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My setting:

  • The world is currently at the technological stage of about late 1970s. There are computers, including early personal computers, television, and all. The world seems to be developing at a good pace.
  • At the same time, everybody knows that about 400 years ago there was a more advanced and more powerful civilization (the Ancients), which was destroyed in something like a nuclear war.
  • That this old civilization existed is not a secret, everyone knows about it.
  • The current civilization is not in post-apocalytic state any more, it develops dynamically and makes good advances.
  • It is an often-used rhetorical device in politics to point out that the Ancients had this or that better. Like "they had better computers", "their video quality was better", "they had better mass transit", "their planes carried more people", "their microscopes were more precise", "they had true AI, not just expert systems", etc.

People know, more or less, what were the technological capabilities of the Ancients. But for some reason, the artifacts of that era are not common, and can be met only in museums. Moreover, no-one has the exact technological or scientific knowledge of the Ancients beyond some basic facts and capabilities.

How this could be the case? I think about all ancient scientific storage being encrypted or self-destroyed during the war, leaving only non-classified data, but could there be other factors?

I mean, encrypted storage can be deciphered, especially if you have intact reading devices and computers left, so there should be some other reason why this knowledge is either unaccessible or useless in modern world.

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    $\begingroup$ Why 400 years and not 10000? For 10000 any storage will be unusable and most metals corroded. $\endgroup$
    – i486
    Mar 12 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds a bit like parts of A Canticle for Leibowitz. $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ 400 years old is not ancient. In England and lots of other places, 400 year old buildings are common. Most things that are 400 years old have been recycled or scrapped. Ironically, a nuclear war could cause many items to be preserved. But a 400 year-old-building will cave in and bury everything inside of it. Very little high-tech stuff survives for 400 years in the wet ground. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Mar 12 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ "encrypted storage can be deciphered" - Not in 14 billion years, let alone 400, if implemented and used properly. $\endgroup$
    – 8bittree
    Mar 13 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ I have to echo what some have said here -- 400 years is FAR from "ancient" territory, and even modern-day real-life encryption algorithms CANNOT be deciphered in any reasonable timespan. That is, UNLESS you have the key for the decryption algorithm. This alone could make for an interesting bit of worldbuilding -- treasure hunters trawling through ruins for any kind of hints or information that might help guess a cryptkey, which might just open up knowledge that folks will pay very handsomely for. Vendors hawking cryptlocked drives to starry-eyed up-and-comers with this promise... $\endgroup$
    – R. Barrett
    Mar 13 at 21:03

19 Answers 19

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Devices were subscription based

They had ubiquitous computer technology and all devices would have computer technology in it. Their society didn't do permanent purchasing of items, and you would rent items of your choice for a certain amount of time with a license.

With the total destruction of their civilization the licenses ran out, and all the devices became dead bricks. While many items were not encrypted and still are useable, unless their license is renewed they are completely useless.

Time degraded most devices.

400 years is a long time. Most devices have long since broken down or been destroyed.

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    $\begingroup$ Ooooh. I need to think about this one. I love the idea, but a subscription-based OS? Something about the OS must work without the subscription or it's impossible to test for the subscription. Thus, the hardware works fine and would be "easily" (hah) analyzed... but how much pain would there be, really, if everything were subscription based? Dang, if that's not a pretty good rationalization. Cheers. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 11 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: Alternatively, have the BIOS also be subscription based - and if the subscription check fails, have it simply throw a motherboard beep continuous loop until it was authenticated by a separate device...that was authenticated by a subscription service of its own. $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ This feels depressingly realistic $\endgroup$
    – Atog
    Mar 12 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: Additionally, something I hadn't realized until I double checked the question - it could explain why people know that the Ancients had better computers, but that the current society can only use their current computers; the computers they could reverse engineer earlier are pre-World Wide Web machines of the Ancients, so they can get those working...but none of the ones with more advanced CPUs/GPUs,. They can see the power differential, but they can't boot them up. In theory, if they could boot the machines up, they're clearly better manufactured devices -but they just don't boot. $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: setting the clock is a necessity for secure web networking: to put it simply, it’s needed to verify that the security certificates are valid or not. If your computer’s clock is too far back in the past (or forward in the future), the certificates will not be valid yet (or expired). Nothing dystopic here. :) $\endgroup$
    – breversa
    Mar 12 at 8:38
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They were also advanced in an area we have yet to explore or even appreciate heavily: Universal recyclability.

Simply put, all goods and packaging were required to be either fully biodegradable in a span of a decade, or were fully recyclable, to minimize scarcity of needed resources and the build-up of discarded goods.

The ability to recycle discarded goods from previous eras was also well-advanced (as suggested by abestrange) so that even the artifacts from previous eras are scarce, and there aren't large caches of unsold merchandise à la the thousands of unsold Atari game cartridges that were found not too long ago.

As a result, only goods that were in use at the time of the collapse (including items which were in museums) have survived. The biodegradable stuff is gone now, and a lot of the recyclable goods were reclaimed during the centuries of recovery after the war.

So there are now very few artifacts remaining.

The loss of written materials would be the most catastrophic from the viewpoint of posterity. Modern society is moving away from hard copy, with the exception of children's books (because toddlers are not good for electronics), and those Ancients would have moved even farther away, and few books are printed with an eye towards durability in the elements. If you want it for your story, one of the Ancients may have foreseen the collapse of society, and prepared a cache of books from which civilization could be rebuilt.

