A society grows with time, but does the technology needs to grow with them?

Is it possible for a planet to have a very large population and much society but no more improvement in the ways of the society? Like all scientists are on vacation, for ever?

Is a permanent state of stable stagnation possible? What factors needs to be terminated or set?

Below is an example of what I'm looking for - but without the stupidity

Trailer Idiocracy

In this - thankfully fictional - movie, all development stopped because only the Stupid reproduce. So society lost its interest in advancing.

For Religious answers - what would be the reason to stop them from evolving? I recall the Amish who are nice people that make great discussions about what new technology is ok for them. Or like the Jews who do not use electricity on the Sabbath. (if I recall that fact right)

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks again @Liath for the editing. I need some kind of "rechtschreib-shield" badge for you. $\endgroup$
    – Fulli
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 12:36
  • $\begingroup$ Man, Eugenics is never did is it? $\endgroup$
    – TechZen
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 4:04
  • $\begingroup$ The story "Einsteins Erben" by Herbert W. Franke (I don't know if an English translation exists, if so, the the title is probably something like "Einstein's heirs") explores a society that explicitly decided to stop development, going as far as operation on the brains of people who show too much curiosity. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ Haven't read the answers yet (so forgive me if this has already been said), but Asimov's Foundation stories (especially the books from before the Foundation, if I remember right) are set in a world that has already stagnated; you might look there for some inspiration. $\endgroup$
    – Shokhet
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ Depending on what you consider to be progress, the human race for most of the time it has existed - until the last 3-4000 years at least - was only developing technology at a very gradual rate. Of course, that was fairly low population, but exploring why might be indicative. $\endgroup$
    – glenatron
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 9:20

13 Answers 13


One possible reason for a large population to stagnate technologically could be ideological / cultural beliefs. Something akin to the Amish mentality of rejecting labor saving technologies. This wouldn't prevent individuals from discovering new technologies (either through determined effort or naturally / accidentally), but it would make the pursuit and use of them taboo.

As far as if it could be a permanent state of stagnation - it would be dependent on the strength and acceptance of these beliefs by the society at large. The beliefs would have to be broadly accepted / enforced and carry enough inertia to to maintain their strength over generations.

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    $\begingroup$ Although already developed, 1984 is a good example of technological stagnation no? $\endgroup$
    – dyesdyes
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 11:21

Some countries experienced technological stagnation in the past.

China is a good example : it was really advanced but it falls behind during the Qing dynasty .

1- The Empire dominated the region with satellite countries like Japan and Korea. Being the best they saw no advantage in improving science much.

2- Many eastern countries where reluctant to establish relations with the Europeans, especially the Japanese because they did not like the Christian missionaries. They more or less closed their borders to strangers.

3- China had a rigid structure, social and politic. Confucianism, emphasis on hierarchical relations inside the society and is doing well in maintaining order. But at some point, this with other factors like corruption is making people reluctant to change things, reluctant to take risks. Why would they need to take risks, they dominate the world after all!

4- The lack of incentive for innovations looks like a good answer. I saw a documentary about shark not long ago. The have been dominating the seas for the past 400 millions year or so? And yet their brain is about the size of my thumb. Physically, they haven't evolved much during this time. Because they don't need to. The evolutionist explanation is that an individual with different characteristic such as a bigger brain/more intelligent, gains no advantages since they already dominate. Having no advantage, the genes mixes with the rest and disappear. It was just an isolated case. WE could apply the same logic to states. With dominance, they have no reason to evolve.

*The only problem with China and others as well : by the time they realize they are technologically backward, it's too late.

  • I admit: I play a lot of strategy games. In the beginnings, your state is small and you fear the neighbors. You start modernizing the country, invest a lot. You go to way with others, taking huge risks to secure your border or to grab more land. Eventually, your strong enough to keep others states at a distance. Your safe now, you don't need to take more land, you don't need an efficient economy. I do become lazy at some point. In Victoria 2, playing as Russia: I created a series of satellite states in eastern Europe. I fought many way to achieve that. The first thing the Bulgarian did after their independence from the Turks was to declare war to Greece. I can't blame them if they don't feel secure. I just blamed them because they are dragging me into a war with Greece. Yes my army is much stronger but what's the point in gaining more land for me if I'm the strongest country in the region? I'm not helping Bulgaria, that's what I mean by being lazy.

