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In the world in which my story takes place, interstellar transport was achieved and some tentative voyages were made. But then, something happened to cause a general and widespread technological and social regression. Some of the interstellar vessels that were used are still in orbit, but there is not the capability to build rockets capable of reaching them, or the political will to do so. Computers and electronic devices do still exist (of around current sophistication, or possibly a little higher) and people know how to use them but the advanced components to build new ones can't be manufactured.

Additionally, state governments around the world have a lot of difficulty asserting control outside a small number of large cities. This might be partly due to not having reliable communications technologies, and also to the rise of city states which are effectively independent and want to remain so.

What could account for this scenario? I want the event (or events) to fall short of a global war or apocalypse, but still lead to "bad times" for at least a generation or two.

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    $\begingroup$ You can't edit a question in ways that invalidate existing answers $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Mar 8 at 5:13
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    $\begingroup$ I would point out that having electronics of around current sophistication is at odds with not being able to reliably communicate. Not that electronics of any sort are really a requirement for asserting control over great distances - just ask any of the ancient empires that were as large or larger than any modern state. $\endgroup$
    – Gene
    Commented Mar 8 at 5:23
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    $\begingroup$ Might want to look into the Bronze Age Collapse. $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Commented Mar 8 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ @LyndonArmitage I don't think that assumption can be baked in because I don't actually believe that! Moral progress and technological progress are not the same thing, and I don't think there is anything inexorable about either. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 12 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ For clarity I would add that by "social regression" I mean regression of large-scale organization. I don't mean everybody turns into barbarians. In the world as I envisage it for this story, most people are morally about the same as they are today, just going about their lives and doing their best for those they care about. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 12 at 0:13

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Resource depletion.

Imagine we ran out of fossil fuels. Most of our tech would fail and be hard to replace in very short order. It doesn't have to be fossil fuels, there are a lot of different resources that we need to have our current level of tech.

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    $\begingroup$ We have a fusion reactor that's been producing energy for 4.5 billion years. Depletion of fossil fuels can easily be managed. That's true for virtually any resource because non of it actually left the planet. $\endgroup$
    – ventsyv
    Commented Mar 8 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ Most of the building, fabrication of materials, transportation and everything else to do with utilising that reactor down to paint involve fossil fuels. Likewise any wires, electrical equipment, consoles etc,. Power itself is useless on it's own. You need huge infrastructure behind it. We don't have solar infrastructure and are unlikely to ever have, because many of the components and the power itself need fossil fuels to make. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Mar 9 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ @chepner we need them, and they're in a lot more than plastics. Our infrastructure/ civilisation would collapse. Worst in the First World but it would impact almost everyone. Food couldn't be produced and transported and everything would crumble $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Mar 10 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ @chepner farming and transportation are the biggest fossil fuel consumers. First World live in cities, they need food produced elsewhere and transported to them to be viable. Thats just one example of a myriad a bit of thought can come up with. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Mar 11 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ @chepner solar infrastructure is built with fossil fuels, replacements need fossil fuels etc,. look into it for yourself. It's very simple and well known $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Mar 11 at 12:54
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Economic Stress

No need for wars nor a doomsday scenario. It's just the economy.

Look at the Great Depression, or early 1920's Germany, or the very concept of Argentina (which has an inflation on triple digits as I type).

Spiraling inflation is one such example of great economic stress. It's very hard to build a new spaceship when you know that the bread you eat today will cost 4x more next week, while your income stagnates. To make matters worse, most things that can be done to alleviate the problem in the long run may hurt you deeply on the short term.

So yeah... Nice to see that interplanetary ship that cost a trillion dollars to build. By the way, with that same amount of cash nowadays you can buy a house. Actually the price of the house just went up as I speak, but you can maybe buy a car now. Oops, sorry, that just went up too but you can still buy a McDonald's Happy Meal now for that trillion. Huh, wait, they're using surge pricing now, but you can still buy this straw...