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    $\begingroup$ I love this answer because it’s (has to become) so relevant to our 21st-century world! $\endgroup$
    – breversa
    Mar 12 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ 10/10 because it perfectly allows there to be SOME artifacts to be present/preserved (a society this ecological would've also overcome planned obscolescence) while ensuring that the world at large is completely barren of them $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 12 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ You don't even really need magic tech or a highly recycling-complaint population, you just need a few ticks further on the tech tree than use and embrace Plasma Gassifiers. Remove oxygen, make super hot plasma, throw all trash into it. Separate out the elemental products for industrial reuse. The wide scale embrace of these facilities could explain why their older tech didn't end up in landfills either... the ancients mined all their old landfills already. netl.doe.gov/research/Coal/energy-systems/gasification/… $\endgroup$
    – abestrange
    Mar 12 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ I'll mention that in Jack L. Chalker's Web World series, the ancients were able to create whatever consumer goods they needed at will via mental communication with the world-wide computer that was able to fabricate anything to order, and dispel an unneeded item into its essential energy. Their abandoned worlds have some buildings but no artifacts. $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 12 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ The remaining artefacts would then form classes of their museum pieces, works of art and private hobby projects that were not fully biodegradable. Some items would have been in cold dark storage and survived but most would be gone in 400 years if exposed to the environment and scavengers. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Mar 14 at 8:31
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If the society was an advanced electronic civilisation, it's not inconceivable that all of their knowledge was in their version of the Internet, perhaps much more advanced, running on quantum computers and with direct neural interfaces. Basically requiring very advanced, very precise equipment to even be able to connect to it.

But the war targeted infrastructure, destroyed the Internet first, most server farms were blown up. And anything that remained had long since degraded, decohered, oxidized, rusted and turned to dust.

400 years is a very long time, with today's technology there are not many electronic storage media that would survive that long, perhaps only very specialized archival technology.

Quantum computing, quantum encryption

And if some of their tech was based on quantum computers, then any encryption would literally be unbreakable. If security standards were ubiquitous, and no qubits survived that long in entangled states, you can see how the data may be unrecoverable. Especially with 70s tech.

In the 70s, quantum computing was a highly theoretical concept in its infancy that only a handful of academics had any inkling of at all. Even now, 50 years later, it's only in the experimental stages and we still have no clue what's really possible with it and what it will look like once the tech fully matures and starts being broadly used, so you have a good amount of creative freedom here.

Virtual World

Additionally, even if it can be accessed, the knowledge might be behind more layers of abstraction. For example, the ancients all had access to a VR world, like a huge Metaverse or Matrix that everyone was at least partially connected to, and all of the knowledge was inside virtual libraries, all education was delivered in virtual schools. So, even if some data can be recovered from preserved devices, it's all just meaningless cache fragments that are miniscule remnants of the massive VR world that likely took up zettabytes of space when it was active, and since its main data centers were nuked during the war, our ancient knowledge seekers are SOL.

Perhaps some printed media can be still be found, but any actually useful textbooks or manuals that survive have 70s-era tech at best.

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    $\begingroup$ Just try to get a niche game from 2010 (nevermind 2000s) to run and you know how impossible it'll be to get the Matrix back up 400 years later. Especially if all the documentaion is stored in that program $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 12 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ I like this. Decades ago most people kept their own data. Now most people don't even know where their data is. In a few more years hand held slave tablets will be so powerful that most people will no longer have need for any other device and destruction of the 3 continental holographic super (storm cloud) storage data centres means all the data is lost. Fading paper records from their pre-digital era give hints to what they were planning and dead terminals suggest what they might have achieved. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Mar 14 at 8:27
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  • Almost all the data is gone.
    You don't have to invent encryption or the like. Ink on parchment may last a thousand years. Ink on cheap paper may last much less than a hundred years, especially if there is acid in the paper. A floppy disk or CD-ROM dies even faster.
  • EMP killed almost all electronics.
    Interesting that you should mention a nuclear war. High-altitude nuclear blasts cause EMP.
  • Generally speaking, they did not design many artifacts to last several hundred years. There is the joke about the perfect car, which works fine for ten years and then everything breaks down at the same time. Because no part was stronger or more durable than necessary -- that would have made the car heavier than necessary, wasting fuel.
  • The survivors were "bombed almost to the Stone Age."
    Enough of them survived, and enough civilization survived, so that the tales of the "Golden Age" could be written down. There were people who had gone to vacation on an intercontinental airliner. These tales got passed on as civilization developed again.
    There are enough clues in the tales to make them highly credible. Possibly they were intentionally preserved by the survivors. Say some survivors wrote down what DNA is, and how it works, and used that to explain Mendelian Inheritance, which is good to know for farmers.

There are plenty of relics. You cannot dig in a level area without getting cracked water and sewage pipes, and corroded power lines. But they are broken now ...

