I'm writing a novel based on an alternative version of Earth, but because of a large change in human history, as well as a more focused transfer of knowledge and the presence of materials unknown to our time, science evolved at a far faster pace than in Earth's actual history. I'm still trying to figure out the exact speed, but I'm currently planning for our modern tech level (global spreading of knowledge, resources and manpower) to be reached around 800 years before the start of the novel.

This is just for scientific progress though. There are a number of significant changes in social and cultural environment happening right now: as examples, sexual liberation, gender identity acceptance, discussions of inequality between social classes and groups, creation of new art forms, a stronger or weaker affinity with religion.

These things are affected by technological progress, but also by the interaction between cultures and generations. Since I'm not planning on adjusting the length of a generation, it is unlikely that the changes in social and cultural respect happen at the same speed as the scientific evolutions.

How would the speed of social and cultural progress relate to that of scientific progress?

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    $\begingroup$ If I remember right they have an inverse relationship. $\endgroup$
    – King-Ink
    Feb 15, 2016 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ So, I want to make sure I have this right. By sexual liberation, they've gone the way of a Brave New World and started having massive -----? By gender identity acceptance, you mean they realized that creatures are male and female, right? And they are accepting this fact? And what exactly is a stronger of weaker affinity with religion? Two contradictory adjectives, and an attraction towards religion? $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2016 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ How exactly do you define social progress and cultural progress ? What someone sees as a progress can be seen by others as some sort of decadency (e.g. French reform of spelling, removal of Latin teaching in high school, standardization of the world culture, acceptance of homosexuality, use of English as universal language, comics, etc.) $\endgroup$
    – Kolaru
    Feb 16, 2016 at 2:14
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    $\begingroup$ The more I think about that, the less evident it is for me that there is any relation at all. $\endgroup$
    – Kolaru
    Feb 17, 2016 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ @NateKerkhofs I would change the term social progress to social change. Progress assumes there is only one path to progress along or only one "right" path. There have been many paths of social progress that were widely accepted as the way forward at the time but have since been discarded. Changing the technology and history of your world may change its values and the path of social evolution. There is nothing inevitable about democracy or the free market or free press, or any of the possible social paths that our society has happened upon or is pressing toward. $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2016 at 1:45

5 Answers 5


How egotistical do you wish to be? Do you wish to believe our current culture is going on the only possible right path, or do you wish to believe there are many other paths which a culture could follow. Is it a path, or is it a forest of options?

One effect I have seen from science is that it tends to decrease the effective distances between things by speeding up communication. Not all science does this, obviously, but the general trend of discoveries tend to lead to shortcutting steps that had to be handled slowly before such discoveries. This means one effect of science will be the increased rate of communication. Religions that used to be able to rely on distance to avoid conflict get plunged together. They either have to invent new forms of distance (such as the Amish electing to separate themselves from society), or they have to learn to coexist. This is true for many ideas, not just religion. If you believe such rapid exchange of information can only end in "gender identity acceptance," then you have written your own answer.

Of course, there are countless science fiction books out there, each with their own opinion of what the continued march of science will bring. Some create technological dark ages, where human culture is snuffed out by technology. Some create golden ages, where the culture of humanity is catapulted on the back of the rocket of science. And, of course, you find everything in between (Frank Herbert's Dune comes to mind). There are even cases, such as the Nox from Stargate SG-1, where the technology and culture advance to the point where the technological side becomes almost invisible, and all we see is the culture.


We already know that culture has an effect on scientific and technological progress, but there is no real way to "quantify" it.

In the West, Hero of Alexandria made simple steam and atmospheric engines in the First century AD, and the Romans knew and understood mechanisms we would recognize as clockwork, as well as cranks, waterwheels and other mechanical devices, but no industrial revolution occurred.

The Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta had a very advanced, tolerant(for the time) and open system of government and public administration, anticipated the assembly line in the Arsenal, had advanced double entry book keeping and was an enthusiastic user of technology, yet this was not the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution either.

Elizabethan England was somewhat similar to Venice in its prime, but the start of the Industrial Revolution is usually dated 1760, after the English Civil War, Glorious Revolution and even the Seven Years War. What about English culture and society was so different from ancient Rome or Renaissance Venice?

Many of the tools and institutions were in place in some similar form. Even the idea that people and inventors were isolated wasn't true, the Romans had both a post system and extensive libraries, and the Venetians had extensive commercial and diplomatic ties throughout Europe and the Middle East, and Venice was at one point one of the leading printing and publishing centres of Europe.

An interesting discussion on this topic is published in the comments of this blog post: http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=6525

This is a very controversial topic, and as the author, it really is up to you to decide what is the key element that supports your background and plot.


First an important note.