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    $\begingroup$ Economy as a cause for societal regression: yes. Unchecked inflation, probably. // However "Look at the Great Depression" - no, not as an example of unchecked inflation. In the United States and Europe the Great Depression was characterized by DEFLATION, falling prices, not so much inflation. The table in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Depression those wholesale prices between 1929-1932 falling by -32% in the United States, -33% in the United Kingdom, -34% in France, and -29% in Germany. // Germany's hyperinflation was 1921-1923. $\endgroup$
    – Krazy Glew
    Commented Mar 8 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @KrazyGlew I see. I have edited the answer to try and get it right. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @TheSquareCubeLaw - cool. I was about to post my own answer with more details, but was interrupted. DEFLATION is worse than inflation, because then there is much less incentive to invest: if prices fall 5% a year, you won't risk an investment that returns only 4% . Even low inflation can be bad - e.g. Japan's Lost Decades, with 1.14% inflation vs 1% economic growth. Moderate inflation tends to encourage investment - "use it or lose it". Hyperinflation is much worse, but even then is often associated with economic growth. But it's very unkind to those on fixed incomes. $\endgroup$
    – Krazy Glew
    Commented Mar 8 at 20:33
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Demographic collapse

Developed societies almost universally see a decline in birth rates, eventually below the ~2.1 children per woman* needed to keep the population stable. As a famous example, South Korea's is close to 0.7 — meaning that, if this held constant, every generation would be less than half the size of the one before. A larger and larger fraction of the population will be elderly people, and fewer and fewer children will be around to enter the workforce.

If much of the world stayed far below replacement for a long time, it would not be economically stable. Cities, infrastructure, logistical networks, and industries that were designed to be run by ten billion people cannot be operated by five billion. They will fall into disrepair, and with most of the population above healthy working age it will be even harder than usual to build and maintain their replacements.

The effect is most prominent in the wealthiest nations, due to some combination of education and career becoming more important than family for young adults, increased availability of family planning resources, low child mortality, and increased cost-relative-to-financial-benefit of children. This would be especially convenient in halting space exploration, as the leading high-tech spacecraft producers would almost certainly be in the developed world.

* For the demographic definition of "woman".

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    $\begingroup$ Your attempt to be gender-neutral has introduced an egregious and confusing ambiguity. When I see "birthing adult" I assume that to be mother or father, because you passed on the opportunity to say "childbearing woman". -- ~2.1 children per birthing adult is ~4.2 children per breeding couple, which has been unnecessary since about the time that mankind discovered "indoors". $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @A.I.Breveleri It was exactly my attempt to avoid "woman" that made me do this; I'm referring to people who have uteruses that can develop and give birth to a child. People who don't have uteruses don't give birth. "Childbearing adult", does that work for you? $\endgroup$
    – parasoup
    Commented Mar 8 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ @parasoup : if we only had a shorter word to describe "Childbearing adult"... $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 11 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ @vsz If there's an ungendered one that I missed, please let me know! Unfortunately the demographic "woman" is the same word as the gender-identity "woman" and I really did not want to get terms mixed up. $\endgroup$
    – parasoup
    Commented Mar 11 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ @parasoup by claiming to wanting to limit confusion and wanting to avoid mixing things up, you just created confusion. Had you used universally known words like "woman" or "mother", absolutely no one would have been confused, maybe with the exception of some who deliberately pretend to be confused to score some political points. Constantly seeking "ungendered" terms is pointless, because if you replace the word "mother" with one newly made up word, then soon the new word will be appropriated the same way as the previous one was, and you'll have to make up a new word yet again. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 11 at 21:59
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Anti-complexity social movements. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge Some left leaning movements were for an anti-industrial society - to go back to a more "natural" agrarian society and give up the decadent industrial "western" societies.

When you saw the complexity into pieces to be redistributed, the ability to form complex organisations and thus complex products and specialized society members vannishes. Add to that a https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Leap_Forward with reeducation of the elites on rural farms for a generation and the knowledge gets permanently lost.

China had to send it scientists into the west/east to retrain the knowledge lost during those lost years.

Something similar is also imaginable if a suddenly a religion similar to the "Amish" becomes vogue.

Also once you saw the automated bakery into pieces, mass starvation set in. So the non survival experts die within 3 weeks. After that the recovery is a climb.

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Depending on what you consider to be an 'apocalypse'...

