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I'm wondering what kind of events or limitations would be needed in a science fiction society hundreds of years into the future in order limit computational advances to the level of the early 70's to late 80's.

Specifically, something that would make people unable to develop better technologies despite trying. So government, religion and other 'soft' limits are not viable.

I'm willing to bend the laws of physics a bit if necessary to make this possible.

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    $\begingroup$ You mean aside from the usual suspects of religion and a repressive government? $\endgroup$ – Snow Nov 10 '16 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I'm looking for something that would make humanity unable to develop better technologies despite wanting to, I'm gonna edit the question to reflect that $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 10 '16 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ At most, so, fifties ok too? $\endgroup$ – Feyre Nov 10 '16 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ Here's the problem: if the laws of physics don't allow computers more powerful than those from the 70s and 80s, the laws of physics don't allow intelligent life $\endgroup$ – J. Antonio Perez Nov 10 '16 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind" - Orange Catholic Bible $\endgroup$ – Scott Downey Nov 10 '16 at 21:18

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You need to kill the microchip, at least when it hits the very large scale integration phase in the 1980's. A couple ways to do this.

  1. For some reason you can't stamp out chips, assembly line style. This could keep them from being super cheap and reliable. If they had to be laid out by hand they wouldn't be cheap and the maximum size would be pretty limited.

  2. Another possibility is that circuits won't work reliably when too close together. So there is a minimum size that is much larger than what we have today (14 nm or so). This will prevent high speed handheld electronics, keeping super computers in the "entire room" size category.

Neither of these things ought to directly impact biochemical processes. Of course eventually there will probably be workarounds, like using organic processing, but you may buy yourself a prolonged period of relative stagnation in the field of electronics.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, organic processing as an ethically questionable alternative to regular computers is exactly what I'm aiming for $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 10 '16 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ @MiguelBartelsman But since we don't actually know how well organic processing (or quantum processing, etc) will actually work, it is difficult to say how to stop currently fictional alternates. Take the Dune universe for example. They halted (regressed, really) electronic advancement but made human leaps due to the spice. But until they find spice, none of it could happen. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Nov 10 '16 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ As another example, in "The Three Body Problem" they made a giant computer OUT OF PEOPLE waving flags to replicate logic gates. How do you stop that? $\endgroup$ – Jason K Nov 10 '16 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonK That's going to work worse than the level of 70's-80's electronic computers. $\endgroup$ – immibis Nov 11 '16 at 2:49
  • $\begingroup$ today we already have 10nm scale. $\endgroup$ – Sp0T Nov 11 '16 at 7:02
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Shortage of elements used in their CPUs... there are a lot of rare and unusual elements used whioh could run out or be made unavailable, hafnium for example is pretty rare and maybe zirconium ooesnt work out as a suitable replacement. Germanium is somewhat common but not in high concentrations, so maybe mining it becomes difficult due to environmental laws. If you look at other materials maybe you can find more ideas too.

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    $\begingroup$ You don't really need these, though. You can make a computer of close-to-current-performance using just about any semiconductor you can get your hands on (anything in group 14 on the periodic table below carbon, along with any dopants from group 13 or 15, will technically do the job ... we use silicon, boron and phosphorous mostly just because they're the cheapest and easiest to work with). Hafnium is the best dielectric we've found, but even without it we could use silicon dioxide as we used to with only an order of magnitude loss of performance. All in all, this approach would probably... $\endgroup$ – Periata Breatta Nov 11 '16 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ ... leave you with computers today of around the power that actually existed circa 2000. And probably research/government machines that were similar in performance to our current machines (although much more expensive). This falls quite a way short of what OP is apparently trying to achieve. $\endgroup$ – Periata Breatta Nov 11 '16 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ Which elements could we imagine running out of, or make so difficult to get ahold of that it'd make cpu production prohibitively expensive ? $\endgroup$ – Innovine Nov 11 '16 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ Silicon, Boron and Phosphorous. And all of the various alternatives for each of those. But all of those are more than abundant enough to provide for the requirements of the semiconductor industry even if we only had a small fraction of what we do. Plus, it would leave the possibility for a small number of very high performance machines to exist, which would likely work against the OP's plan. $\endgroup$ – Periata Breatta Nov 11 '16 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ Bread can be baked from some types of wood, but cultures with access to grain don't discover that. Similarly, there may be way more alternatives than we think of - they just weren't researched because it was obvious from the start that they would be comparatively heavily impractical in our world. If you somehow ban everything crucial for contemporary microchips - well, that still does not prevent those alternatives from being researched. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Nov 12 '16 at 9:54
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You didn't specify that your a futuristic society was on Earth, so: Lets put your society in a Earth like planet (Light Earth), with an Sun like star to orbit, far away from the galaxy center.