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    $\begingroup$ The civilization already knows well, what DNA is as it is at late-1970s level. There is no need for tales and the scientists can well study what remains from the Ancients. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Mar 11 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx, if they develop as fast as we did, they would have rediscovered it 20 or 30 years earlier. Did they do that from scratch or with clues? $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Mar 11 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ With clues. Most knowledge about the capabilities of the ancient civilization exists, it is just that their tech is impossible to recreate. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Mar 11 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ It depends on how cheap the paper and ink are, but I've handled newsprint and pulp magazines a hundred years old and while the edges tend to flake, they're still very readable, with the poor quality of the original printing being as much of a problem as the time. A hundred years for a good hardback is nothing; even something cheap like a McGuffy's reader shows a little darkening, but no flaking or text damage. I have a book in the 200 year range that could have been printed yesterday, and I've seen books from the 1700s in University library stacks that were entirely clear. $\endgroup$
    – prosfilaes
    Mar 12 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @prosfilaes, it is a specific problem with cheap 20th century papers. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Mar 13 at 5:32
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Computer data does not last that long

A few people have hinted at the poor survival rate of digital information, but they have not said why it is so bad and what the actual limits are.

The Effects of a Nuclear War of Data

Since your apocalypse starts off with a nuclear war, the vast majority of data will likely be lost in a single day to the blasts and electromagnetic pulses causes by the nukes themselves. While a nuke detonated at ground level will generally have an EMP effect radius not much bigger than the blast itself, an air-bursted nuke can have an EMP radius of about 400-700km. This means that a handful of nukes detonated high enough in the air could instantly wipe out most of a large country's data.

Furthermore, most data, technology engineering, and fabrication centers are in or near high priority cities that would be most likely to be targeted by nuclear attacks; so, most of the equipment needed to make replacement parts will likely be physically destroyed... and where they make the equipment that fabrication centers use are even more limited (with some parts only being manufactured in a single place for the whole world). So, there are some facilities, that if destroyed, could set back our manufacturing technology by years if not decades all on thier own.

Lastly, there is the ecological impact of a nuclear war. The first few years will see a nuclear winter where the average global temperature drops a good bit, but after that comes the nuclear summer where damage to the ozone layer follows it up with several years that are hotter than before the war, and all of this will be accompanied by violent storms. Most electronics are designed to work in climate controlled environments. Take out the power grid, and throw in wild climate fluctuations, and most of your abandoned computer systems will be destroyed by either the first winter or third summer after the war depending on your latitude.

Data Loss for Unused Computer Systems

Some media storage might have the benefit of being kept deep underground where the ravages of weather and nukes can't reach it. However, these will also not be recoverable by future archeologists.

Hard Drives store data using small magnetically charged structures that slowly lose thier charge or get damaged over time. When hard-drives see regular use, there are background process that your computer runs on them to verify and compensate for any data that is not reading well. When unplugged, these processes don't run which make unused hard drives often fail faster than computers that you actually use. Most hard-drives are only rated to store data for 3-5 years of disuse. After the first 5 years, most HDs will generally still boot up (no promises), but often have a noticeable number of corrupted sectors and unrecoverable files. SSDs can last closer to 10 years before they start to degrade, but are much more prone to total failure once the data does start to break down. CDs similarly store on average for about 10 years before they start to break down.

The longest lasting unpowered digital data storage method in use today is magnetic tape cassettes which are rated for 50 years. These are you best bet for finding any usable data after civilization has had time to recover since they are the easiest to read with primitive means, and they last so long... but unfortunately, they are also very sensitive to heat compared to other storage methods. In all likelihood, any data center containing a useful body of cassettes will be ruined by EMPs or the the weather very quickly unless they are stored underground. So, the best archives of ancient information will likely be old underground military bunkers storing information on cassettes. While this information will be of great value to historians, most of it will still be unreadable, and what is there is not going to be very useful for reconstructing ancient technology.

Data Loss for in Use Computer Systems

Let's imagine you have a few computers still in use after the war. Due to system background maintenance, some of these could last a good bit longer than your unused computers because they can shuffle around data from failing sectors into remaining good sectors. That said, these computers will no longer have internet access for cloud backups or access to replacement parts; so, like a home PC, it will have a decent chance of still running after 10-15 years, but once you get into the 20s or 30s of years, very few of these will still be operational. By 400 years, these will all be long since dead.

Why the hardware itself will not last 400 years.

Okay; so, 99.9999% of data will probably be gone, but what about the artifacts themselves? If someone manages to preserve a really old tape backup, couldn't they power up a really old and well preserved computer and reinstall a working OS? ... in most cases, the answer is still no.

The materials used to make a computer will be subject to several damaging forces. Oxidation and Outgassing are the big ones. Exposure to air will cause electronics (especially the copper bits) to slowly rust and degrade. In dry conditions, this could take many decades, but in moist climates it could happen much faster. Sealing most kinds of electronics in a perfect vacuum is even worse because it will cause certain elements that are stable under atmospheric pressure to outgas (aka: boil off) which can fill your vacuum sealed package with corrosives gases and damage the hardware much faster. The best you can expect with most common hardware is the partial vacuum in the vacuum sealed plastics that electronics are often shipped in which minimizes oxidation without promoting outgassing. This can extend the life of some kinds of electronics by several years... but not the centuries you are looking for.

Your final enemy is a phenomenon called cold welding... now this is your real hard limit. Let's say you have some doomsday prepper who REALLY wants to preserve human knowledge; so, he has a computer in an underground bunker that he and his descendants keep running for generations. He does this by storing all of his replacement computer parts using the most sophisticated storage methods possible. He keeps the devices perfectly climate controlled and fills the storage room with a noble gas like helium or neon so that it can neither oxidize nor gas off.