Depopulation due to Famine or Disease

A certain population level is required to maintain modern technological levels. Resources have to be mined or extracted, refined, and used to produce advanced goods. Everything deteriorates over time, including any automated systems, so the ability to manufacture these advanced goods and supporting services must be maintained as long as those goods are useful.

Any adverse event that eliminates a large percentage of the world population, perhaps even very slowly, will inevitably undermine the ability to maintain the technology level completely. And the effects of losing any particular technology without enough people to replace or restore it will be difficult to predict, but non-zero.

The longer it takes to return to pre-event population levels, the more technology will be lost due to an inability to maintain it, until eventually the technology level reaches a new equilibrium point, no more regressed than the historical period when the global population was at that level previously.

However, as long as people were careful to maintain critical knowledge gained before the event -- mathematical, scientific, medical and engineering findings, techniques, patents, manufacturing methods, software, etc. -- that could help maintain a comparatively higher technology level than historically at the same population, and it would accelerate the technological recovery process as population returned to pre-event levels.

Possibilities would include:

  • Highly infectious disease with high mortality rate (several instances in history) - although this might count as an 'apocalypse', historical cases of this are not currently viewed as such
  • A disease that makes it more difficult to have children would slowly reduce the global population, perhaps over several generations
  • Volcanic eruption impacting crop yields worldwide (this has happened before)
  • Diseases affecting livestock or staple crops, leading to mass starvation
  • Pestilence from locusts or other crop-eating pests reducing global crop yields
  • Global irradiation from nuclear accidents could reduce longevity (and therefore active labor force population) or birth rates
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  • $\begingroup$ Even worse, a disease that affects the brain, damaging cognitive abilities. For example some prion disease. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11 at 3:36
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A volcano or two can worldwide collapse societies, again

I feel from your question that you need something abrupt, that takes away as much infrastructure as possible in a short time and also redirect all effort in maintaining basic cities working.

Large scale volcanism, big enough to cause a one year or two of cold weather, will disrupt all food production, disrupt a lot of energy production (wind, solar and hydro power generators), in this alone will regress the world. A lot.

Instant famine, instant population decline, and 1/4 (or less) of residual word population focused on scavenging and local attrition instead of building washing machines, computer processors and interplanetary gadgets.

If bad weather may appear short of explanation to world going full backwards, I recommend you (all) to watch this video about taking a few generations off line of grid may cause.

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    $\begingroup$ A very large and powerful solar flare could disrupt a LOT of unshielded technology. You don't need to knock out everything to cause chaos. Take down communications and gps satellites, damage power infrastructure, and impede transportation a bit and you've got a downward spiral in the making. $\endgroup$
    – abestrange
    Commented Mar 8 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ I like this, partly because it isn't an obvious sermon against some social phenomenon: a nuclear war can be blamed on militarism, running out of resources can easily be read as a critique of greedy shortsighted capitalism, or else if a religious movement bans technology then most likely you really trying to warn against some actually-existing religious tradition, etc etc. Also, the effects will be global. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 10 at 2:47
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You would only need the population to lose faith in their previous goal. For a recent historical example, see the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Once the goal of achieving true communism revealed itself to be a dead end, people went to great lengths to show that they are definitely not one of them commies. The politicians which continued to advocate for communism were removed from power, in some cases violently; whole sections of economy, previously supported by the governments, were abandoned to their fate and went bankrupt; governments struggled to enforce law and order due to the resulting economic crisis; and several countries did in fact disintegrate. All this was seen as being for the greater good; those made worse off by the transition (and there were many) were just told to take one for the team and get on with the program. Several decades later, much of the population would still oppose pretty much anything if you just tell them that the communists would have supported it.