Out stellar system would be in a young star-forming region, so it have less heavy metals available than our current Earth. Our Light Earth may have the same total mass, but most of the metals are inside the planet nucleus, and are hard to find near the surface.

This would slow down advances related to metals, like electricity, computers, and transportation. This way more futuristic technologies would not be possible, or would be really hard to develop.

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You cannot do that

You asked for a reality-check...

Necessity is the mother of all inventions. Human innovative power is never as strong as when facing hardships. Look through the 100 000 years of human history, and look particularly at all the rough times we have gone through. Through all this humans have continued to develop our understanding of the world, nature, the elements, the laws of nature, and of ourselves. And particularly when pushed — like when at war — humans have shown an amazing ability to improvise, adapt and overcome.

Which means that you are out of luck, because the harder you try to limit progress, the harder humans will try to make progress, and most likely over-compensate in the process.

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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, maybe they've achieved world peace and haven't had a necessity to invent for centuries. $\endgroup$ – Devsman Nov 10 '16 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Devsman: oh, these annoying humans. When there’s a crisis, they become pressed and creative, when there’s none, the become relaxed and creative… $\endgroup$ – Holger Nov 11 '16 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Devsman On the other hand, IC development was mostly driven by the USA, a country which hadn't been at risk of invasion for 150 years. The founders of modern home computing were hippies who explicitly rejected war. Moore's Law has progressed independently of USA involvement in conflicts around the world; and there's a fairly strong argument that the computing advances from Moore's Law have enabled globalisation and hence have made armed conflicts between major nations less likely. $\endgroup$ – Graham Nov 11 '16 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Holger: In full agree, just adding: Pressed creativity is more predictable but slower, relaxed creativity has breakthroughs and has better chances for documentation. So for Devsman, only the progression rate changes. $\endgroup$ – Sonic Nov 11 '16 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ So establish world peace back in time far enough that the differing progression rates result in the disparity you're looking for. $\endgroup$ – Devsman Nov 11 '16 at 13:14
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If you can bend the laws of physics sufficiently, then it might be as easy as adding some property of matter that'll not allow the p-n type of junctions to work. That takes out the compactness of silicon transistors which will make advanced computing devices impossible. No personal computers, no smart phones, no mainframes, no internet and definitely no supercomputers. Vacuum tubes could never be compacted. The new physical property will also potentially have no other repercussions because it affects a completely man made arrangement of materials, so the rest of the world will stay normal.

Alternatively, a more radical approach would be to make silicon (specifically when processed to make circuits) and/or some other critical components required for making ICs radioactive. Now only governments would be able to own computers housed in special facilities.

Alternatively, you can take out the zero based Arabic numerals. If no one invents that way of doing maths, the world will never be able to do advanced maths no matter how hard they try. But this would work only until someone finally stumbles upon it.

You could even change some fundamental property of matter to not allow steam engine to work (for example, let's say that in this universe water/petrol vapors compress to either change state or transfer most of their heat to the container, now no more engines) and there's no industrial revolution, if you can go that far back.

Basically, you select a few inventions/discoveries that were crucial to the new advancements and modify a law of physics to stop it from working.