A society grows with time, but does the technology needs to grow with them?

Not necessarily.

Often utopias/distopias end up in this sort of state. The society has "achieved the end goal" somewhat and from an external sense has stagnated.

Is it possible for a planet to have a very large population and much society but no more improvement in the ways of the society? Like all scientists are in vacation for ever?

Yes, but it is preferable to answer the why scientists don't advance society. Maybe there is no need, whether real or perceived.

Maybe there were historic events such as a global war which caused the advance of technology to have cultural taboo. There are a lot of factors which could result in this sort of societal state.

In addition to external factors, it could be societal norms - perhaps religion or fear of something.

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    $\begingroup$ Consider: It could be that they also don't understand the technology they do have; perhaps their Tech was given to them, and they have no way of really understanding what makes it tick. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 19:14

While it is possible for society to technologically stagnate, it is unlikely for it to reach a large population after that stagnation since large scale agriculture requires some technology. If you really want a large population there must be some event in the society that stops further advancement.

The two major contenders for a modern society are a catastrophic event like a meteor or major volcanic eruption that forces all the population of the earth back to food production and destroys the major constructs and our ability to use our current scientific instruments.

The other way this could occur is if we run out of energy, primarily fossil fuels before renewable resources are able to take the burden. This too could drop society back to the point where we want to continue to explore the universe, but without the necessary power we can't make any further progress and are stuck trying to survive.

Alternatively, instead of losing energy your society could progress to the point where further research is so expensive in times of money or energy that progress can not continue.

More unrealistically, in your world you could decide that your society has actually discovered everything there is to know. This is a bit of a cop out in my opinion but is an option for your world depending on how it is set up.

There are other options based on culture and other personal forces. Your society could decide that they have reached the pinnacle of scientific advancement and stop funding further development or actively ban/discourage it. Religious tensions can also add to this by putting a stop to "meddling in the affairs of the gods" or forbidding other avenues of research that would deny held truths, like the centrality of their planet or that “god” holds the world together, not forces.

For a basic culture that has little to no agriculture there could be physical constraints preventing any society from advancing. Art, music, and science are all a product of cultural surplus. Scientist can only research because there is enough additional food/energy/supplies that they don't have to produce these resources themselves. In a harsh or barren world, there simply won't be enough resource to allow anyone the luxury of research. The same idea is true for nomads. When you are constantly traveling, no one has the additional resources or equipment to do any serious scientific work. If you adjust your world to make the society constantly travel or barely survive, then technology would stagnate.

Writing must also be possible. If for some reason there was no way to effectively store or communicate information, then there is no way to build on the research done before. There are several people groups, mostly small tribes that have no written language. If your society doesn't invent an effect written language, along with the production of writing materials and their distribution, then science has no chance to flourish.

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    $\begingroup$ I like your middle paragraph, the idea that it's already been done. This was very true with medieval medicine... they believed that the ancient Greeks had already worked it all out and there was no need to investigate further! $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Liath - It's called the "Golden Age" fallacy. It's a universal in human cultures. Cultures believe that the world's or their cultures origins where the most perfect state and that everything has deteriorated since then. The world "original" as a complement meant the exact opposite it does today, it meant "looks like something done back at the origins in the beginning." instead of "something that hasn't existed before." Cultures used to have to struggle to keep information and most new ideas are wrong so veneration of the past was probably practical. $\endgroup$
    – TechZen
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Liath - It was the printing press that shifted the Western world to the concept of progress i.e. the future will be better than the past. When we could easily retain knowledge we became less frightful of losing it and more willing to experiment with new ideas. Scientific method allowed us test new ideas and discard the bast number of wrong ones. Thus we don't fear new ideas nor fear loosing what we already know. $\endgroup$
    – TechZen
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ I think the "we know everything that can be known" concept is a strong one, although we are a long way off it. Possibly a post-singularity AI might be able to know everything and by it's very existence cause a stagnation in human science - if someone knows or can calculate an answer instantly, maybe there is no need for research. Of course, the AI may have it's own motives... $\endgroup$
    – glenatron
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 9:24

The nature of the universe is that nothing is ever truly static - even stars die eventually.