I can definitely see a society which made 'reaching for the stars' its grand project, towards which great amount of effort and resources were funnelled only for the project to fail in some spectacular and undeniable way, responding to this failure by similarly turning its back on the project and everything vaguely associated with it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I also like this suggestion. Possibly it would be good to combine several factors which combine to form a "perfect storm" of stagnation and regression. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 10 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ I would argue people had lost faith long before. The very real problems after 1990 had more to do with economic and political transformation. E.g. political upheavals will always tend to create some chaos in the streets. And drastically reducing the rule of the state in an economy will always lead to management and cashflow problems in companies. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Mar 10 at 13:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Jan, thank you. No; the faith still held sway over the people for as long as the communist governments existed. Whatever the problems, there has been a sizable group of people thinking that if they just pursued communism slightly differently, then the problems will be resolved and the overarching goal of achieving communism will be reached, and they got their way: their faith manifested in reality through a government enforcing their preferred policies. The communist governments went through several such cycles; there were protests before the late 1980s, none of them successful. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Commented Mar 11 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas The protests in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were unsuccessful because the Soviet Union used military force, not because there was greater belief in communism. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Mar 11 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas In the Czechoslovakian case one might observe that it was not the first time in the 20th century that their military did not resist a foreign invasion. Somehow I don't think it says all that much about belief in one ideology or another. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Mar 11 at 15:33
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I think we have examples of that in our real world. Take for example a country were a revolution brings to power a group of (religious, but not necessarily) fanatics, with very conservative and obscurantist views.

They start reducing freedom in as much form as possible, and condemning any life style which does not comply with their world view.

This is highly likely to lead to a social and technological regress.

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  • $\begingroup$ Arguably Iran and Saudi Arabia are examples of conservative and highly ideological regimes, who do restrict freedom and lifestyles, but technologically they seem as advanced as anywhere else. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 8 at 5:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Batperson have a look at the response to COVID. Even where the science was black and white, when ideology got in the way it resulted in way more deaths. It didn't matter whether the ideology was religious ("we must gather together in person in large numbers every week because I interpret the ancient writings that way") or philosophical ("I believe in personal liberty and if someone says I must wear a mask then I won't do it to show I won't be oppressed"). That sort of thinking gets applied to research funding - try to get a grant in Iran to study trans people. Weapons research though... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8 at 6:46
  • $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 That's my point. Iran might choose to allocate research funding, or not, in accordance with their ideology, and some might have not complied with the Covid Zero health measures, but neither of those things affected the advance of technology in any way. You can still buy computers in Iran, and most fundamentalist Christians have cellphones. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 8 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ I heard the Amish are known for their skill in repairing automobiles even though they don't use them! $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 8 at 8:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Batperson let's cut to the chase and look at the USA. Young Earth Creationists, such as the current House speaker, believe that the Earth is about 6000 years old and contradictory evidence is either faked or planted by some deity. (The dinosaurs were around at the same time as Sumer and Ancient Egypt, didn't you know?) With enough clout, expect geology, archaeology, astronomy etc to be defunded by a YEC-dominated polity, especially if interstellar ships actually found something more than 6,000 years old. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8 at 10:48
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Not sure whether this is the kind of thing you're looking for, but since none of the other answers have gone in this direction, I'll add it as an alternative:

Over-reliance on one particular, highly specialized technological achievement, to the exclusion of everything else.

You said your fictional world has electronics "of around current sophistication, or possibly a little higher," and that people understand how to use them, but don't have the capability of replacing the current ones once they wear out.

Maybe this is because, although the people can use these devices, they've lost the understanding of how they actually work/are built? No one has invested the time to study topics like electrical engineering or computer science, and this is because such things were (unwisely?) considered to have been rendered obsolete by this one incredible discovery.

What might this discovery be? In order to remove the incentive to work towards maintaining humanity's technological infrastructure, it must be something that makes life significantly easier/more comfortable for the majority of people. (I.e., it fills the same role as the former technology did, but does it better, or at least apparently so.)

Possibility 1: Extraterrestrially-Inspired Biochemistry?

Suppose, during one of its preliminary space voyages, humanity discovered something out there that could be taken back to earth and used -- but without requiring further space journeys to obtain more materials. This would seem to suggest something that could be studied to gain an understanding of how to build the new technological invention -- a kind of template, not a resource or raw material.

Maybe they discovered a new molecule, made only of elements which are easily obtained on earth, whose amazing properties are entirely due to its complex structure. Scientists are able to deduce how to synthesize this molecule (and/or similar variants) and put it to use, with only some specialized lab equipment. It might be directly consumable, or it might be introduced via genetic engineering, but however it works, it does extraordinary things to the human body.