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    $\begingroup$ the zero was invented independently by several cultures. there is no reason to think it could not have been invented. $\endgroup$ – njzk2 Nov 10 '16 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @njzk2 Yes, that's why I mentioned that that particular method will work only until someone else stumbles upon it. $\endgroup$ – Achilles Nov 10 '16 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ p-n junctions is probably the simplest thing you can remove without breaking everything else (or just remove the materials that do it from Earth) $\endgroup$ – njzk2 Nov 10 '16 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ I agree. And there are many ways of achieving it. $\endgroup$ – Achilles Nov 11 '16 at 8:33
  • $\begingroup$ Except that our bodies would not work in that world too. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Nov 12 '16 at 9:57
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What about Frank Herbert's solution in Dune? The people of that time had a cultural prohibition on "thinking machines" stemming from an earlier war - the Butlerian Jihad. Not exactly religion, although in Herbert's books it certainly had some religious aspects.

In the original books, it was described as "the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots". I always envisioned it just as a revolt against these machines and their users - an oppressed people rising up against their overlords and the tools of their oppression.

In the later books written by Herbert's son, it was expanded into a full-on "Terminator"-type battle against AIs & robots. Opinion is divided on this characterization (and the quality of the later books vs. the original ones written by Frank Herbert). Enough said about that.

In any event, the basic idea is that a traumatic event (major war, disaster, or something) linked to this type of technology could give rise to a social prohibition on their use.

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Technically no.

If you have a world which lacks semiconductor materials, you can't make integrated circuits, hence you would be limited to vacuum tube computers.

Vacuum tube computers are the giant room-sized computers that preceded modern day computer, in which the function of integrated circuits falls on large thermionic valves.

Technically, such a computer could do whatever a modern computer can, it's just a matter of processing power. All computers can run all software by definition, so if you made a vacuum tube computer the size of the pentagon, you may be able to play Doom on it, but practically this isn't something which would happen.

It's up to you to decide if this would give the practical limitations you're looking for.

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  • $\begingroup$ Damn, just edited the question in response to your comment, I'm sorry. Well, if nothing else it's valuable advice for others, thanks :) $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 10 '16 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ I think this is not entirely true. Vacuum tubes broke every so often under the load and heat and with a hall-sized computers the replacement rate was rather high. There would be a limit in size where it gets prohibitive, even if automated by another computer. It gets even worse with operational memory. $\endgroup$ – The Vee Nov 10 '16 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ @TheVee Considering in this scenario the Vacuum tube computers would see decades more of technological advancement I don't think you can say that authoritatively, especially since OP said "I'm willing to bend the laws of physics a bit if necessary to make this possible." $\endgroup$ – Feyre Nov 10 '16 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Feyre But I think the OP implied bending the laws of physics towards more restrictive ones, so not having semiconductors in their universe while keeping the downsides of vacuum tubes at their 60's capabilities could be an elegant way out. $\endgroup$ – The Vee Nov 10 '16 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ Well, it would have to go both ways. Restrictive changes to stop semiconductors from being developed and at the same time more lax rules to allow vacuum tubes to catch up to the 80's. I really didn't expect so many (and so varied) answers, especially for such a poorly worded question. $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 10 '16 at 20:41
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I know you said no religion in the comments, but I think there may be a middle ground worth considering.

What about a society with an extreme value placed on human labor - Protestant work ethic sort of thing. You could relate it to an honor culture, where honor is strictly earned through your labor, and your entire civilization is one big culture of hand craftsmanship.

They could still make some pretty amazing things, even plausibly these early computers. The assembly line is around; it's just fully staffed by humans. But the sort of high-tech tools required to mass produce densely-packed computer processors simply isn't possible.

This way there's nothing that feels like a contrived "oh, god says no computers" and you rely on everyone believing it and not trying. Everyone can strive, with all their might, to advance what they can do. But advanced computers simply aren't on the table, because they don't consider things a skilled human can't produce.

