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I'm moving a ton of people (asteroid miners and affiliated personnel living in the Asteroid Belt) onto a generation ship which will take years to reach its cruising speed of .1c, and which is part of a fleet numbering hundreds of ships that's prepared for a three thousand year journey or more. My story takes place partway through the second millennium of the journey, and despite over twelve hundred years having passed since departure, none of the fleet's citizens have become posthuman like the entities which built the ships in the twenty-sixth to twenty-eighth centuries. Furthermore, science and technology haven't even significantly advanced by more than a relative century's worth of development since departure.

How might I explain this complete and utter stagnation? Is there any conceivable reason the entire fleet hasn't budged an inch technologically since they left the Solar System over a thousand years ago?

Additional information from comments by the OP:
The fleet stays in regular contact with each other though, relaying occasional brief status updates a few times every Earth year. Usually they include any new, relevant or important information they think the rest of the fleet should know. Each ship has a population between 1 and 10 million people as well, meaning the total sum of the fleet's population is about a billion.

Each ship is about the size of a major city. Even the small ones carry hundreds of thousands. And this is after a thousand years of population growth, mind you. The original crew of each vessel probably didn't exceed 40k back when they first launched.

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    $\begingroup$ Quick answer: Scientists are one in 1 million or at least 1 in 1000 or 1 in 10000, and not all of them are equally productive and not all of them have talents and inclinations that solve the problems that need to be solved. In the same vein, why hasn't Peoria, Illinois or Iceland brought about tremendous advanced science solely through their own efforts in the last century. Without a critical mass and interchange with others in the same field, science stagnates. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Oct 26 '16 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ The crew adopted a religion that claims to have all the answers. $\endgroup$ – goblin Oct 26 '16 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ Have you watched Wall-E ? $\endgroup$ – Antzi Oct 26 '16 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Z.Schroeder Wait, were the ships designed for 40K and now have 1-10M, or were they designed for 1-10M, but only started with 40K? Either way, the mismatch in people/resources might help: if you have 10M in a 40K can, there's no free resources to spend on tech development. If you had 40K (or even 80K) in a can designed for 10M, everyone was running around trying to support the over-abundance of infrastructure, and didn't have time for speculative tech development. Several generations of this stifled "development culture", and abundance of resources means it never had reason to come back. $\endgroup$ – R.M. Oct 26 '16 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Z.Schroeder Occasional brief status updates are a poor substitute for the kind of conversations scientists have with one another, not only orally (at conferences, over lunch in the faculty cafeteria, etc.) but in exchanging writings of one kind or another. Unless you can guarantee all of your scientists get to be on the same ship together (a really bad idea in case it hits a big rock en route) they just won't have that kind of collaborative environment. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Oct 26 '16 at 17:54

13 Answers 13

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Space

Generation ships are huge, but they aren't designed for experiments; they're built to move from point A to point B. Just like airlines don't have a dedicated science lab, your ships may not have a research facility. Only minor advances that could be made in a cramped personal apartment would even be possible.

Need

Necessity is the mother of invention. If your ships are built well, easily maintained, and provide free and clean air, water, and food, the citizens may well need very little. Inventions may be no more than entertainment at best; like the Eloi of HG Wells' The Time Machine, or the humans aboard the Axion in Wall-E, the humans aboard the ships spend their days playing games and relaxing, instead of thinking.

Time

On the other hand, these ships may require constant maintenance. There is no such thing as a passenger; children go to school, and upon graduation are immediately brought into the workforce. Few have time for hobbies, let alone science, and those that do are derided for not "pulling their weight." With relentless schedules and little time for anything but menial labor, few decide to try inventing anything more than a reason to sleep in.

Stasis

Of course, it may be that people aren't awake to do much inventing; if the ships place people into some kind of temporary stasis, the centuries will fly by. There may need to be a few people awake to keep things running, and perhaps the requirements of stasis need people to be awake for some amount of time, but otherwise, all slumber on through the darkness, dreaming, but not inventing.

