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My sci-fi world is stuck in a low-tech state. What would be the underlying reasons?

In Dune, it's the recent Jihad against machines.
In the 40k setting, it's religion.
In MechWarrior, it's an apocalyptic war after the Star League.
In Foundation(s), it's due to lost tech after the falling empire.

What else could be the reason?

Edit:

Is it inhabited by people?

Yes. No aliens. There might be sub-species of humans as genetic isolation tends to lead into this. Mortality rates are high and generation gaps are narrow due to harsh conditions.

Is it in our solar system?
What is your world like? What's going on in this world?

This world is semi-terraformed (in progress) of Venus and possibly surrounding asteroids. For <some reason I'm trying to figure out> they utilize low-tech mining and crude equipment to carve out meager existence. Planet-to-planet travel is so ridiculously expensive that no-one except Earth bound companies can do this.

It would be all too easy to blame 'eviiiil companies keeping the man down' but that sounds way too easy.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate a little further so we can come up with ideas? What is your world like? Is it inhabited by people? Is it in our solar system? What's going on in this world? etc $\endgroup$
    – cconsta1
    Jun 22, 2023 at 8:50
  • $\begingroup$ Earth was "stuck in a low-tech state" for thousands and thousands of years, all the way until about 300 years ago. For most historians of science and technology the question is not why we were stuck in a low-tech state for thousands and thousands of years, but rather what strange thing happended in the 17th century to propel us on a course towards developing more and more advanced technology. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 22, 2023 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ I voted to close because this is a brainstorming post, with no objective answer possible. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Jun 22, 2023 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ How is any of your examples low-tech? They all have significantly better technology than us.... $\endgroup$
    – Negdo
    Jun 22, 2023 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know much about Forty Kay and Mechanical Warrior, but the worlds of Dune and the Foundation series are most definitely not low-tech. If the world of Dune is low-tech, then our current real world is in the Stone Age. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 22, 2023 at 11:28

10 Answers 10

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Well, let's break down some possibilities.

First, the loss of technology could be either intentional or unintentional.

Intentional

Intentional loss of technology essentially means that the population willingly decided to discard some or all of the technological advancement they had gained in one, some, or all areas. Reasons for this might include:

Religion

Religions can pop up that decry the use of certain technologies, and if those religions take over a populous, there is an inquisition.

War

The uses of certain technologies in war can cause them to be heavily limited or outright banned once the war is over due to the terrors that that technology wrought.

Public Mistrust

Sometimes a technology is sketchy enough in its own right that a societal shift is enough to cause it to be generally seen as inherently evil or untrustworthy. Technologies common in this category might include things like poisons/alchemy, necromancy, cloning, or cybernetic augmentation.

Public Disinterest

Opposite the previous, there's also the possibility that a technology is just so outdated or mundane that interest in it wanes to the point of extinction. (This is possibly what happened to the original techniques of producing Damascus steel.)

Unintentional

Unintentional loss of technology stems from things outside of societal control, such as:

Resources

A widespread technology might suddenly find itself unusable due to the depletion of the natural resources it depends on. At this point, the society that uses it has to either pivot or regress.

War (Again)

War can cause unintentional loss of technology, too. For example, when a society which is the only possessor of an advanced technology is eradicated by a neighboring country that had declared war for unrelated reasons.

Economic Strife

Advancements in technologies that improve comfort and reduce inconvenience tend to be put aside during times of hardship where the primary goal is to just survive, and of the times last long enough, those technologies might become forgotten.

Natural Disaster

Similarly to war, a natural disaster can cause the downfall of a society that had enjoyed advanced technological development, causing those technologies to be lost.


This list isn't exhaustive, and each of the sub-categories can have sub-categories of its own. You don't necessarily have to pick just one category either; combining multiple categories can give rise to a scenario on its own.

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  • $\begingroup$ With war/conflict: People don't seem to realize how incredibly fragile our modern technology stack is. Take out maybe 200 people and a handful of buildings globally and we're thrown back 20+ years. And in a future where maybe even the tools for making tools were AI designed (aka 0 humans understand how to make it), such a technological collapse could be even easier $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 22, 2023 at 19:59
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This world just isn't important

Here on Earth in many third world countries you can find very big and advanced cities with latest technology coexisting with tribal villages which have hardly changed for hundreds of years. They are just not very important economically.