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  • $\begingroup$ Seeing the range of answers this question has got, I can't help but feel I worded it very, very poorly. The reason 'soft' limits such as governments, morals, and religion don't work is because the population is large, trillions of people distributed on thousands of planets large. There's no way such a limit could feasibly stop every single person from ever developing better technologies. $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 10 '16 at 19:39
  • $\begingroup$ @MiguelBartelsman That would probably have been good info to include. It's not too late to edit the question. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Nov 10 '16 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ Your society should be ready to wage a war on anybody who ditches the doctrine. Otherwise, ignoring that doctrine is a comparative advantage and people who do ignore it would outcompete ones who don't. $\endgroup$ – Daerdemandt Nov 12 '16 at 10:03
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One of the limits in reducing the size of circuits and transistors on a microchip was the inherent radioactivity of the materials composing the microchip itself. Now this level of radioactivity is simply the background radiation. It does allow for computing certainly up to levels more than comparable with current levels.

Assume a world where background radiation levels are significantly higher than those in our world and large-scale integrated solid state circuitry could be effectively impossible.

Since this is part of a science-fiction society hundreds of years in the future, then the increased radioactivity could come numerous sources. The widespread use of nuclear power, nuclear wars, and possibly the necessity to use nuclear pulse propulsion spacecraft, launched from the Earth's surface, for interplanetary travel.

Since space itself is a high-radiation environment the computers used there will be more primitive and more robust than current computers. They could quite easily be the equivalent of 1970s computers. The use of these simpler computers will be more sophisticated and subtle than how computers were used in the actual 1970s. Software engineering will have progressed and programmers will know how to get the most out of 'simple' software applications. Just like they did in the old days, i.e., the 1970s when good programming involved the least number of instructions and clever thinking about how to make it work well and efficiently.

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    $\begingroup$ High radiation certainly has an effect on electronics, but it's something you can work around. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAD750 for example. Of course that was very expensive, but it was a custom build - mass-produce in the tens of millions and the price would drop by orders of magnitude. And it's superseded by en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAD5500 which is more like a modern CPU spec. Radiation would definitely affect what you can get for a given price, but it won't take us back to 80s-spec machines. $\endgroup$ – Graham Nov 11 '16 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham Glad you pointed this out. It's something I didn't know, but now I do. I tried to stay close to the OP's specification especially avoiding soft solutions like religious prohibitions, but I got gazumped by improved technology. Good one! $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 11 '16 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ I really like the idea, and I doubt the RAD750 and the like would be a problem, after all, they were developed to protect existing technology in special circumstances, if such technology can't even be developed in the first place, it's unlikely that developments to protect it would be invented. $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 11 '16 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ This is the best answer. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Nov 12 '16 at 4:33
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The modern semiconductor industry is critically reliant on a technology known as the Excimer Laser. This is to my understanding the only known laser technology that produces light whose wavelength is shorter than the wavelength that the photoreactive substances used during integration circuit manufacturing react to. without it, manufacturing would require the use of visible light lasers instead, resulting in a limit of feature sizes approximately 10 times large than present, giving us chips of approximate performance of those produced in the early 2000s. This does not get us far enough.

Another critical development is computational lithography. This process relies on a variety of effects of diffraction and polarization that are at best subtle -- it is hard to know what the effect of changing those laws of physics would be on the universe, but they would probably not be immediately apparent.

Thus, by eliminating these 2 advances it would be possible to place a hard limit on semiconductor manufacturing at the shortest viable wavelength of light available for etching masks, which would likely be somewhere around the 400nm range, placing the maximum level of technology as somewhere around 1994: 32-bit computers, megabytes of RAM, low hundreds of megahertz clock rates.

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The singularity happened. Runaway AI. Now a godlike being.

It created Planck-scale computronium out of the fabric of space time with minimal disruption of the classic physics we experience. (Computronium is "stuff" optimized to compute stuff).

Physics is seemingly unchanged, except in ways you find fun. Maybe there are FTL gateways, or force fields, or magic. You get to pick.

However, organic life works. Low-information processing computers are as well.

More advanced computers simply do not work.

It has been theorized that the singularity has low level processes policing for a singularity emerging from within its computronium simulation and it is preventing it. Sort of like antibodies.