Management

Sometimes, all it takes to stagnate technology is the wrong guy in charge. With rules specifically in place to keep anyone from having enough time to run experiments, or rules prohibiting tools required for the same, advancing technology is impossible - but it doesn't have to be that obvious. In fact, it may not be a man at all; safety rules implemented on the ship(s) may limit technological advances, rules unable to be changed without completely rewriting the entire ship operating system. Those rules may have seemed harmless, or even beneficial, when the ship was built: "no power draw over 1 kW" is a great rule for stopping shorts and faults, for instance... but it also means nothing more powerful than a microwave could ever be used.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for Space/Need and Statis, but I think the Time argument can never truly work, because it is the opposite of "no needs". If everyone has to work their asses off, they will hate it - there will be a huge need and wishes to somehow change something for the better, to optimize work procedures. - And since you will need some leeway in workforce (otherwise a single accident would kill everyone) this little extra time will be used to find new optimizations and methods to reduce work and risk. $\endgroup$ – Falco Oct 26 '16 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ The jobs don't have to be important; I was thinking something like the military, giving enough work to keep everyone busy, but not so much that it hurts morale. If someone has a free moment, they can get into trouble, so command gives them something mindless to do - or promotes them. $\endgroup$ – ArmanX Oct 26 '16 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Falco The time argument makes perfect sense. It's why there was very little and very slow technological progress up until the industrial revolution. Up until then, almost every one had to spend almost all of their time on their farm or everyone might starve. You argue a single accident would kill everyone. It doesn't have to kill everyone to be enough pressure to keep almost everyone doing maintenance. If just one accident can cause everyone to be hungry for a few weeks, or for a few people to starve or run out of air, it'd be enough. $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Oct 26 '16 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ Necessity is not the only mother of invention. Don't underestimate the other one, curiosity. $\endgroup$ – Erik Oct 27 '16 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Shufflepants and still to get to an industrial evolution we needed progress from everyone working their asses off, to optimizing survival so you had leisure time to do research. This was not an accident by some good years where everyone had nothing to do and started inventing. Necessity is not the only, but often the strongest motivation for progress - which is why war also promotes many inventions, although a single accident can result in everyone getting killed, so everyone should be on the field holding a gun, but we still research and invent stuff... $\endgroup$ – Falco Oct 27 '16 at 12:12
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All of their resources are carefully controlled.

Technological advancement generally requires the utilization of large amounts of resources to construct advanced laboratories, build novel materials, and test new procedures that could very well destroy or render unusable large amounts of resources that could otherwise be used for something else. On Earth, this isn't much of an issue, since a well funded organization can buy more steel or lithium if they need it.

In space, there are no extra raw materials. Everything in the colony ship will exist for a specific purpose, and all resources will have been designated as being critical to a certain task prior to departure. While there will no doubt be scientific discoveries on board the ship, such as how to optimize growing conditions in a zero-g environment, they will be limited to what can be discovered with whatever equipment the ship set out with.

Technological advancement requires going further than just performing simple experiments. It requires prototyping and fabrication, which require materials that the ship simply can't spare. Colonists will be expected, on a generational basis, to use the exact same technology that their ancestors used, and to repair it with a steadily dwindling stockpile of raw materials. This makes the most sense from an expedition planning point of view: technological development is an unknown, so everything should be assumed to be static with regards to technology for the duration of the voyage. Any deviations from that could reduce the materials available for critical tasks, increasing the odds of mission failure.

Culturally, the colonists will be drilled to be as frugal with materials as possible, since the fewer materials that are needed to patch a personal comm unit, the more materials will be left the next time one inevitably breaks. In this sort of culture, the colonists would be shocked by, and probably punish, anyone found using raw materials to develop new technology.

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Religion

Religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they shall think. - Arthur Schopenhauer

Throughout history, religion has been used to enslave the human mind. If you can make everyone in the ship devout followers of some proclaimed god, and you make any form of technological or scientific questioning blasphemous, in such a confined environment, dissenters will quickly find themselves disciplined... or worse.