The last concern is that many electronics have very very tiny parts. Cold welding is what happens when you weld two things together via pressure instead of heat. Macroscopic stuff like sediment and metal either need a very long time or a lot of pressure to cold weld, but because the parts in electronics are so darn small, they don't need either. Random quantum fluctuations at the scale of modern electronics are enough to cause damaging levels of cold-welding to occur within a few years and is infact one of the major causes of failure in modern computers and the leading reason we struggle to make chips smaller than they already are. So even if you do everything else right, you can't stop quantum physics from doing its thing.

Ironically, it is the older computers that will last the longest because thier circuits are much bigger; so, while you won't find a single working MAC M2 no matter how well you try to preserve it, you might get lucky enough to find an old 8088 with intact tape backups that can still boot up. So, the only information you can recover from the ancients is not going to be much more advanced than what you already have in your setting.

Lastly: Data loss from modern paper

Since we have so many surviving documents over 400 years old, it is tempting to assume that stuff we are writing down right now will still mostly exist in 400 years, but unfortunately, that is not the case. Most historical "paper" is actually linen or cotton cloth. Because cloth is held together mechanically by long interwoven fibres, these old books could get wet with very little risk of major damage. However, nearly all modern paper is made from wood pulp which is a very short fibered material held together almost entirely by water soluble natural adhesives that can break down just from the humidity in the air.

On top of this, most modern paper is made from inks and wood pulps that acidify over time slowly breaking the paper down even if you can do a good job of keeping it dry. As such, most of this paper sees significant degradation within 20-100 years regardless of how well you store it, and we actually have very little surviving written records from 1850-1900 unless it was printed on the older style of linen paper. There is nothing you can do to stop acid decomposition from eventually breaking down a paper page.

Granted, a lot more of the paper made in the past few decades are acid-free; so, these will last somewhat better, but we don't really mass produce many of our scientific discoveries on paper any more. Your historians will probably see a paper dark-age between about 1850 and 1990. Acid decay will have long since claimed nearly all of these books. Between about 1990 and the early 2000s you should have a fair amount of surviving useful documents which could potentially be useful kind of like the left over 8088s, but then the information gap will open back up again with the digital age as less and less information is actually printed on paper.

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    $\begingroup$ Imagine finally breaching the legendary vault and all you can actually recover is stuff from their museum section (right behind the near magical quantum computers) which turns out to be worse than the digital watch on your arm. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 12 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ I'm curious what your source for "very little surviving written records from 1850-1900" is. I've handled enough older works to know that kept in good environments and untouched, pulp magazines will be subject to flaking but still readable, and books produced and bound as library books (or other quality productions) show relatively little damage from the ages. $\endgroup$
    – prosfilaes
    Mar 15 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ @prosfilaes College Art History class... my professor said it during a lecture; so, not sure what her source was. Also, I was not trying to say that there is very little writing from that time period at all, just in comparison to the time period between the development of the movable type printing press and the adoption of bleached wood pulp paper. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 15 at 19:50
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There is a meme that I love, but for some reason I can't find its template on the internet right now. Edit: thanks CDspace for finding it:

A modern man explaining the 21st century to people in the bronze age.

The template is a painting of Jesus giving one of his sermons. But someone took Jesus out of the painting and put a 20th century man in his place. And this guy who time travels from our era to year 30 has the following dialogue with the people around him:

  • In [insert current year] we have [insert technology here] that does [something that looks like magic for people in the bronze or iron age].
  • How [(does it work)/(can we make it)]?
  • I don't know.

Put yourself in a time traveler shoe's. How would you explain a CT scan to King Henry VIII? metal tube goes bleep bloop and we can see inside you is not helpful when it comes to replicating one.

"Oh but the people in question understand the theory, they just don't understand the methods". Let's put it this way then: we discovered quarks in theory in 1964, and in practice in 1968. If someone in 1968 got a grasp of a 2023 computer, they might understand what it is, but they wouldn't have the optics nor other instruments to accurately map out the microscopic parts. Transistor nowadays are 14 nanometers wide. Sure, we had electron microscopes since the 30's, but we wouldn't have in 1968 the resolution nor finesse to reverse engineer a 2023 traditional computer. Don't get me started on a quantum or DNA-based one.


With this in mind, you can make it worse for reverse engineers by making whatever data the ancients would leave behind innacessible. To this end, imagine they left nothing in books and everything in "the cloud". Current era people would not have the tech to read from HD's and SSD's from the past, and those media deteriorate in a few years without the proper maintenance - so after 400 years all the data is lost.

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    $\begingroup$ Here you go, knowyourmeme.com/memes/… . I always thought the modern guy looked like Christian Slater $\endgroup$
    – CDspace
    Mar 11 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ It suffices if they had magically long-living SSDs but all of them were Nvme and required read/write speeds above 4gb/s. Absolutely no chance they could connect to it in any way $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 12 at 12:26
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This is really, really, really, really, really hard

And when I say that, what I mean is that you won't be able to perfectly rationalize the condition. A nuclear war so thorough that it would erase (e.g.) all surface evidence would also make the existence of your 1970s-era new society incredibly difficult to believe. Indeed, from a practical perspective, you can't have a more advanced society so recently destroyed (400 years...) and a new society that can't prove it. You'd have roads, rural buildings, books... lots of books....