Neither technology nor culture develop in a linear fashion. Think back to history. There have been cultures that were very accepting (in ways) to sexuality and race and religion going back several millennia and then there have been times of great persecution. Likewise technological achievement exploded during some of the great empires and was subsequently lost when they fell, the same can be seen to be true for society.

So the answer to your question is... it could be anywhere you want it to be

Some things to keep in mind to help you decide.

  • Democratization of knowledge. New technologies are great, but how much are they shared? Is public education a thing, or is the advance of technology tightly held by a select few. Imagine medieval rulers with satellite tech and instant communications...scary.

  • The church. How do they react to this tech? Are they involved, do they control it?

  • Population growth. More people = more different people and more people also = more technology. Things aren't going to develop and change as quickly with fewer human bodies around (the alive kind).

  • Nation state disparities, are all nations equally developed or are there weak and strong? Who are they, how do they view their neighbors?


Welcome to Sociology for dummies

Society is a complex thing. It can need thousand of years to settle down, and ten minutes to change if the right exogenous event is applied on it. And conversely. So, saying a priori that technological advancement can let a society advacnce culturally (in this case I hypothesize that yoi want a progressive and "good"cultural advancement, so good civil and political rights, but not licentiousness.) it's a gamble.

First of all we must ask ourselves: can technology allows a cultural advancement? This question is not as obvious as. The answer is : yes and no. In sociology, technology it's considered an integrative force in order to cooperation emerging. Modern technology has in it potentialities of integration. Raw materials from all over the globe are used in industrial processes. Of course this situation may, and possibly will, lead to conflict, but it is also a potential basis for specialization and co-operation. But also conflict.

Moreover, it is said that the technological advancement don't follow the cultural advancement. As explained by James, the two things do not go hand in hand at the same speed. Greek civilization was more technologically advanced than medieval in some fields, such as medicine. However, even the medieval States recognized that slavery was not a big deal, while also keeping serfdom. In addition, the same Greek medical knowledge then became dogmas, thus blocking the scientific development. Although scientists valuable developed cutting-edge technologies for its time (see Galileo and his telescope) the society did not react well.

How does a culture change?

Various scholars have proposed different theories of cultural change. Thomas R. Rochon proposed a differentiation between three modes of cultural change:

  • value conversion – the replacement of existing cultural values with new ones (ex. changing views of slavery as an acceptable practice to an abhorrent one)
  • value creation – the development of new ideas to apply to new situations (ex. emergence of the environmental issues or concepts such as sexual harassment)
  • value connection – the development of a conceptual link between phenomena previously thought unconnected or connected in a different way

And then we come to your question. Technological innovations can enhance, displace or devalue human existence and culture. Advances in medical technology have contributed to demographic changes, including increased longevity and decreasing fertility for example. But the problem is: society accepts technological change? We now come to the essence of the matter. The diffusion of knowledge.

The problem is in the third arrow

You can create teleportation. Or create a beam that converts evil thoughts into positive thoughts. You can create interstellar travel. If no one spreads these inventions, the society does not change. So, you must decide how much the society is willing to spread these technological advances. Two examples:

  • The Copernican Revolution: This is a scientific revolution. Say that it is not the Sun goes around the Earth, but the opposite, opening the way for modern astronomy. And yet, to say such a thing meant, at the time, contradict the Holy Scriptures. And to contradict the Holy Scriptures meant going against the Church. The innovation was not spread as fast as an Ipod. But once accepted, however, it had to be spread to the population, which lacked a cultural background suitable to accept such an idea. Society changes after centuries.
  • The steam exploitation: but here it has gone very fast, in a relative sense. The industries needed steam. Sure, it was expensive, but the invention gave extraordinary results. It spread quickly. Because there was an interest in spreading it. Society changes radically in 50 years.

So, what is the speed of cultural change?

It depends on the degree of diffusion of technological advancement.It also depends on how ready society is to absorb change.

If an invention can be detrimental to the status quo, waiting cultural changes after centuries. If an invention can improve the status quo, expect changes in a matter of decades. If an invention is created in an already advanced cultural background, expect changes within 10 years or less.


Here is one incredibly powerful example of the interaction between society and technology in play in today's world all around you. In one word: privacy.

Can we preserve privacy in a digital future, or is it obsolete? Can we live in a world where we can all know everything about everyone? Or in one where the state knows everything about citizens ( or subjects) but they cannot find out anything that the state deems secret? Or in a world where nothing can be read or listened to without explicit permission, which can be revoked at any later time for any reason? All these gave become possible as a result of today's technology.

There are many visions of where this will lead, from the utopian through various dystopias to the blackest of tyrannies or the collapse of society back to the stone age. Take your pick or even better, imagine another one. This is not just fiction. It's shaping the world you may be living in within a decade.

And there are quite a few other hot topics in play!


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