In one potential scenario, everyone is suddenly able to run, jump, lift, etc. at or above the level of today's greatest athletes. Presented with what are effectively superpowers, the majority of humanity goes hog-wild. Who wants to sit in a lecture hall and study when they could be setting new world records? Why drive a car when you can run marathons without getting tired - and enjoy doing so? Maybe your newly boosted immune system is so hardcore you easily recover from almost any illness or injury without intervention, and so the entire medical profession goes out the window.

People are infatuated with their new abilities and not concerned with having a back-up plan, because, after all, that one specific molecule (and any equipment involved in its synthesis) is abundant and in high demand. But, the motivation to invest in or even maintain any other kind of technology (computers, communication infrastructure, etc.) has been massively undermined. A few more prudent individuals (scientists and government officials? exceptionally gifted and perceptive children?) are likely very worried about this, and try unsuccessfully to convince young people to continue to develop the skills necessary to preserve modern civilization, but the majority, seeing no immediate benefit to doing so, refuses to be bothered.

Possibility 2: Dependency on True General Artificial Intelligence

Imagine if ChatGPT-3000 actually had the answers to all life's biggest questions. Additionally, it could do all kinds of things for people, from performing calculations to driving cars to brewing coffee (all such devices interface with whatever central server[s] the AI runs on). Once developed and trained, the algorithm takes over its own learning and maintenance. As the AI does all the work of repairing its own hardware, and can independently research to refine its software, humanity loses these skills through neglect. They also lose almost all their scientific curiosity.

Just like knowing what terms to type into Google to get good search results can be a skill in and of itself, so is knowing the right questions to ask the AI. The first generation of humans post-singularity had this skill, but only because they had developed their minds through years of study (way back in the 21st century, we used to call that "school" :D). But, people don't learn so much by just getting all the answers without first putting in some mental effort of their own, and this is exactly the habit which went by the wayside as soon as GPT-3000 came along.

This means that future generations are less and less able to take advantage of all the wonderful capabilities GPT-3000 has. They don't even know how to ask! As long as the coffee's hot and the cars don't crash, people are comfortable and content. Never mind about space travel!

It could also explain the breakdown of international communications, and the fragmentation of larger geopolitical entities into small city-states. If people don't need to rely on other humans for anything anymore, there's no more reason to have things like large nation-states or diplomatic relations. Communities will tend to become smaller and more isolated.

So, it wouldn't necessarily take any kind of disaster--like the AI turning against humanity, or even just ceasing to work reliably--to cause civilization to start losing technological capabilities. Just enabling human complacency could have the same effect: expect an exponential increase in Darwin Awards as children cease to develop basic life skills. Again, you'd expect the more insightful among humanity to push back against this trend, and exhort people to use GPT-3000 as an inspiration instead of a crutch. Their success or lack thereof will depend on whether they can find a way to motivate the majority enough to overcome the massive inertia of intellectual laziness.

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    $\begingroup$ I too as going to suggest the over-reliance on AI causing a loss of knowledge. I saw in the news many years ago that due to the prevalence of smartphones, the Japanese youth never learned how to use a keyboard and mouse. This will lead to a generational skills gap, where offices won't be able to find staff with basic computer skills. All I can find now is a reddit thread from someone who witnessed how the education system is combatting this: reddit.com/r/japanlife/comments/vivjla/… $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9 at 5:12
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Unregulated Capitalism

In the 70s we added lead to gasoline and it's been directly linked to decline in average intelligence and rise in violence and crime. Imagine if we didn't stop, and worse allowed corporations to flaunts safety more and more. If other environmental pollution combined with continued reliance on leaded gas, leaded paint, etc was let run rampant the following generations would be intellectually stunted to the point where eventually no one was left who was able to innovate, and some of the higher level technology could only be operated by rote (that is, someone trained in producing iPhone 17s might still be able to press the right buttons, but not know why or what to do when something went wrong).

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Politics.

Many technologies were invented in China, yet were not taken advantage of. A similar situation ended to treasure fleet of Zhen He. Written description of the ships claim these to be larger than the largest European sail-powered wooden ships of the 19th Century (larger sail-powered ships had hulls made of steel). The political will to continue ended.