So, your goal is to provide enough background information to suspend the reader's belief and not one word more. The more you try to explain this, the more false it will seem. As it is, we'll be embracing some ideas that are more fantasy than science, but all you need is enough to let your reader get past the idea and move on with your story. Here are some practical ideas:

  • The nuclear war resulted in decades of acid rain, speeding decomposition.

  • The nuclear war resulted in decades of howling winds and earth quakes, resulting in a substantial change in the landscape.

  • The nuclear war used bombs that resulted in a considerable explosive force but much less collateral radiation than we have today. Thus, more bombs can be used (erasing the previous civilization) without causing the reader to think, "where's all the radiation?"

  • The ancient civilization was much better than we at recycling, so there were no landfills. (Which are, frankly, your biggest problem. Landfills are gold mines for pre-existing tech.)

  • The ancient civilization was much more integrated meaning they had less need for possessions, leading to fewer items hanging around that could be discovered.

  • The ancient civilization was much more miniaturized meaning that recognizing an old chunk of wall as anything other than an odd piece of rock (and not the 3D circuitry it actually is) is much more difficult.

  • The ancient civilization was much more environmentally conscious than we are today, meaning that everything they built was designed to degrade and return to Mother Earth when disposed of. The consequence of the nuclear war is that everything was "disposed of." Left for itself, it all degraded like so many paper bags (or, as a better example, like so many international shipping pallets, which are designed to disintegrate when exposed to sea water).

Will you still have readers who refuse to believe?

Oh, yeah. What's laying around to be found?

  1. Submarines.
  2. Underground mines, complexes, etc.
  3. As I said... landfills.
  4. Basements.

And you seem to be worried about important information encrypted and stored digitally. We humans, today, are hundreds of years away (Yes, IMO) from completely discontinuing books. Even when we do, we'll have households, schools, and libraries full of the antiques. Knowledge is really, really, really, really, really hard to destroy.

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    $\begingroup$ Current nuclear bombs do not bring much of radiation afterwards. They can be used in any quantity. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Mar 11 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx Are you supporting my answer or complaining about it? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 11 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ Yes - you almost need Clarke-tech nanobot swarms going around deliberately destroying artefacts and corrupting storage media, kind of like what was described in Charles Stross' book Glasshouse. A war isn't going to accidentally wipe out all the knowledge given that well-designed archives are planned to be redundant and durable. $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 Bingo. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 12 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx Technically, they are not less radioactive that the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they are way less radioactive for how destructive they are. A 475kT Minuteman and a 15kT Little Boy leave behind similar amounts of radiation, you just need fewer of them to get the job done. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 13 at 18:19
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Highly successful but no longer in power anti-tech sects would do the job. Following the demise of the Ancients the surviving faction that came to power was violently anti-technology and destroyed as much as possible. Little hoards remain here and there, mysterious but occasionally useful, but most is lost or fragmentary at best. This group fell out of power and may or may not still linger to the present in some form.

Another option would be to simply extend 400 years to 1000 years or longer.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've seen that in a few stories before, it's a good one $\endgroup$
    – Xen2050
    Mar 12 at 4:46
  • $\begingroup$ Refusing to open the vaults should be enough though. Electronical storage media don't really survive that long $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 12 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok No disagreement, but "we waited and it disintegrated" is less of a fun story device than "ancient Illuminati destroyed it," even if it's 100% reasonable. $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonPatterson oh you can totally spin a tale about generations guarding the holy vault only to discover that by the time someone breaks the seal, it's all junk inside. But yeah, it's definitely on the lame side $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 13 at 2:09
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A suitably sized-up dinosaur-killer asteroid (or even a near pass by a rogue planet) would fit a lot of your criteria nicely; the only catch is that you'd probably need more than 400 years to recover to 1970 technology.

Global forest fires, multiple subduction zones triggering, massive depopulation, waves of extinctions. Lots of room to wave your hands and get your readers to buy in to what the setting needs.

The landfills and slag heaps will be great places to mine raw materials, neatly sidestepping all the discussions about how hard it would be to reboot industrialized civilization with the easy resources gone.

Going a bit further, @CGCampbell suggests that the wealthy and powerful left on generation ships before the disaster, that leads to the idea that what survived the disaster was a fraction of the people and infrastructure that was left behind, the Luddites, the religious extremists, the poor and disadvantaged.

A compelling religious narrative blaming the disaster on over reliance on technology would go a long way towards erasing what technology survived, too.

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  • $\begingroup$ Team this idea up with the fact that the ancients were a millennia-old civilization, and they send 80% of their population out on generational ships, so as to 'save' most of humanity. What is left had to cope with the survival of the near-miss and then rebuild civilization.... thank God it was the rich and their servants that left and the (re)builders stayed. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 12 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, @CGCampbell , I riffed off what you wrote. $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Mar 12 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ Throw in some Immanuel Velikovsky ideas from Worlds in Collision, has done much of the heavy lifting already. Gripping reads, thought provoking. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Mar 14 at 9:05
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There is a great idea that the Ancients' technological advantages were primarily in design and production quality rather than fundamental scientific insights, which adds another layer of plausibility to the scenario. This could manifest in several ways:

  1. Manufacturing techniques: The Ancients may have developed advanced manufacturing methods that allowed them to create highly refined, durable, and efficient components. These techniques could have been lost or become impractical in the post-war era due to resource scarcity, environmental changes, or the loss of specialized knowledge.