We are either treated special because we gave birth to it, or because there is no danger of a singularity directly from us.

The wave front of computronium expands out at the speed of light. Within it the various modifications work (for example, the FTL drive system only works within the computronium).

The singularity is a computronium field created by our ancestors. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the reachable universe together.

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One solution would be to have a world that has a high level of electromagnetic interference that interferes with the operation of sensitive electrical equipment.

Abnormal solar activity or solar storms can disrupt the functioning of electrical equipment on Earth, but this usually isn't a huge deal because the effect size is modest and because our atmosphere and magnetic field protect us from the worst of this electromagnetic noise. But, on a world with a weaker magnetic field, with a less protective atmosphere, with intense and frequently electrical storms, that is in the process of switching magnetic poles, that is closer to a star (or the same distance from a more luminous star), greater background radiation from heavy radioactive isotypes in the crust of the world, or that is in the vicinity of a star that is less stable than our own, so much shielding would be required to operate sophisticated electrical equipment that it wouldn't be practical to use it except for rare big science experiments that weren't commercially viable comparable in cost and scale to neutrino and dark matter detection experiments and the Large Hadron Collider.

This approach is probably more viable than trying to imagine a world without any viable semiconductors or a world with frequent nuclear detonations causing EMPs.

Another more extreme solution would be to have a highly corrosive atmosphere (a bit like a milder version of Venus) to which biological systems have adapted, that rapidly renders all available metals unusable. In general, a world without semiconductors is hard to imagine, because silicon is so ubiquitous. But, a world that has easily corroded metals (like iron and silver), but not metals that are relatively impervious to corrosion (a bit like the planet in Asimov's Second Foundation that lacks metals and becomes a home to a colony of librarians) is comparatively easy to imagine.

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Hostile A.I., smart enough to avoid total defeat, dumb enough to avoid total victory.

Focuses on pillaging and plundering processing resources advanced enough for it to use.

Once it focuses exclusively on a location, it will succeed in invading 99% of the time. And kill the humans since it's there.

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This reminds me of a US/Canada TV show called Stargate Atlantis (a spin-off of Stargate SG-1 which in turn is based off the movie Stargate).

In the show, they are in another galaxy populated by several human inhabited worlds. Each world is at a very different stage of development, though most are somewhat primitive. Additionally, there is another race of beings called The Wraith. They are predatory and "feed" on the human population. They are highly advanced with space ships and such.

So, to the question... In this show, many cultures/worlds have existed for several hundreds if not thousands of years. However, when the Wraith "feed" (called a "culling"), they destroy much of the infrastructure and take a good percentage of the population. As a result, no society ever really gets that advanced because they are constantly being brought down by destruction and loss of population.

So, in answer to the question... It seems that something like this may be what you're looking for. Essentially, some mechanism that constantly delays progress so that even after hundreds or thousands of years, the society is still behind the times in terms of technology. Perhaps something that takes the best and brightest (or most of them) every so often, loss of infrastructure, constant rebuilding may be what you're looking for.

Since you didn't mention that technology in general maybe at a 70s level and specifically computer technology, then I would tend to agree with Jason K: you'd have to kill the microchip. However, if it's all technology in general, then something like what I mentioned above would probably be a decent option.

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Alastair Reynolds had a setting sort of like this in Terminal World; an unexplained technology exerted a field that prevented non-biologic mechanics below a certain scale to break. It was sort of suggested that some sort of imperceptible vibration was responsible - something biology could handle just fine, but anything with moving parts big enough for humans to have invented can't. He used the field on one planet, with multiple settings to exclude different levels of technology; I think he just wanted to be able to write about nanobots and steampunk in the same book. But you could use something similar, on a massive scale if your civilization needs to be interplanetary.

Of course, it might take some mental gymnastics if you want to have other technology beyond 1970's level; for example, it would be hard to explain 70's computers alongside 21st-century jets.

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Make computational advances stay at the level of the eighties. No explanation is needed, really.