Any race capable of creating technology in the first place will have individuals that will continue working on advancing the existing technology. To create technological stagnation will require some force, or group of forces, that will control or suppress new developments. Nothing will last forever though.

Some of the forces I have seen in science fiction and fantasy are:

  1. A powerful deity

    Note that this is not the same as a religion.

  2. Religion

  3. Oppressive government

  4. Technology detection and extermination system

    In the Looking Glass series by John Ringo:

    An advanced robotic system was programmed to hunt down and destroy any technology with detectable properties (i.e. EM emissions).


Jerry Pournel and Larry Niven's Codominon stories (written in the 70s during the Cold War) were premised on the idea of internal security through stagnation. Both the Soviet Union and the US grew concerned that the proliferation of technology raised the real specter of some numb nut third world despot making a technological breakthrough and then blowing up the world.

They got to the point of interstellar travels so they had resources forever , nuclear energy and room to spread out. So they decided the best thing to do was to freeze scientific research and technology and get rid of troublemakers by shipping them off planet. They outlawed a lot of research but the main thing they did was contaminate records of previous research with bad data. What scientist remained wasted a lot of time conducting research and formulating hypothesis based on gibberish data. They kept technology largely static, about early 21st century for newly two centuries. Then the wells came off and earth went boom. But by then, humans had spread out to space.

There is historical precendee for frozen technology in the "Gun powder empires of the middle east, india and china. The ottomans being the most obvious answers. In gun powder empires only the state has fire arms especially cannon. The great expense of gunpowder and it's strict regulation make it hard for anyone else to fight the central government. These empires grow more and more inward looking and obsessed with stability at all cost. They shut down schools, churches trade routes, anything that might start trouble. New technology is banned almost reflexively. The Ottomans banned the printing press in 1616 and the Islamic world has never recovered.

A civilization that fears instability and change will fear technology. Seems were are heading that way ourselves with the Precautionary Principle and claims that we shouldn't use new technology until it is proven absolutely safe, something impossible to do. If people become convinced that change will kill them and that stasis is the only safe "sustainable" type of society, then that society will strangle technology at every stage.

An industrial version of a gun powder empire could be some form of corporativism like communism, that managed to control an entire planet or region of space such that it had no external competitors. All the big corporations/state-enterprise would be tightly interleaved with the government and protected from free-market forces which would be illegal. They would have no incentive to create new technologies that might put them out of business. Likewise, the political side would like everything stable and predictable. Since the political leaders are in charge and want to stay that way and the executives/red-managers are comfortable two and everyone else has guaranteed jobs and social services. No one has any incentive to rock the boat.

New scientific knowledge could cause all kinds of instability from questioning the ideological basis of the regime to creating new technologies that would disrupt the economy and social disorder.

The only hitch they would have is that no society can exist on the exact same resource base forever. Either you have to have new supplies resources you can create with your current technology or your have to create a new resource with a new technology. A technologically static industrial society would need heavy recycling and some functionally infinite supply of base materials.

The best infinite supply at an industrial level would be space. Asteroids and moons could be mined for an infinite supply at a fixed tech. So a corporativist state would have incentive for space faring as long as it didn't rock the boat to much. Space would also be a good place for Gulags.

The society might split in two: between those in space and those on the planet. Those in space would be either exiles or merit promoted specialist. Space would attract dynamic individuals who could think and operate on their own. Combined with dissidents, they would be a danger to the regime back home.

A low-tech society like those of Meso-America who used massive amounts of highly skilled labor instead of technology might conceivably spread far and wide without developing much science or technology, at least for a long time.

