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Suppose a civilization from the past was suddenly given access to a huge database of information from modern times. How fast might such a civilization develop, compared to how they otherwise would without access to such information?

Or, to make that a bit more concrete, let's say we gave the nation of England during the late renessance period (16-17th century or so) access to the entire contents of modern-day Wikipedia printed on paper. How long would it be before they developed an industrialized society? Would it be feasible for them to develop nuclear weapons or a space program anytime within the following century or so?

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    $\begingroup$ The is exactly how the time machine was invented: design documents from the future just popped up in the present. $\endgroup$ – mouviciel Dec 8 '14 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ Another (not very serious) fictional treatment of this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – pjc50 Dec 8 '14 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ If they saw modern Wiki, with its 40000 pages on Star Wars, they'd give it up as a bad job. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 8 '14 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Or more importantly, they'd find a link to Youtube and sit watching Cat Videos until the battery on the "accidentally fell through time" iPad ran out. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Dec 9 '14 at 13:47
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There is actually an anthology about this by Eric Flint the first of the novel series is titled "1632."

It's is about an entire West Virginia town in the year 2000 transported to Germany in 1632.

Technology-wise. They could not just leapfrog technology 1632 to 2000 technology. As you might have already guessed there is a lot of "background" technology behind-the-scenes of our current technology or as they say in the novels they needed to make the tools that make the tools that make a product.

The anthology is the collective work of more than 300 persons (engineers and historian included). And they have a massive discussion board (started in 1999 and still going strong till now) about what technologies they can and cannot introduce complete with timeframes, where to locate specific resources, how to make alliances with towns that contain those resources etc. http://1632.org/1632tech/ is one of the sites devoted to the series (has link to their discussion board).

Short version (and by no means comprehensive)

The people of your time 17th century would first have to select what technology they can possibly re-create using their current base of technology.

Just to give some examples of what they were able to re-create in 1632 (also take note: in the novel 1632 they actually had people from year 2000 making informed decisions on what will be possible)

  • Crude mechanical sewing machines

  • Crude typewriters

  • Rifling will be of great interest (but will only be possible with precision tools - so it will be a tool to make the tool problem)

  • Also in the 17th century they had no factories and manufacture was done by guilds so it will also be an organizational logistics problem. Resistance to change scenario plus the fact that people who are best qualified to make the changes already belong to guilds.

  • Medicine will be get a boost (but only in terms of knowledge-base) and you will definitely have a lot of resistance from doctors) no doctor will really want to admit they would have to re-study and re-learn everything again. Human nature laziness and resistance to change.

  • Apothecary/ pharmacy definitely possible in months with the plant knowledge-base

  • Penicillin not immediately possible but Chloramphenicol possible dependent on how fast your people can absorb the knowledge

  • Ocean navigation should get a boost with better star charts. But captains are people too so you have to present a complete solution before they throw away their old methods.

  • Wide-scale electrical distribution they estimate a decade (tools to make the tools problem and money problems) it will create a sort of polarization (forgive the pun) between groups of conservatives and progressives.

  • On the bright side guilds can manually create limited lengths of copper wire and demonstrate the possibility of electricity (more like table-top demonstration) is possible.

  • Potato chips, ice cream etc. very doable in the immediate months :)

  • Who controls the flow of technical information, and why control the information (equality of the sexes, free education for all will be radical)

  • Butterfly effect also discussed. Predestination. (even if people understand butterfly effect they are far more likely to believe that "x" person will stage a coup in the next few years and take steps to prevent it from happening)

Space Program? They would have to justify the need for it, and it will become a money problem. Money for the entire research program including training and education for all the people in the background supporting sciences. Money that conservatives will argue could be spent on other advances. The budget for a first-baby-steps Space program will have to compete with more immediate earthly concerns.

If you are really interested in a first-baby-steps money for a space program - try to join the the 1632 discussion board (to get a feel of the type of resource allocation opposition you will encounter). Advocate for them spending money on early research into space (I think they are on the first half-decade tech advances after 1632). You will most likely encounter opposition from the conservatives saying that money will be better spent on something else.