  2. Materials science: The Ancients might have had access to advanced materials with superior properties, such as stronger alloys, more efficient semiconductors, or lighter composites. The knowledge of how to create these materials or the resources required to produce them may no longer be available.

  3. Miniaturization and integration: The Ancients' technology could have been characterized by a high degree of miniaturization and integration, allowing them to create compact, powerful devices. Without access to their design principles and manufacturing capabilities, the current civilization may struggle to replicate this level of sophistication.

  4. Optimization and efficiency: The Ancients may have excelled at optimizing their designs for performance, energy efficiency, and reliability. This could have been achieved through advanced simulation tools, iterative design processes, and a deep understanding of the underlying physics. The current civilization might lack these capabilities, resulting in less advanced technology.

By emphasizing the Ancients' superiority in design and production rather than fundamental scientific breakthroughs, one can explain why the current civilization can develop technology based on similar scientific principles but still fall short of the Ancients' achievements.

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    $\begingroup$ Just look at the differences in manufacturing between the present day and the 1970s. Or between the present day and 2016.. I recently upgraded my computer's graphics card, and did some technical comparison. The transistor-size in the GPU is literally three times smaller than it was in 2016. If you took this GPU back in time to the 70s (60 years ago!) it'd be alien technology the government locked up in Area 51 and studied. On its own it'd have more computing power than the entire world had at that time put together. My wristwatch has more computing power than was used on the Apollo program. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Mar 13 at 12:09
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The ancient civilization relied on the lifeforms and species that are no longer available, such as certain plants or bacteria.

While modern science is aware about their existence in the past, it cannot revive them.

Another scenario is that the ancient civilization relied on a rare mineral (such as Helium-3 for lots of power production), that could be only mined on the Moon or the asteroids.

Or relied on manufacturing in microgravity.

While the current civilization is capable of spacefligt, it is stll a long way till it could establish industrial mines in space or manufacturing industries in microgravity.

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Materials are unanalyzable.

If you gave a scientist a hundred year ago a modern computer chip, the idea of conductive silicon would have boggled him. And he could do nothing more. The techniques to even analyze such a chip would have been beyond him.

Likewise the artifacts of the advanced civilization are made of stuff that the culture can't reproduce or even theorize how it could be reproduced. Flexible glass and transparent steel, perhaps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Transparent aluminum ;-) $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Mar 12 at 20:28
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It doesn't need anything more than a 300-year forced descent to 17th Century levels.

Look at present technologies. Flash memory will forget its contents after five years without power. Most VLSI electronics has a mean time to failure (by atomic diffusion) measured in decades. The fabrication plants which manufacture them require enormously specialized and delicate equipment. Circuit boards contain components (electrolytic capacitors) which also fail by ageing in a decade or two. And so on ...

Other things are not so intractable that their function cannot be deduced, but they are dependent on electronics to implement. They'll be able to look at a fuel-injected internal combustion engine and deduce how it worked. But they won't be able to build or reconstruct an ECU. They will have to re-invent and revert to carburettors ... once they have worked out where to get fuel from. The whole resources supply chain will be broken, and will need re-implementing without electronics or advanced materials. And the richest ores will be all mined-out.

Any science or technology museums that survive will be positive godsends. How to implement technology using things that they actually can manufacture. Electrical insulation using silk or enamel, not plastics. Steam engines built by blacksmiths. Lots of etc. But most such museums were in city centres, which got nuked.

If you want to accelerate bit-rot of ancient knowledge, have them arrive at flash memory before we did, so magnetic storage (hard disk drives) never got past the 100Mb stage. Perhaps give them a hotter and more humid world than ours, so paper suffers decay at jungle rates, not temperate-arctic ones. As soon as the air-conditioning failed, the books started rotting. Literally, turning into compost.

But I think, even in our world, a global disaster such as a plague with 90%+ mortality (natural or man-made) would cause a technology reset to pre-Victorian levels. Once things had stabilized (I'm being optimistic here!), our descendants would be rebuilding following "sketches" from their past, but unable to simply skip forwards. They will be re-inventing the details. One cannot deny that aeroplanes are possible when you have the wreckage of aeroplanes. But you cannot just copy a modern jet airliner either, even if you have one that's merely 300-year decayed rather than burned. The USSR tried to copy Concorde, and failed, even though they had stolen many blueprints and all necessary technology was still extant.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the tangible example of the Concorde. $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Mar 14 at 1:21
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End user security was actually good

Even today it's becoming reasonable to have encrypted storage by-default on every computer with a measured secure boot process that makes it impossible to decrypt if the startup security has been altered. Combine this with a reasonably effective OS security and even non-military cryptography could make retrieving data from a hacked computer in pretty much mathematically impossible.

Think of it as everyone has an iPhone or a Windows 11 system with disk encryption.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sort of like the Clipper Chip that had NSA backdoor baked in. $\endgroup$
    – KalleMP
    Mar 14 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ @KalleMP In this case it's a combination of TPM, and UEFI secure boot that are now standard with disk encryption. $\endgroup$
    – davolfman
    Mar 20 at 0:48
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Modern computers are fragile and probably don't last that period. And on other hand even if you get hands on some part that works in this era, you can't interface with it unless you know exactly what you are doing. You are almost there with CDs or but Blue Ray or magnetic tape with modern densities is still faraway. Technology simply is not interfaceable. Or everything is broken.