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    $\begingroup$ The so-called dark ages are a complete fabrication by Voltaire and his contemporaries. Any competent historian knows that the medieval period in Europe was anything but dark. It was actually a time of steady progress (slow by today's standards, but steady nonetheless). And in fact, the reason that significant advances in art, science, finance and banking, agriculture, and much more, happened and Europe rather than someplace else had a lot to do with the presence of Christianity. $\endgroup$ – Charles Burge Oct 26 '16 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ And the post middle-ages advances had a lot to do with introducing external resources ... "free" energy from coal, or taking somebody else's land, rather than optimisations in a sustainable closed system. It wasn't religion holding the middle ages back. On a ship, where are those external resources to come from? Medieval sailors knew : you had to find land. Put together (1) the Earth's circumference (known since Ptolemy) (2) The approximate distance to India or China (walked or ridden by Marco Polo) and (3) the range (food and water capacity * speed) of a ship and you can prove the Indies are $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Oct 27 '16 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ Look no further than the Amish to see just how religious zeal can completely shut down all progress. $\endgroup$ – Bohemian Oct 27 '16 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with this answer. its a bit too simplistic, and the premise is resting on shaky ground. Schopenhaur was right to an extent, but only in so far as his comment shows that christianity had a right view of the world, being open to natural reason and logic governing the universe by laws. one need only look at the intellectual implosion of the islamic world after they accepted Asherite theology and abandoned Hellenistic thought. it was the root of the reasons why the West leapfrogged the Islamic world in technology. $\endgroup$ – shiningcartoonist Oct 27 '16 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ I can agree with that. I think your answer seemed to suggest that religion by nature precludes scientific progress; which is the most disagreeable thing. But you're right, given the right set of ideas you can severely curb scientific inquiry. Occaisonalism and the idea that the only thing we can know is from scriptures (what God tells us) can basically destroy any desire to discover how the universe works. Both of these are tenets of asherite theology $\endgroup$ – shiningcartoonist Oct 28 '16 at 12:35
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Quite simply, we cannot afford to put our ships at risk.

Some intellectual activities are low risk and can be encouraged - art, music, poetry, philosophy - to some degree. Though when they inflame human emotion, even these can be dangerous. It's one thing for kids driven mad by rock and roll music to trash a theater, or a city in a riot, but trashing a fragile hull in the vacuum of space ... well, in the first half millennium, it happened to a few ships. Not rock and roll, for the most part. Funnily enough the philosophers were more dangerous, we lost a few ships between free will and predestination, and the argument isn't settled yet.

No survivors, and we still have to navigate around the debris clouds, moving alongside us at the same 0.1C..

Science, engineering, and technology have far greater dangers. Tolerable on a planet, thanks to the redundancy of large continents and vast oceans. Experimenting with fire? Most people can flee the forest and start again. Mining? Don't drink from that river, there's mercury in the mine tailings. But it's not the only river. Nuclear fusion research? You get the picture.

New and experimental political systems? Wars, or famine due to planning breakdown. Survivable for most of the refugees.

Whatever happened on Easter Island? Eminently survivable on a continent or one island in a crowded archipelago.

But our ships aren't planet sized, or even continental in scale. They are approximately the size of Easter Island, and equally fragile.

We tried designating some ships as experimental zones, or cultural growth zones. A few survived, and now they are the most stagnant of the fleet. The others are more debris clouds.

But we have a lot of bright ideas on file, waiting till we reach our destination. And an army of filers, cataloguers, librarians, and theoretical researchers...

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the best answer so far to me $\endgroup$ – user21263 Oct 27 '16 at 13:03
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Lots os reasons.

For starters, your population is composed of miners and associated personnel only, right? Probably the most educated person you'll have will be a group of engineers. The best science people you will have for the first generation will be the odd nerd here and there.

Miners and engineers know how to build machinery and extract ore, but things like superstrings theory, oxidative phosphorylation or k-means clustering are usually not part of their education. In plain English: your people already start with very little science.

They don't have even 1% of the whole scientifical knowledge of their own time. They probably lack the scientific knowledge of past times as well, so they have a lot of wheels to reinvent.