A similar plot to your question comes from Jack McDevitt's series of SF novels called The Academy Series (starting with The Engines of God, a quote from a poem: "He will come who treads the dawn. Tramples the sun beneath his feet, And judges the souls of men. He will stride across the rooftops, And he will fire the engines of God.") where a subplot is that the public stopped being interested in funding and operating interstellar ships. In this series, the costs of spaceflight are "too much" and politicians convince the taxpayers that space exploration is too expensive or just plain unnecessary, much like how the Apollo program ended in the 1970s because the political will ended.

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  • $\begingroup$ "the public stopped being [encouraged to be] interested" - compared to health care and defense, "the costs of spaceflight" in a pie chart would need an asterix with a foot note. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 10 at 4:43
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Massive Solar Flare

The best part of this option is you can scale it to however catastrophic of an event you want, from annoyance in normal daily operations to the atmosphere being blown away. If a certain scale is too much, dial it down to whatever is necessary for your desired effects. It could hit only things in space, or things on one planet, or maybe one continent.

A large solar flare could destroy electrical distribution and communications lines globally. A global blackout for days and shutting down the internet for a week in one scenario would be economically catastrophic. The worst case scenarios are definitely in "apocalypse" territory or beyond.

Example 1: End of the Space Age

One massive solar flare could wipe out generations worth of global output to build up space infrastructure. All the space ships, space stations, space colonies, and satellites in the system rendered non-operational in a matter of minutes or hours. This would be hugely demoralizing and result in severe political ramifications of any spending on space projects. The global paradigm would change instantly.

Example 2: End of Current World Order

It could have a more direct impact on Earth. Imagine electricity is out, electric lines effectively destroyed, transformers and electrical substations exploding all over like the 4th of July, every wooden power pole lit on fire, causing other sporadic fires all over. Satellites and GPS are destroyed, Internet is down, phone lines are down, 911 is down. Cellular, TV and radio towers destroyed. Oil refineries and pipelines knocked out or destroyed. Auroras seen in the Tropics. And no one has access to information other than word of mouth. Life goes back to something like the 1930s for most people.

It might take years to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure, if ever. Even if we know how to build a $100 billion chip fab, that knowledge is useless without all the supporting industries. People still have their laptops and cell phones, but without electrical distribution or internet, it's a question of if it's really worth walking a couple miles to the neighborhood generator to charge the battery today.

It can interact very strongly with other world events, amplifying chaos. Now imagine if a long global blackout started on November 5th, 2024, throwing a very contentious US election into a different scale of SHTF event. Political divisions and anxieties might explode with uncertainty as to what the hell just happened. Federal government and even most state governments have no ability to do much in response. Any political state from baseless accusations and conspiracy theories to anarchy, unprecedented religious revivals, a political cold war or civil war could be precipitated. Depending on the timing and initial stability of the location, ramifications could be wildly divergent between countries.

Or it could be far more limited. Maybe everyone just loses power for one day without everything blowing up. Or one continent. That could still enough for historic ramifications depending on the interactions.

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At various times parts of the world have fallen into regression, but there was usually some other portion of the world that was growing or at least not regressing and could re-light the flame.

A world government of whatever stripe could result in a kind of monoculture that would be less robust. A setback of some kind (perhaps a disaster requiring resources to be diverted- that was blamed on technology, or a malaise due to a lengthy economic depression, again perhaps rightly or wrongly blamed on technology) could stifle employment and investment in technology. Sacrifices by the population that could be justified by military or competitive concerns could no longer be palatable if there were no other countries to fear or beat to the punch.

You don't have to go as far as the Simplification mobs in A Canticle for Leibowitz with proudly illiterate "Simpletons" hunting down nuclear scientists and engineers for what they did to the planet.

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Astronomical cost, no clear path to payoff

I often find that a good way to answer questions is to look at how it happened in real life. This also has the benefit of allowing the story to also make a statement about real life, if desired.

We used to have almost-interplanetary spacecraft, traveling to the moon.

We no longer have the technology to reach the moon.

How did this happen?

Nothing terrible. No catastrophe. Our priorities just changed. Once the political shine had worn off it, we realized that manned space travel was basically pointless, a massive money sink with negligible payback.

There's nothing worth the risk, trouble and expense of sending human beings there with selfie sticks, that we can't achieve vastly cheaper, safer, simpler and more reliably by just sending the camera without the person.