How do they know tech was better? Take a desktop form 90s. You have nice durable labels of how many Megahertz CPU is, how many Megabytes RAM there is and how many Gigabytes your hard drive is. Each of these clearly superior number. But all the capacitors are dead, the circuits on PCBs are corroded. You know it is lot faster, but it simply doesn't work.

Also what is stored could be nigh unreadable. Let's take something like standard for PDF format 986 pages. Or look at how much memory "simple" software presenting our normal web pages takes. It can be hundreds megabytes or even gigabytes. And if everything is stored like that. Figuring it out outside few fragments of text is very complex process. Add to this possible compression which also need to be understood and even without encryption data is very hard to interpret.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or Heechee prayer fans, which were originally thought to be, and collected as, art, and only later realized to be data storage devices. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heechee_Saga $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Mar 14 at 1:43
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The information storage medium was vulnerable to a weapon that was then used in the war.

The Ancients possessed a particularly valuable plastic-like material, which for its durability and longevity became the standard for storing information in visible and electronics forms. The long chains of polymer made the Ancients' materials strong and allowed them to store their information at a particularly high density. This substance was responsible for much of the Ancients' technology and success, and they made it a standard to incorporate into everything from building materials to high technology to household goods.

The prevailing rumor is that, as part of the war, one of the desperate factions activated their ultimate weapon: an element that could break down and destroy this ubiquitous material. It's unclear to modern scholars whether the mechanism was based on a fungus or bacteria, or was just a substance or gas that could neutralize those long chains and turn the plastic into a mush or powder. Other provocative scholars have suggested that the release wasn't deliberate, and was simply a chemical experiment or an attempt at recycling/reclaiming the material that the Ancients subsequently lost control over. The effects were so immediate that modern civilization has simply been unable to find any records of those fateful last days.

Unfortunately, this technology-degrading compound remains on the planet to this day. Any of the Ancients' artifacts that are unearthed will degrade very quickly, far too quickly for the useful technology or information to be revived, and even too quickly to fully understand the mechanism through which the material degrades. This means that anything of the Ancients that remains even slightly working needs to be immediately quarantined to a safe vacuum, kept in a museum or research center, in hopes that one day the lost knowledge will be made available to the new civilization--though unless this new civilization can stop the degradation, it may have to proceed up a different and slower technological ladder.

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    $\begingroup$ This is explaining a lot of background lore of the world. I love the idea; you might consider making the degradation of the information a side effect of some weapon, however, so that the author has more creative freedom. $\endgroup$
    – alkahest
    Mar 12 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ @alkahest Thanks. I decided to write the suggestion to be fully-formed; I trust the writer can adopt and integrate the bits and pieces they prefer. $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ Compare and contrast with the Superconductor-eating plague in Larry Niven's Ringworld series. A bacteria which eats the room-temperature superconductors that underpin the entire of the Ringworld's advanced civilisation, the only examples of the material that still exist by the time the protagonists arrive on the scene are physically embedded in the material of the ring, or in the structure of levitating buildings for example, away from exposure to the plague. Bonus points for the plague being a deliberate act of sabotage by a hostile power. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Mar 13 at 12:05
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Lets imagine your timeframe is 400 years from now and you want to know why todays technology doesn't still work. All modern semiconductors manufactured today rely on the tools made by a single company (ASML). In addition, they rely on rare earths to produce the exotic materials they are manufactured from. If that company was utterly destroyed in a war, then the tools it makes would very quickly stop working and the technology that is dependent on them would fail. If the sources of rare earths were exhausted or destroyed (targets of nuclear bombs?) then we would be driven, very quickly, back to pre 1970's technology levels that did not require modern semiconductor manufacture. Some existing technology would survive so the people of the future would have access it but as repairs or replacements would only be possible through scavenging or cannibalising, the use of modern technology would become a very limited resource.

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Many answers are about knowledge getting passed on, I will talk about artifacts specifically.

Look at say the romans, what is left? Buildings almost nothing but buildings and roads, things made of stone or concrete. Anything else we have is in museums or random junk that gets pulled up by plows. So that is what your civilization should have let the empty shells of buildings, many of which could get repurposed. Plus the occasional bit that got rare preservation. You would be amazed about how many barns have foundations made of repurposed roman stone/brickwork. Look up somthing called spoliation and spolia, to see what happens to roman buildings.

If you want to make even more disappear make your civilization obsessed with recyclable and biodegradable materials. If most things are made of biodegradable plastics or fungal material none of it will survive 400 years.

Metals get recycled, this is what happened to a lot of roman bronzework, especially by war governments. Metals include a lot more than you might think. "this computer thing, it doesn't work but its got a lot of copper in it I can get $20 by melting it down" Almost no technology will be working after 400 years so its just scrap at that point. What gets preserved, not stuff that is functional but stuff that is pretty and gets saved as essentially art regardless of its original purpose.

Also nobody wrote down what they were for. Look at Roman dodecahedron's we have no idea what they were used for but we have thousands of them. just because an artifact survives it does not mean anyone knows what it is for.

enter image description here

Glass and pottery are too fragile and end up as essentially gravel. If you left a modern home untouched for 400 years you would just a pile of rubble and a broken foundation, and that is without people scavenging stuff from it. Nothing really useful to a 1970 level tech civilization will survive 400 years, well nothing useful for more than just material.