I still remember the ironclads discussion, soooo many flames I thought everybody's modem had overheated (it really felt like you were in congress asking for a budget) :)

Just the tip of the iceberg.

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    $\begingroup$ In the 1632 scenario they had not only a small number of trained professionals, but also a small number of modern tools and "samples" to convince people this stuff works and is important. The paper-wikipedia scenario would suffer from some issues. To start with wikipedia is not designed for paper; it would be reduced into a mess of discrete articles. It would be pure luck that an article would be read by a person capable of understanding it. I would assume a separate organization specializing in managing and interpreting the "pages". Much would depend on the nature of that organization. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 8 '14 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ This is true. I would probably give this civilization 1 to three years (just for a preliminary sort) to properly wade through and catalog the information (dependent on the number of qualified scholars they want to put on the job of sorting all that information). Herculean task to be sure, plus unknown scientific terms, cross-referencing etc.They would probably need an "initial sort" in terms of achievable and understandable to their present day tech and totally alien to be re-sorted at a later date, once they understand more. A challenge meant for a generation for sure. $\endgroup$ – tls Dec 8 '14 at 7:49
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    $\begingroup$ "4,666,067 articles in English" The question as written would also include all the other languages, adding more than 10 million. Even the "initial sort" would require a major commitment. It is interesting to imagine the organization doing it given the amount of resources needed, the power information would give to the organization, and the funny fact that much of the content would be heretical, politically subversive, or otherwise considered unacceptable. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 8 '14 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, not only would the organization be large and powerful, it would be very secretive and disciplined to avoid contamination from "heresy, subversion, and perversion" contained by the wikipedia. I'd guess they'd be located on something like a "Forbidden Island" of their own. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 8 '14 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Ajedi32 Glad you liked it. In case you want to read the next books in the series, the reading order suggested by the author is here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1632_series#Suggested_reading_order $\endgroup$ – tls Dec 16 '14 at 1:32
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I think you'd be surprised as to how slowly they would progress. Textual information is one thing, but the ability to actually apply it can take years. Consider things like "we don't know how to send an Apollo spaceraft to the moon." We have all the blueprints, and we have even more technology than ever. But there are things missing that we simply don't understand anymore. The information is incomplete.

What such a document would do is tell people where to look to find things. What it would not tell you is how to make them useful once you find them.

The easiest things would be discoveries. Structure of the atom, chemical equations, these things would be easy. The hard thing would be processes. Things like refining metals requires a certain skill that can't just be written down. Even with the full 1000 page spec for Ethernet, it's still extremely hard to make without 99.99% or higher purity copper wires, and achieving that purity is not easy.

More interesting to me would be a document that focuses on discoveries that are known to cause cultures to be curious... to find answers, rather than just read them. Consider "Diamond Age; Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" by Neil Stephenson for an example of trying to raise curiosity while teaching.

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This and similar questions keeps popping again and again. Seems that people keep underestimating complexity and inter-dependence of our current industrial society.

Building advanced technology would be extremely hard because you need advanced machinery serviced by skilled and trained staff. Most of information needed to build such tools is not in wikipedia, and would not be even understood by medieval researchers - for them such writings would be like magic, with no way to confirm it.

What would be better would be custom books describing just next layer up in current language. Steam engines instead of jets. Standardization of apprentice training and tools instead of automation.

It will still take few centuries to develop space flight - maybe half the time, but certainly not within 100 years.

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    $\begingroup$ This is also very true. The minds to train the mind that builds the product. $\endgroup$ – tls Dec 9 '14 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ It could be that such a document could even slow the march of progress, as the recipients try to make the more useful, but harder to implement, iterations of technology before mastering the prerequisites, even to the exclusion of the progress they would otherwise be making on their own. $\endgroup$ – Trevortni Nov 23 '16 at 10:08

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