The Meso-Americans prefected what we might call a dynamic, information intensive technology. More software than hardware. If they spread out and took that dynamic with them, they would not seek new tools and the like but would use the same wood and stone tools combined with their social organization.

Likely, they have to be the only civilization and likely the only sentients. But they would need some exterior threat or challenge to keep them internally cohesive. There might a semi-sensient life form common that required serious organized effort to push back. That would keep people from just wandering off into the wilds on their own. The environment should provide a lot of materials like wood but little like metal or coal. The environment should be fairly uniform over vast regions.

Imagine if the giant monolithic biome of the Siberian forest were a giant tropical rain forest like meso-America. There are nothing but low old mountains, mere hills and they are uncommon. Stone is rare and metals more rare. Rivers empty into fresh lakes or peter out in marshes into a dead sea. No sea travel, little water travel.

The surrounds are filled with a dangerous species, something that acts coordinated manner. To expand, a entire colony has to detach, make a city and keep functioning. Everyone is a cog and any internal disorder is lethal. Once the society hit upon the right organization, they would just clone it repeatedly as it spread outward.

If the planet was old, mountains worn down, metals might be hard to find. Low mountains would create fewer difference in air flow and clime at the same latitude. If continents were grouped around the equators, the vast majority of the habitual land might have a very similar tropical biome such that the same techniques would work everywhere.

The external threat would have to constant and probably need to popup everywhere. That would keep the comfortable interior communities from starting to fight themselves and possibly creating an incentive for technology escalation.


Science needs trusts. If a lot of scientists are frauds then nobody trusts science and the scientific system breaks down.

Technology is often disruptive to the status quo and the power that be can ban certain technology because they are afraid of it.

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    $\begingroup$ Must disagree. Science doesn't need trust at all. The entire point of science is to weed out self-delusion. Frauds are a minor annoyance combined with honest mistakes. The requirement to replicate experiments means that long term, frauds are impossible. There is one exception, when a government declares a truth science can't shift it. Lysenkoism under Stalin is the canonical example. $\endgroup$
    – TechZen
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ @TechZen: That is true in the absolute most purist sense, but tends to falter in real society. It is true that science does not need trust, as long as you are comfortable with using only statements like "We found that our model of the atmosphere is sufficient to reject the prevailing model confidence of .98 (N=12)." In reality, few can translate that into something useful. The trust comes in when a crackpot engineer like someone from Boeing says, "come into my 100,000lb metal tube, that is actually going to stay in the air for your entire trans-Atlantic flight." $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 14:56

You're looking to put "improvement on society" on a metric, so we can start by looking at how civilizations would look if we plotted them on a number line.

  • A dying civilization plummets towards 0 as it forgets all of its technology/improvements
  • An exploding civilization skyrockets towards infinity as it continually adds to its technology/improvement

However, those are not the only stable patterns. If boundary conditions are fixed (such as for small tribes in the Amazon), two more options appear

  • A civilization that approaches a level of technology/improvement which lets it coexist in harmony with nature (any additional technology would put them at odds with nature)
  • Chaos... anything goes

This sort of civilization has occurred. Consider the Pirahã, an Amazon tribe which is believed to have no way of describing numbers, so 0 technology. Until we discovered them, and started corrupting them, they literally did not have a need for advancing technology.


China, Gunpowder Empires, and the Amish are mentioned as real world examples, pretty well written up. Read about those. However, those cultures are all pre-scientific method (except the Amish, I guess). We don't know any cultures that've given up the scientific method - of course, they've all been threatened by cultures that do have the scientific method - so they don't really have a choice if they want to stay in the game.

You would need to remove external threats. This might be doable if you've got a significant technological lead over everyone you meet. You just nuke the [haboob] out of any competitors when you meet them, so they can't compete with you.

Not mentioned are some other scifi examples (yay for the CoDominion, and Foundation mentions!)

Niven's Golden Age, when war and fighting were outlawed in Human space (prior to the Man-Kzin wars), they had a tech bureau that went after inventors and buried technological advances (except for their own use).