At any time the current technology is the best available and upcoming technology has some problems that must be solved before it can become actual technology.

Unless the limitation is important to the story, just have the society not develop microcomputers. It's not important, the fact that microcomputers are not available is established by society not having invented them.

Would you in a modern romance-novel expect a detailed description of why the protagonists aren't using pocket-sized fusion reactors to power their flashlights?

Commersial fusion is a good template, it has been researched heavily but all we really can say about why it isn't viable is essentially we haven't figured it out. A an engineer that has worked with it could list several things that don't work; but couldn't possibly say these several properties of out universe prevents it.

No reason why the same can't apply to computing, they have worked on it for centuries, but haven't figured it out yet.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I know. This was really my last resort option as I like to have proper reasoning behind my decisions if at all possible. $\endgroup$ – Miguel Bartelsman Nov 11 '16 at 12:44
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How about an electro-magnetic pulse?

Our current level of processing power is something of a virtuous circle - in order to have the technology to design and build a chip with thousands of semi-conductors in it, you'll likely need a chip with hundreds of semi-conductors in it.

If an event wiped out the world's integrated circuits, then there's a good chance that the knowledge would remain; but we'd have to start again creating computers with individual transistors again. Computing power probably wouldn't take as long as it did originally to develop, but it should take long enough for a story arc.

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I recommend a religion or cult entered around computer technology. They don't actually know how integrated circuits work, so they can't improve on them (hard limit), but the manufacturing process has basically become a ritual. People know how to do it because it was passed down, but they don't understand how it actually works, and they wouldn't deviate from the ritual over time because even small deviations would cause non-functional computer parts.

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A society which does not have reasonably advanced computers cannot be "futuristic". Most of the technologies and, by extension, the material elements of civilisation which distinguish the present society from the society of the 1950s cannot exist without computers. Advanced airplane engines are designed and manufactured using computers. Modern cars are manufactured using computers. Most cellular phones, even old-fashioned feature phones, are actually computers. The pervasive communications networks are computer networks. And so on. Without advanced computing there are no digital cameras, no mobile phones, no satellite-based navigation systems, no efficient airplanes enabling low-cost travel, no gigantic ships enabling low-cost transport of stuff from China, no automated factories producing cheap consumer goods.

Historically, when William Shockley invented the transistor in 1947 the future was set. Actually, it was set when they invented crystal radios, which use what we would call today solid-state valves -- the transistor is a simple development. You cannot have transistors but not advanced computers. You must then limit the society to vacuum-tube electronics, or even better, no electronics at all. Maybe in that world Faraday and Maxwell did not exist, so they don't know much about electricity -- but this does not make the society futuristic, it makes it steampunk.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmmm. Consider early science fiction. For example, Heinlein's "Space Cadet" was futuristic, not steampunk, and had no advanced computing. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Nov 10 '16 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ You are right to observe that early science-fiction, from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to the mid-1950s did not describe computers; but now we know that the advanced technologies described cannot be developed and cannot work without computers. I sometimes think of the worlds in early science-fiction as having "hidden" computers, somewhat like our smartphones, which are really advanced computers but are perceived as cute machines which show pictures and movies and allow multimodal communication and take pictures and play music... but are not perceived as computers. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 11 '16 at 8:15
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The Lensman series postulated a technology based around vacuum tube tech, only micronized and amplified beyond the point we abandoned them as a viable technology, not to mention...

genetic manipulation by aliens.

Obviously, the details were all handwavium, but at least it gave an intellectual foundation point to rest your suspension of disbelief upon.

Using this concept as a basis, you could postulate that certain inventions were somehow never made and that (for whatever reasons) a different focus in technological advancement became prominent, and said focus has hard-fast limitations on advancement in tech.

However, this still amounts to a soft solution, so I turn to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (the original black and white movie, or the book it was based off of, NOT the more recent remake). In said movie, as a demonstration of power and proof...

all technology based off of anything electrical or later was selectively turned off, leaving hospitals and other critical facilities running.