Some decades ago things were going pretty great on Earth. The life in most places was largely peaceful and prosperous, so humanity turned its attention to space. Interplanetary travel has become much cheaper and more frequent. Thanks to recent technological advances and funding from all major nations Mars was colonized and terraformed (in that or reverse order). There was a feeling of great enthusiasm on successful completion of that project so soon after a much more ambitious project was started - terraforming of Venus.

Soon it turned out that this was a lot more difficult than first estimated. The project has completely overrun all time and cost estimates. Still, the terraforming was partially completed, enough for people to be able to live on the planet. A colony was established and given some primitive technology with promises of more advanced stuff later on.

Then things changed on Earth. War, ecological problems, financial collapse, a pandemic, what have you. The Venus project was all but abandoned, with the colony having to mostly survive by its own means. It didn't help that in its semi-terraformed state Venus still sucked to live on, with there being very little of any value on the planet. The colonists were barely able to produce enough to survive on.

Things have eventually improved on Earth, but at that point other colonising and terraforming projects have captured the public's imagination, with the Venus colony now a largely forgotten backwater. The terraforming project is officially still in progress but is given very little in the way of resources.

Now the life on the planet is hard, most of the population grows food, which is very difficult in the semi-terraformed climate of the planet. Any imports from Earth or other human colonies are prohibitively expensive. Young people who have any kind of academic or other talent leave the planet with the first transport they can board as soon as they're old enough. Those who are left behind have no resources to buy more modern technology from Earth and there is no local manufacturing base to produce it here, so they're stuck with what they were given originally.

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As you mentioned yourself, Religion is an easy reason to explain why they would shun technology.

Other than that you have a few options:

Bad experience: At one point Weapons were so powerful they nearly destroyed the world (Nukes/AI or both) to which international laws were made to ban research on certain fields of technology.

Resources: Due to a serious lack of natural resources (think of fuel/minerals) slowing down progress. If all the resources are located at the bottom of the ocean or so deep beneath the earth nobody ever thought of digging for them...

Natural phenomenon: For example a kin of solar flare/pulse or natural satellite that emits certain radiation that happens in a loop that fries all electronics would reset their technologies every few decades/generations.

External oppressions: Perhaps your civilization are little more than cattle/research objects and an allien power limits their progress through force or infiltration.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget conservative politics: what we had before made for great times. Let's keep things that way. There was a Dutch town with a port that was rich. But when things changed a little, they didn't want to change. So, trade moved down the road to Rotterdam and that town is a quaint place to visit. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jun 22, 2023 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ External oppression could also be a government that doesn't allow technical progress or make it otherwise very difficult, for example high tax rate on technology that anyone that uses too much get poor or to much bureaucracy when using technology, ..... $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2023 at 18:07
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Solar Activity

At some point in our future the sun goes through a period of instability. During this time (lasting maybe 100 years) there are frequently (every couple of months or years) very large solar flares that fry electronics, especially those in space.

This destroys a lot of high tech machines on the colony planets, forcing people to adopt low-tech alternatives as an emergency stop-gap. These stop-gaps persist because the same solar activity delays re-supply from Earth.

By the time things die down people have developed a cultural dislike for any machine with electronics in it. Any machine they can't repair with their own hands they distrust. If you can't fix it with local materials its not worth having, because those supplies from Earth are fickle. This sets a severe limit on the kinds of machines the colonies are happy to rely on.

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Most of these answers rely on some active agent to forbid progress, or to level the results if any progress is made. Perhaps the answer is that any long-lived culture may lack some of the conspicuous trappings of 'advanced civilisation' as we see it. Most of them may not have ray guns, or spaceships, or even holodecks, but they can still be happy.

Suppose you had the techniques to repair your body for as long as you looked after it. Suppose the interest rate was zero. These days we might build a house to last a hundred years, knowing that it might be obsolete long before that. Suppose you took the much longer view that you might build a house to last ten thousand years, and you might actually live a significant bit of that to enjoy it. After a million years of looking, there are probably no huge breakthroughs. If there is not FTL travel, then you will have to learn patience to go to another star. So, who will build your house? You may builder design it yourself. You may make it out of local materials because the takes less resources. You might make it out of glass and steel, but who is going to mine and smelt the resources for you? Other people may be willing but there will be a price as they do not want to risk their potentially long lives for a short-term gain. So, it might be easier to build you house out of local stone and wood. You may still have mobile phones, and HDTV, but these might be gadgets you inherited from your grandfather, rather than queueing to buy this season's iPhone.