Sure, it's valuable science to observe the moon in person. The turnaround time is faster with humans because they can pick up and examine moon rocks in real time. But what does it gain, other than knowledge? Are the resources exploitable? Not without developing ways to build habitable outposts, refineries and factories there. And we were nowhere near achieving that for the moon, even though we could send a few guys there.

Similarly, the advancements needed to exploit or settle distant stars simply weren't there. So they pulled back, having proven the concept and planted the flag, leaving permanent habitation as a problem for future generations to resolve.

What really kicked off the space race was the need for the Russians and Americans to show they could drop bombs wherever they wanted. With that goal handily achieved without going higher than low-earth orbit, and without sending humans into space, it wasn't really in any country's best interests to sink a huge amount of their revenue into off-planet photo-ops.

People wouldn't vote for their tax money being spent on sending a few lucky guys to space: they'd vote for things that might have a direct benefit to their families: military security, food security, job security, education...

No company will have the wherewithal to replace governments at that task, for generations. Instead, companies go with unmanned satellites and probes.

And so the factories that had built the ships were shuttered, the machines torn down, the people who had the specialist engineering knowledge found other lines of work, retired, and died. The documents they created describing how they did it became obsolete: nobody making a lunar lander nowadays would consider using a computer that uses hand-woven core memory! The same is true of all the propellants, all the materials (we would use plastics for seals rather than rubber, etc), all the approaches to machining the parts, attaching them to each other, and so on. So if we started again now, we would be starting from scratch.

It has been a couple of generations now since we were able to land humans on the moon. We're very unlikely to return until we have a plan to inhabit it and exploit its resources. And automated exploitation is likely to happen before habitation.

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    $\begingroup$ Astronomical cost could be summed up as: Lack of resources. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 8 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ Well, there is the Artemis programme right now that is meant to send people back to the moon and ultimately lead to some kind of permanent station. But yes, I could see how this could apply to an interplanetary scenario: one or two superpowers compete with each other to reach the stars. Maybe this time they both succeed. And then having achieved the goal they stop, because the astronomical costs can't be justified. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 10 at 7:12
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I thought about a disease that kills 90% of the world population. Was writing a complicated list of reasons why it works, it still does, but then I thought lets make it more fun. Surely you can figure that out on your own.

So. I present: A mysterious stupidity plague that infected humanity and reduced their IQ. You decide the percentage to your liking.

Now this is serious stuff.

We know for a fact that below a certain IQ threshold you can't do certain job. Just not gonna happen.

And with such a disease we achieve both the required results of losing the ability to maintain the super complex global system of everything.

While also being incredibly burdened with a lot of people that still need stuff.

If you just kill your people then people can still recover by surviving on a smaller scale. City state like you said. Makes sense. Not gonna be pretty. But works.

Because if you lose most of your doctors as well as most of the people needing the doctor then it might balance out.

But if you lose most of your doctors but still have the same number of people needing their services then that's a serious issue.

Obviously this extends to all fields, doctors is just an example.

You can leave it a mystery or explain it with aliens or a crazy experiment or brain worms or even demon or magic if you like it.

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  • $\begingroup$ With the substituion of "ignorance" for "stupidity" you are describing the declne of education and critical thinking in the U.S. right now... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12 at 22:25
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I will give three possible scenarios.

  1. Demographic replacement. Replacement of low-primative, highly-cultured population with high-primative more fertile one

  2. Disaster in a global datacenter that led to the loss of scientific and engineering data.

  3. Disintegration of the leading political power, empire. The constituent parts can still maintain the existing facilities but lost the ability to cooperate and the technological chans got broken. Other countries are smaller and do not have the needed technologies.

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Consider chaos caused by covid. That was a readily transmissible disease that killed around 1% of the people infected. (mortality was widely variable)

Suppose that you had a disease that was either twice the mortality, or was as resistent to treatment as AIDS

Or suppose that it just took longer to kill people. Or just disabled them. Infectious Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, say.

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Socialism

It doesn't take much, sadly. For innovation to thrive (even through resource starvation, wars, pandemics, etc), people need to have freedom. They need to have freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom to make money and lose money. Freedom to succeed and fail. Freedom to make choices, be they good or bad. We see this now with countries that have had long-term conservative policies at the government level being the most technologically advanced.