Think about it. Pick a few thousand average people from the developed world nowadays and put them on a deserted island they can't escape from. Even if they have the raw materials to build microwave ovens, they will probably be doing clay stoves instead, and poorly. They'll have millenia of technological catching up to do before they can even dream about gas stoves.

But let's get back to your miners. Their situation is even worse. They are probably handed everything they need to live from the AI governing the ship, which acts as a nanny to them. This reduces motivation to innovate. They will also lack a lot of resources to develop on, since even an armada of ships will probably have only a negligible fraction of the mass of our planet's crust. You can't develop electronics when the only sources of silicon are the boards of the computer that keeps you alive. You can't develop much in the means of metallurgy when your sources of iron are the walls separating you from hard space vacuum.

Add a technophobic culture - that is, one that dislikes technological advance, and you get the perfect mix for a hiatus in technological advances. Some such cultures exist nowadays. Imagine that the space amish of the future, probably an offshoot of the Kalona, will embrace reactionless drives (a development currently only seen in Sci-Fi, but theoretically possible in reality) - but they will never ever enter a ship with an Alcubierre Drive, because it violates the spacetime as it was woven by God. They may also reject other sci-fi advances like magnetic monopoles and teletransportation on similar grounds. Now imagine those guys are the majority of the population on your generation ship...

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  • $\begingroup$ Great points, the only flaw is that we're assuming they didn't pack with them some sort of Wikipedia-esque encyclopedia. $\endgroup$ – Bloc97 Oct 25 '16 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ Encyclopedia is not enough. I've read a lot about welding. I can't weld to save my life. And of course, I know theory about welding machines, but I doubt I could make one, even with manual. More complex subjects are similar, just worse. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Oct 25 '16 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ Doesn't prevent children from learning that though. $\endgroup$ – Bloc97 Oct 25 '16 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ I think that rebuilding society by using wikis as a canonical source for science would be counterproductive. $\endgroup$ – Renan Oct 26 '16 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ The main problem with the thousands of people on an island isn't necessarily knowledge. The big issue is lack of infrastructure. Guys who design and build microwaves for a living can't do it on a desert island with just raw materials; they need the tools to work the raw materials into something useful. The miners won't have that problem. $\endgroup$ – MichaelS Oct 26 '16 at 10:00
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A generation ship has to be a stable system. Either it is totally self sufficient or nearly self sufficient in which case there is little need for the population to do anything for the ship itself but may need to do things like farming. Alternatively the ship needs a lot of maintenance in which case all resources are tied to keeping that maintenance in place.

In either case the surroundings are rather static and at least some part of the economical output lives under some sort of command economy, due to necessity. This is necessary not only for economic reasons of restricting resource usage but also for political stability. Waging war inside a generation ship is quite bad.

Politically it may be desirable to limit new research as it has a tendency to cause unexpected social changes. But even if it is not there may not be resources to do the changes needed. This paired with limited communication and somewhat limited population dramatically slows research down. Research speed is at least partially a network effect that does not scale linearly.

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Due to network effects, technological advancement is exponentially correlated to population size. So the generation ships will appear to stagnate relative to earth so long as their population is significantly smaller than earth, and their contact with earth is limited (i.e. no earth-to-ship broadband). An overview of the exponential pace of technological change is given on this wikipedia page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerating_change

As a side note, this network effect explains things like global food and energy production vastly outpacing humanity's exponential population growth. Unintuitively, the statistics suggest that the faster our population grows, the longer the earth's resources will last. This is due to technological advancement's ability to gather, distribute and use resources more efficiently.

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  1. The civ of Gen Ship collapsed and is rebuilding itself (Modern Earth)

  2. The Government of the ship have decreed those things off limits (Rome)

  3. Only enough people who fill out specific jobs are there so they can't risk attempting certain sciences.

  4. They don't have the resources to build what is needed

  5. The experiments require more space or a safety valve which dint of being on a ship they don't have.

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In real history this usually happens when intellectuals are not in power. They still exist, sometimes even in the same amount, but without centralized support from intellectual government that brings them up the career ladder, gives them resources, the overall progress could be orders of magnitude slower.