Weber's new Armageddon series; which is all about breaking out of one of those periods of stasis.

Turtledove's World War series has aliens who have very slow-changing/advancing technology. They thoroughly test things, and take all things into consideration before adopting an advancement.

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    $\begingroup$ It seems like you might have inadvertently created a second account, which explain why you can't comment on your own posts. A moderator called TimB who is working on solving it, can be reached in the chat. $\endgroup$
    – overactor
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 10:00

The answer to this question is no unless you would like to define certain world based criteria that might make it possible. For example, "With x, x, x, x, x, factors taken into account, would science fail to progress?"

Getting on to the answer. Can things stagnate on a large world level view? Absolutely, yes. Now if we are talking an earth like world then how do humans create new tech?

  1. I have a problem or this takes way to much of my time
  2. How can I make that less annoying
  3. Viola! A new process, invention or whatever.

So I would say the answer to your question is the rate of progress can be very very slow but to say there is no progress is not feasible. It will be there in the day to day activities people have to do.

  • $\begingroup$ I Specify some more and edit the question. $\endgroup$
    – Fulli
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 18:30

The Dune scenario could work here - after the machines rise against humans and humanity barely survives, all "thinking machines" are banned and computing devices are intentionally kept low-tech, where present. This puts a cap on total possible development as computers are needed to manufacture and maintain more complex technology. If you took out the "magical" elements of Dune (Bene Gesserit, spice, etc) you'd get a technological roof pretty quickly.


Our own technological development can be attributed to the resources available to us. We have the metals and fuels that allow us to development more advanced technology. We also are able to continually shrink our technology, so that it takes up less space to do the same work.

If a planet doesn't have enough of the natural resources necessary for advancing technology, then the civilization won't easily be able to develop new technologies. Existing technologies will be limited by size and complexity constraints.

They'll likely fully develop what technologies they can with the resources they have, though.

One of the ways we measure intelligence is by the use of tools. Intelligent beings will want to develop tools to make it easier for them to survive. They will want to improve their tools to continuing getting the same output for less effort.


I could easily see stagnation setting in simply because of the cost of advancement exceeding the desire of those who would otherwise push the boundaries of technology.

The cost of advancement rises with the level of technology (obviously speaking in very crude terms) - as knowledge becomes more advanced, one needs to have greater specialization of knowledge and achieve a greater understanding of the technology that already exists (to develop newer better designs of static quantum spline reticulators, one must have a great understanding of static quantum spline reticulation). Eventually, achieving the level of specialized knowledge necessary to then be able to make a meaningful contribution will exceed the desire of all but the nerdiest of geeks.

Once it becomes a rare field (in terms of cutting-edge research), there are fewer and fewer chances for mentors and collaboration, which might degrade educational opportunities for the next generation to come up to a level where they make meaningful contributions. Mature fields are also unlikely to have many opportunities for headline making breakthroughs, greatly blunting the appeal (study for decades and maybe you could claim a lifetime achievement of getting a minor pedantic tweak to existing methodologies).

Add in potential resource constraints, and this level might be hit earlier than later. Spending a lifetime pursuing an academic field with little immediate practical application is a luxury. Who has the time to spend decades of their life learning how to reticulate splines when one has to struggle to pay rent and buy food?

Once the field stagnates like that, any new generation would struggle in terms of building experience - all the tacit knowledge has been lost. Finding enough dedicated scientists who have the capacity to reinvent the wheel in an attempt to even just recapture lost knowledge might not be possible. Technology becomes about just maintaining the existing infrastructure rather than new developments.

Many things can influence where that tipping point will be found - how many people get funding to be dedicated to advancing the field, how much cultural pressure there is to devote their time to other fields (nobody studies chemistry because they are all highly pressured to study astrology), social approbation (little collaboration stifles innovation as well as inhibiting new entrants), excessive veneration for established knowledge (too hard to dispute the wrong theories of previous experts), outright religious persecution, political persecution (endless trumped up legal difficulties so long as you speak against the established politically correct conclusions), etc.


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