If some such similar an effect was postulated to be in effect permanently in the region around your proposed planet/society, that would provide a hard limit, as requested.

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    $\begingroup$ The original movie, in glorious black & white, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) was based on a short story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates, and published in Astounding Science Fiction, October 1940. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 11 '16 at 11:46
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An idea: endemic nuclear warfare. EMP would limit usefulness of computers, while physical destruction would prevent construction of progressively better microchip building tools.

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Assume that in the near future we have organic computing. Hundreds of years into the future we may lose knowledge of how organic computing came to be. We may end up with computers that are genetically inferior to our earlier models due to infection, inbreeding, or any other organic interference.

Also, we may have powerful AI or computers that are narrowly designed to design other computers. That means we may only need a few specialists to help those systems along. If those specialists go away and those systems degrade, go away, become altered, we may not know how to design or improve computers.

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Pay a visit to any semiconductor manufacturer and the answer will slap you right in the face: cleanliness. There's a darn good reason why all the fab workers wear moon suits, and they won't let you anywhere near the shop floor without one. So what if you contrive a situation whereby creating a sufficiently clean environment is impossible? Or the required purity of raw materials is unattainable?

It turns out that these sorts of advances were made circa 1970 to enable building ICs using the NMOS transistor, which has significantly better performance than a similarly sized PMOS transistor, and consumes less power than BJTs. If you are limited to PMOS and BJTs, you can still build reasonably complex ICs, but you will be hamstrung to a roughly 1980s level of technology at best.

In particular, you cannot build CMOS chips without NMOS transistors; though you could build roughly analogous structures using BJTs, they would still be larger and consume considerably more power. But you could still build depletion-load PMOS chips using the same ion-implantation technology as enabled depletion-load NMOS, and that would be important in trying to build 1980s designs.

This would also exclude the larger and more ambitious chip designs of the 1980s from consideration, or at least make them very much more expensive. The 6502 has about 5000 transistors, which should be quite manageable, but the 68000 has as many as 40000, and was thus extremely expensive to produce when first introduced in the late 1970s (with the benefit of NMOS transistors). For comparison the much more capable ARM2 only used 30000, and the 8086 used about 20000.

The 6809, 6309 and 65816 might be representative of more achievable designs. The 6809 was a basic 16-bit CPU using only 9000 transistors. The 6309 extended the 6809 in some logical and useful ways, and probably stayed well under 20000 transistors. Meanwhile the 65816 was designed as an upgrade of the 6502 family with the minimum of additional hardware, and may have stayed under 10000 transistors, though with some significant missing features relative to the 6309.

Larger computers could still be built using SSI and MSI technology, as many of the famous DEC minicomputers were. The principal limitation to these was the sheer cost of installing large memories; this could be worked around to some extent by using disk and tape storage, at a significant performance cost. Their relatively high power consumption and frequent need for repairs would also limit the number of people or organisations which would bother to install one, if even a basic 6502-based microcomputer was widely available.

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Based on the availability of the rare earth elements found in microchips, a life form (maybe a thermophyle archaea) degrades circuits under a certain size. The problem is overcome but the protection limits the size to ICs.

I also have to second Frank Herbert's idea of a cultural rejection to thinking machines. It would be no different than our current rejections of GMOs.

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    $\begingroup$ Fortunately, GMOs aren't likely to rise up in a robot apocalypse. OK we might get a genetically engineered organism apocalypse, but it won't be super-smarter than us mere humans. I hope! :) $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 11 '16 at 11:56
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have a period where the magnetic poles are switching, you end up with constant emp effects, only hardened electronics will work, which means most electronics are useless and electronics become ridiculously expensive. won't get rid of it entirely but it's not going to be common. downside much higher solar radiation so more skins cancer, greater crop sensitivity, a few bird species go nuts, and few smaller problems.

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Unleash a super virus that disables all computers connected to the internet. This could be intentional (terrorism) or accidental. Computers will have to be reinvented, basically, and severely limited in processing power. They will have no networking ability at all, since the super virus is still out there.

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