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    $\begingroup$ Not to undermine your very valid point, but we do have a pretty good idea what the Roman Dodecahedrons were about. They're pretty useful for knitting gloves, and coincidentally found primarily in colder parts of the Empire. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Mar 13 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan that is not well accepted by the scientific community, for one thing it only works on one kind of them, and only one size. It also uses a knitting technique the romans may not have had. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 13 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ True enough, it's not the answer, but it at least is a better explanation than "The romans liked making weird shapes all over their empire for no real reason". It also works better for me than being a fairly standardised Demo Project for showing you can work with bronze in complicated ways, which is another explanation given. Even if the Romans were big fans of standardisation.. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Mar 15 at 9:33
  • $\begingroup$ I am nearly sure, it was used for gambling $\endgroup$
    – Gray Sheep
    Mar 16 at 0:23
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To think of it in another way, this is somewhat comparable to inverted retro-computing in the sense of instead of restoring and repairing an older, simpler computer - you're trying to figure out an older, more advanced computer.

Imagine that you have a time machine and bring along a modern computer and show it to one of the designers of the MITS Altair 8800. Even though the two computers would function on mostly the same principles, it would be impossible for the Altair designer to make a comparable machine. Even if you gave it to one of the "big boy" companies like IBM, CDC or Cray and even if they pooled their resources into reverse-engineering a 2024 vintage PC, it would be largely impossible, even if they were given a decade or two.

This does uncover a few additional points:

The Ancients had their own 1970's tech era as well

And this may be somewhat how the current civilization managed to advance from a post-apocalyptic society to 1970's era tech within the 400-year span.

However, the Ancients had a different view on the preservation of their technology and knowledge. The Ancients moved quickly and new technology was not shied away from. Their Society had a high adoption rate when it came to new devices for one reason or another.

One real-world example of this could be telecom companies in some countries where telecommunications were monopolized - Here, customers would get their (wired) phone for cheap or even for free, while paying for the service over their subscription. One could imagine such a system in place for computers that is basically the telecom tactic on steroids.

As the Ancients advanced, they would also get their gadgets, computers etc. upgraded rather quickly.

IRL, retrocomputing is also mostly a niche hobby, and already, getting your hands on working 1970's and early '80's equipment can be a real pain.

This "gap" can be even further expanded, as the Ancients may technologically have been even more advanced (2050's or 2100's era) when their nuclear war began.

Architecture

While RAM and most other simple components may be fairly easily reverse-engineered, something like a CPU is far from easy when you're unable to analyze it - this is also even further exacerbated by the code that is supposed to run on the thing.

As a lot of printed media has likely been destroyed in the war 400 years ago, that may also well include detailed information on the Ancients' computer architecture documentation - especially when considering that Ancient companies may well have kept those designs secret.

Even if scraps of this information were to be found, it'd still be an incomplete picture of how the Ancients implemented their CPU designs. The current civilization would have to apply a lot of guesswork if they were to make an Ancient-compatible CPU.

At the same time, your current civilization would also be unable to gleam the design directly - Not only may these Ancient CPUs be rare artifacts, but your current civilization may well be unable to see circuits fabricated on a 5-nanometer process.

This also tackles into the problem of reading digital media, as this will conform to an architecture or standard that may well be far remote to the current civilization - hell, Ancient computers might not even be binary in nature.

Regardless, even if you get the standards and architecture correct, there are still a lot of things that must fall into place to even decode something relatively simple (in modern times) on 1970's era hardware.

On top of that, there may well be no working devices due to degradation from the Ancient era.

Assembling the pieces

The world is currently at the technological stage of about late 1970s. There are computers, including early personal computers, television, and all. The world seems to be developing at a good pace.

So, your society's state of the art computing machinery will be on par with the Atari 400 or the Commodore VIC20 at most. Speed of supercomputers will be comparable to an early Pentium-based PC (check the real-life Cray 1).

At the same time, everybody knows that about 400 years ago there was a more advanced and more powerful civilization (the Ancients), which was destroyed in something like a nuclear war.

That this old civilization existed is not a secret, everyone knows about it.

You describe something comparable to a nuclear war. Thing is, everybody knows about the Ancients, so clearly some memory and remnants of technology survived. Enough survived to be able to keep the technological level comparable to 17th-19th century Earth, which may also let your current civilization rise that quickly.

You don't describe how advanced the Ancients became, but as mentioned - reverse-engineering a computer of 2024 with 1970's era technology is a monstrous task on its own.

A post-apocalyptic state may not need to last that long at all - one or more factions may well have had the ability to get or keep their technology at a relatively modern level, or a cache of Ancient knowledge was found relatively early on. All cards are open here. Any can have happened.

It is an often-used rhetorical device in politics to point out that the Ancients had this or that better. Like "they had better computers", "their video quality was better", "they had better mass transit", "their planes carried more people", "their microscopes were more precise", "they had true AI, not just expert systems", etc.

...And if the society is technologically adaptive and progressive, while good funding goes towards the research of Ancient knowledge, this may well boost technological progress further.

Some principles and knowledge have clearly survived from the Ancients - including most "simple" tech and refinements.

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