You can just tell the audience that the central government of your world in question was not pursuing advances in culture, science and technology.

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Pre-occupation with entertainment.

Think of football, and the culture that surrounds it. The fandom; the insanity. For some people --- in some small communities, especially --- football is life.

At the expense of their full potential.

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During the creation of the fleet, the various AIs were linked together to form a collective. The directives given to the AI were 1) survival of the fleet, 2) the survival of the human race, and 3) to cause no harm to human life. (It is assumed that in the years 2600 to 2800 that AIs have sufficiently advanced in order to achieve these goals and that they are more qualified to make the decisions that affect the fleet.)

One of the primary responsibilities of the AI was in education and in assigning jobs because on the capabilities of each individual. While many jobs would not be considered "dream jobs", the jobs do fit the individuals for the most part.

Because of the near impossibility of inter-ship transfers, the population was basically kept in smaller "villages". Even interactions between villages on the same ship were considered rare. While there were some problems with crime, very little that happened that could escape the awareness of the AI (nearly omniscient knowledge). The AI informed the police and allowed humans to determine the justice required for the crime (no death penalty). This system worked well.

During the first few generations, the AI collective determined that there were certain types of individuals that could be considered more important to the fleet than others. The AI began promoting these individuals out of the standard survival path and careers that have dominated most of the human race... and put them in positions of problem solving, think-tank style groups. Essentially these individuals brought a key missing component to the AI... creativity.

Starting in the 3rd and 4th generations, the statis technology had evolved enough that it was viable to allow humans to be hibrinated for long periods (even though there was some small aging occurring of about 1/30th of normal time). A collective decision between the AI and humans determined to have the team to have long periods of statis between problems. This meant that those able to solve the problems were available, but while they were awake they only focused on the problem(s) that required them.

While the AI knew the potential of each human at a very young age (and trained them appropriately), the AI also honored the family unit as much as possible. The individuals deemed creative geniuses would receive their offer of promotion only at the time of the graduation (usually between ages 17 and 18). It is considered a great honor to be choose for this position even though the communities know that they may never see the chosen children again in their lifetime.

By basically culling the smartest and most creative people from the general population, this inadvertently caused 1) the stagnation of technology and innovation except in areas deemed critical to the AI, and 2) the steady removal of their genetics -- lowering the overall IQ and creativity of those that remained behind.

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I would like to reference the work of Raymond E. Feist. Pure fiction but more medieval style. He has also created a group of people which haven't advanced technologically at all.

This due to some reasons:

  • It's off limits for most people to conduct research and those that can do this rather study the past to learn from past mistakes
  • Because they expand, they think they evolve but an outsider remarks that expansion doesn't mean evolution
  • Rather than create new stuff culturally, their artists recreated known things as perfect as possible.
  • They don't see the need for inventions just for the sake of inventing

There are a few more reasons but I can't remember them all.

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    $\begingroup$ You are referring to the Tsurani I presume ? Other contributing factors: 1) An extremely static caste structure in their society. 2) the extreme lack of metals on their world. (Granted: they invented some substitutes for metals, but that is as far as their technological development goes.) 3) Powerful magic-users that can magically replace technology/science when it is needed. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Oct 26 '16 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Tonny The Tsurani are indeed the people I refer to $\endgroup$ – Calidris Oct 27 '16 at 6:50
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Motivation, As soon as the miners and associated people board ship they will no longer be miners and associated people. Several generations will pass. New generations will actually not be "miners" but "travellers" who will do nothing but travel and learn mining skills with stored mining equipment and planning for the new mine that is original motivation for the voyage. The originals will not make the destination so the motivation must be strong for the voyage. Holding the original and I assume strong motivation for making the voyage over generations will be hard and require a controlling hierarchy or the voyage is likely too look for new motivation.

So either everyone except a few are in stasis - so no science, or everyone is awake and under a strong controlling hierarchy - so no science.

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