Take away that freedom, for example in any of the socialist republics we see in the world, control speech, control movement, control resources, businesses, and education like in any left-leaning government, and you get dehumanization on a mass scale. People are convinced that those that are not useful or inconvenient are disposable and that the definition of usefulness or convenience comes from control by powerful individuals in and advising governments.

This is why left-leaning governments have the most abusive human rights records in the world and the most twisted justice systems.

This kills creativity and humanity, and doesn't take long before people either become like cattle; mindless and unable to create/think/innovate because they are so dissociated and need to be because of the dehumanization. There is always a small group of people who are just too creative, and that's where the kicker comes in. They are the ones who innovate. They are the ones in the battle, and the government can only ban and restrict everything they create, leading to a technological downturn that is necessary for the socialist government to retain control.

We have seen this in every socialist nation in the world. Russia has the resources to kick the US into touch as a world power, but many live without basic tech. China has 120 million people malnourished let alone with the technology to interface with the modern world yet has a small group at the top government level copying the tech of their enemies.

Just takes a few well-engineered events. Check out the Reichstag fire, giving 1930's socialists absolute power in Germany. The Red Army's waiting for the decimation of the Chinese army by the Japanese in WW2 before attempting a coup. The race wars were created to divide, dehumanize, and destroy Russia (Jews were also targeted) and some areas of the US. Doesn't take much to start a society on the road to serfdom once the government has a socialist level of control.

Note that it is impossible to have a completely socialist government without authoritarianism. Karl Marx agrees with this to the point where he won't even allow people to believe in a religion (thought/belief censorship).

It's also worth noting that the key point is actually that the ideal of socialism, whilst very practical with cattle and sheep is impossible with human beings. Humans inherently don't like everyone having the same power, control, wealth, access to resources etc and don't function well. Humans are psychologically encoded to want to stand out, assert themselves in their own way. So whilst it all looks very fair and lovely everyone having the same, soon people want to stand out which means that they get something different to other people. Either the government steps in a censors them, or allows the start of the end of socialism in that nation state. Every socialist experiment has failed because of humans. This isn't because socialism is bad per se, it's because humans are complex and creative and brilliant. Every socialist/communist republic (conflated because the two are basically younger brother/older sister) has the same problems. Corruption, authoritarianism (which is essential to socialism and without which socialism cannot exist, statistically increasing with increasing levels of socialism), dehumanisation, human rights abuses, the highest levels of human trafficking and slavery in the world are not because "we didn't implement socialism properly"; it's because it's inherently inappropriate for humans. Like building a bridge across the Atlantic would be for cars. Or making a coffeepot out of chocolate for coffee.

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    $\begingroup$ You keep using the word Socialism. I don't think the word means what you think it means. $\endgroup$
    – aslum
    Commented Mar 8 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @aslum - No, I think he knows exactly what is means... If perhaps in a historical context, as opposed to a theoretical context. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ Historically, socialism was tightly linked to industrialization and to putting industrial output ahead of other concerns. Largely because the socialists tended to recruit from the laborers in the factories. Under socialism Russia pushed forward with manufacturing as a way of building its economy, and by providing a free education system they were able to provide a steady stream of people who innovated and created simply because they could. Their motives were to move forward, not to make money. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this is that the story then becames a very thin allegory against Socialism, which is boring. I've also had what seems to be one suggestion to treat religion in this way. Making one or other social phenomenon into the villain that brings the apocalypse, has already been done to death. $\endgroup$
    – Batperson
    Commented Mar 10 at 3:03
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    $\begingroup$ You seem to conflate Authoritarianism with Socialism. Example: China has moved economically from Socialism (heavy government involvement in the economy) to Capitalism (businesses operating in a free market.) This improved the Chinese economy, but it's still very Authoritarian (no free speech or free elections.) Unregulated capitalism is also bad, leading to poor environment/safety/healthcare (which results in wasted talent) A bit of economic Socialism (for example European style healthcare & social programs) reduces poverty and crime, and helps people from poor backgrounds to develop talent. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10 at 4:03

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