certain point, your sentient computers fail. Further in, your FTL drives don't work. Eventually, you hit the point where even human thought is impossible.

Alastair Reynolds does the same thing in "House of the Suns", but on a patchwork planet. In one area, horses might be the best transport you can get, while a quarter mile away, everything runs on electricity and you have flying machines.

This would mean that the machines of the high-tech zones don't work in the lower tech zones. They might use their machines to make things that might work in the lower zones, but eventually the tolerances would fail them. Those who live in the lower zones might have an advantage just because they're used to those conditions.

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Different political kingdoms/nations where each more enlightened realm has agreed to respect the sovereignty and ways of the less enlightened ones. If the most advanced is really highly advanced morally, they will respect rather than conquer or attempt to abuse lesser kingdoms. This respect can be instilled and enforced if need be by the highest or higher kingdoms.

It might be difficult or impossible to contrive a purely practical reason for such an ongoing differentiation, so plugging in a political one instead might be the most plausible condition.

Some people only consent to be ruled by a certain standard of intelligence, and this conforms to experience. Therefore the only way to ensure happiness and stability in the long term is to grant to each tribe its own sovereign extent, which of course includes the right to choose their own form of government as well as their level of investment into learning and applying useful things.

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Its a colony world

Just posit that is was a colony established by off planet settlers that was then cut off for some (unexplained or otherwise) reason from home.

The most advanced cities are on the coast because that's where the original settlers landed, where the first generation of infrastructure was built - modular housing, light manufacturing and resource processing facilities, solar electricity banks and battery farms plus repair and maintenance shops for electric vehicles and aircraft etc. But the thing is these towns were intended to be the seeding points for further exploration and colonization of the interior. According to the 'plan' the development of heavy industry would follow on as the population increased and more raw materials needed to be extracted. Home would provide the first generation of the heavy plant and equipment (think steel & cement making, industrial scale manufacturing of composite materials etc), all the stuff needed for a fully industrialized society when the colony was big enough to support it's use.

But tragically the problem started shortly after stage 2 began and the next generations of colonists started to push out along rough dirt trails into the interior, taking livestock and seeds etc with them. There were enough aircraft and electric trucks etc to deliver medical supplies and the basics of modern life including radios, laptops etc and solar cells but that's about it and the in-landers couldn't produce anything more complex than basic hand tools locally.

The coastal towns only had enough light industry to support themselves and the initial 'push' inland but as noted previously hadn't yet received any of the big ticket/high tech items like industrial scale fusion power plants, aeronautical factories, steel mills and other complex heavy industrial engineering plant that was needed to save the colony if they stayed cut off.

And suddenly the deliveries from home had stopped. No new pieces of capital equipment or high tech spare parts. No communications and no idea when or if contact will resume. Now they are they're own and only have what they have.

The coast towns soon find that they no choice but to hoard what essential tech they still have. They can't replace big ticket items like aircraft or long distance vehicles when they they start to wear out, only basic essential parts (think tires etc) and don't have the infrastructure, the roads, power grids and optical cables needed to stay connected with the hinterland or make co-ordination or travel to and from there any easier.

After a couple of decades the inland towns are effectively cut off. Maybe those closest to the coast can still trade for rare goods using horse drawn wagons, getting medicines and cheap consumer electronics like torches in exchange for food and minerals but in general they are all reduced to medieval levels of technology and live in constant fear of raids from other towns.

Those farthest inland being even fewer in number when things went south are of course even worse off. They have been reduced to small bands of nomadic hunter gatherers living off the land.

Long term, unless contact is renewed with home the only solution is for the coastal cities to slowly boot strap their way to heavy industry, but that will take many generations.

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Frame challenge: it is "small tech" not "low tech"

The technology deep inside Pangea 2.0 is superficially low tech, but actually comparable in "advancement" to the coasts.

Science and engineering has generally advanced throughout human history IRL. The "dark ages" weren't a time where technology got lost, they were a partial stagnation. Not to say they were fun to live in: new ideas were dismissed and the social hierarchy was steep and stifling. Most "lost inventions", such as "roman concrete", aren't as good as they are made out to be. A large-scale loss of practical knowledge is very rare.

As humanity advanced we replaced stone-tipped tools with better alternatives (stone itself is still used aplenty). But correlation does not mean causation: coast-dwellers would see "stone-tools" and think "primitive" (assuming the coastal people had their own stone age a long time ago). So how can we build a plausible "advanced stone age"?

Big tech requires big resources

One way to define "technological advancement" is how efficient the technology is in terms of producing goods and services per human-hour of labor. This definition is difficult to make precise because one can't easily compare how valuable "goodA" is compared to "goodB". But it is still useful as a general guide.