This is not entirely an unknown thing. The railways were build at a time when the interest rate ran at 1% per annum. They could build a railway with payback times of 300 years. The local railways in the UK were mostly ripped up after less than a 100 years. After WWII, people thought that motorways or giant hovercraft or hover-taxis were going to make the railways look as old as the canals. Why repair a system that was on its way out? If your society had already lasted for 100,000 years you might think differently.

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Lack of (exploitable) fossil fuels.

We would have been hard pressed to reach the early industrial era just with charcoal and wood, and to reach a fully developed industrial era without oil. So your world may have a nice ecosphere on the surface, but no fossil fuels underneath. Development is limited to renewable energies, without fossil fuels to kickstart it. To build a big wind turbine, you need metal wire and metal or composite tubes and blades. How do you get that metal without a furnace, either coal-fueled or electrical? And without lots of wind turbines, you cannot possibly fuel an electric arc furnace. Chicken and egg.

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If you just want to have a specific world to be backward there are a few localized reasons that might occur.

So computer memory can flip bits because of cosmic rays, causing them to crash - this does not happen a lot, but for cloud platforms with thousands of servers it happens every minute/second.

magnetic fields are also a problem, but of course, can be shielded - the question is if the world is developing, then this could potentially be an issue - also how about a very active molten core to the planet, but with a magnetic component - could this create spikes which render certain types of technology useless.

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  • $\begingroup$ cosmic rays are accounted for though, anything incoming needs to affect too much information at once for backup and correction systems to kick in $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jun 22, 2023 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ I guess I was suggesting that the same effect occurs but on a larger scale in a situation where cosmic rays are much more prevalent. $\endgroup$
    – MoopyGlue
    Jun 22, 2023 at 20:07
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All answers depend on the time scale, some might keep low tech for hundreds of years, others for thousands. But probably nothing will guarantee low tech for millions of years.

Cultural

The culture might not be conductive for science. Risk averse. No faith in the existence of a universal objective truth. A value for practical knowledge instead of abstract/mathematical. Information is not freely shared among many for some reason. Or education to the masses is very limited and thus the potential of many bright people is wasted.

To be consistent over time, the values of the culture must be rooted in the living conditions of the population. It is simple to hand wave and say that their religion forbids such and such, or that an emperor forbids science. But over the generations religion, governments and culture always get adapted to the daily circumstances of living.

Economical

For science to advance an absolute large portion of the population must be free to practice curiosity driven research. It takes a critical mass of collaborating bright people to advance science to the next level. The population might not be that large to begin with. The population is occupied with survival, war or other endeavors. The population is geographically fragmented.

Again there must be environmental factors that lock the civilization in this state. Like unpredictable harvest. Lack of natural boundaries between rivaling nations.

A note on war. The idea that war stimulates the economy and science is wide spread, but highly contended. In the short term that might be. Like doping can temporarily give a boost in performance. But in the long run it always leads to destruction of resources and a moral of fear and distrust. The real persistent advances are made in times of peace and prosperity.

Biological

Humans as we know know are barely capable of building the science we do today. If a sub species has lost the capability of abstract thinking, it might not be possible to do hard science. For that to happen it must be subjected to evolutionary pressures that make that capability useless or even counter (re) productive.

The high mortality rate might play into this. Intelligence is often associated with longer childhoods and nursing. For which the resources and safety might not be sufficient.


I'll take it that the population is stranded on the semi-teraformed planet. And that the teraforming processes still reign havoc over the planet throwing the civilization back into the stone age. So maybe all of the above might apply and feed into each other.

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It has been historically difficult to establish industrial manufacturing footholds in the new world. For example, I know one of my ancestors was known as "the guy that brought the axe". It was so notable that it was included in his obituary which is how I now know it.

Mining is potentially done on Venus by hand using more traditional tools as no production facilities have been set up to manufacture more advanced tooling on Venus and the cost of transporting a dozen pick axes from Earth is justified while the cost of transporting even a bulldozer is not.

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Colonial development for self-reliance

There is a long logistical tail to high-technology. Early in the development of a colony the industries for it just aren't going to be present. So there could be a policy that more robust and simpler technologies are favored, without pressing need, until the world can build them themselves. That way a colony isn't dependent on as many shipments from outside to stay viable.

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  • $\begingroup$ That isn't a long tail. It is a very long "nose". Look at how long it took to get the technology to do farming - thousands of years. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jun 23, 2023 at 13:45

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