Each "level" of technology requires larger and larger "factories" to produce, with modern fabs costing $20 billion. In remote areas it is more efficient to be self-sufficient. Stone tools and grass huts are unbeatable in this regard. A slightly inferior tool that is locally produced could well be more efficient than trying to set up trading logistics with outside society.

You still could benefit from modern knowledge: in particular germ theory and nutrition. A little soap made from wood ash and tallow and boiling drinking water goes a long way toward keeping diseases at bay.

Why use metal when you have nanotech?

Admittedly, even a tiny amount of metal goes a long way. But self-replicating nanotech is far more advanced! The coastal people call it "biology" but they have less of it compared to your rain-forest ecosystem. Limpet teeth have amazing strength, hardness, toughness, and won't rust. They are unfortunately too small. But a larger organism with a similar lifestyle may do, more so if it is bred to have harder-faster(growing)-bigger-stronger teeth.

1% high tech

What if you have a small amount of trade with the outside world instead of being completely isolated?

You life is mostly without electricity: your mud huts don't have outlets and windows are the only AC. You hunt with spears. But you still have cell phones with a portable solar panel to charge them. Which can also turn salt into bleach, a very energy-efficient source of drinking water.

Not better or worse, still very different

Why do we still work so hard to support a week of living expenses? Can't the machines do most of the labor for us instead? There are many possible reasons: population densities, uneven wealth distribution, inefficiencies in government and businesses, higher expected standard of living, and more. Regardless, as a general rule, people still struggle to get by just as much today as the mammoth era.

But there is large trade-off in both directions between 12000 years ago and today. You exchange infectious diseases for diseases of affluence. The modern world has wonderful technology. But said tech also generated an excessive amount of celebrity: A few famous people get enormous attention and swim though oceans of paparazzi. This steals audience away from the local street artist. Similarly, markets are increasingly winner-take-most and the artisan gets squeezed.

It's such a culture shock to move between these two societies. To fend off an unfamiliar set of problems or make use of such foreign opportunities is very hard. "Uncontacted" people suffer if they enter modern society (not just from disease risk) and we wouldn't fare well in theirs either.

If life is different but no worse in the "stone age", and the switching costs are huge, why modernize?

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There's a few dimensions that can come together to explain the disconnect in advancement across similar geographical instances, because a geography and it's advancement is heavily connected to the people residing within it.

Motivation (or Leadership) What is the motivation of the population of that geography, how is the geography managed, analysed and led. What is the motivation of that leadership. A leadership focused on individuals will always create extremely biased advancement.

Sabotage (or Corruption) Individuals can sabotage the advancement of the group for personal advancement. This should be an unfortunate human constant over all populations.

War War is referenced in the question and also a huge indication of advancement, losing sides (in terms of geographical significance) are constantly razed and stripped for parts while the winning sides get to feed more from the spoils.

Geographical Significance Some geographies bear special significance, whether in history, weather, resources etc that give them a natural competitive edge over other land masses.

Culture of the Populace The culture and religion of a population can also has significant implications on how to respond to (and actively seek out) advancement. While populations based in cultures that emphasise competition, curiosity might flourish, more closeted societies and beliefs might not.

Trust Factor of the Geography Is the geography supported by great adherence to a rule of law? Is the geography constantly at war (or constantly agitating for one). What is the geography's response to aliens?

There's also level of education, presence of great people (innovators), chance etc that could possible contribute, this is my perspective of things.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! $\endgroup$
    – F1Krazy
    Jun 16, 2023 at 14:21
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Disease.

You have different climates, the climates all have very deadly diseases to which the local population has developed immunity (think of what happened when old world diseases reached the new world.) While it's possible to protect yourself from the disease vectors people normally do not take the risk of venturing into other climates.

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The "Medieval" cultures could be consciously constructed societies established by formerly "civilized" people who were tired of high tech and created a separate enclave, sort of like violent, feudal version of the Amish. What started as a subculture of Luddite, primitivist historical LARPers slowly mutated into actual feudal states, politically separated from the global high-tech civilisation.

The high-techs begrudgingly allow this, because the "wild lands" where the petty kingdoms are provide a safety valve for the dissatisfied, ie: "hey, if hate your corporate job and the social-media saturated lifestyle that much, why don't you go medieval, pal?"

Basically, the world is divided into a cyberpunk-ish, megacorp global culture with no privacy and no respite from invasive technology, and a smattering of faux-historical primitive "kingdoms" where people can escape the churn of the corp-life, and try some simple (if brutal) life instead.

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