Imagine you're writing an alternate history or parallel universe set at present day or possible sometime a little before present day. Being an alternate history technology and society would have developed a bit different. I'm wondering how far I can take that idea. How drastically different could technology be in this alternate world while still being a realistic progression?

I'm not looking for anything unrealistic. No creating anti-gravity before we discover the wheel, to reference an actual story I've heard of. The technological development must be plausible. I assume most technologies will still be invented, but some technologies may get discovered faster. For instance computers and the internet seem the obvious progression our technology has gone, what if market forces kept us from developing computers as soon, or some sort of distrust made us refuse to create and reliably use the internet, what technology would have developed instead? Alternatively what if people were quicker to realize the power of computers and leap to developing them sooner? For that matter are there any technologies of our past that we seemed to stumble on to by Eureka moments, rather then slow steady learning, that realistically could have been missed for generations?

  • The alternate world can be present day, near future, or past time, so long as there is clear difference in technological advancement. I think it would be easiest to do a 'near history' time frame, so you don't need to have technology significantly more advanced then ours (which is hard to predict), and can instead focus on what is missing and the odd order of technology gain.

  • How would the make and feel of the technology be affected by the way it changed. For instance perhaps if our smartphones developed out of laptops shrinking down instead of phones growing larger they would still have the same basic technological power, they would look more like miniature computers with less emphasis on the 'phone' look and ability?

  • Any suggestions for how culture or social factors may cause this change in technological growth, or how a change in growth would affect culture and society, is not required but is very interesting if added.

This of course assumes that radically different technological tree is possible. If your opinion is that technology would likely develop in roughly the same progression no matter what because it is the natural or easiest way to develop it that is a valid opinion as well, though I would like to hear why you feel that's the case.

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    $\begingroup$ The possibilities are too great, I think you need to narrow it down. Maybe you could ask what invention of a particular era ... $\endgroup$ – Vincent Dec 22 '14 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ If I had to focus to one area I would say what if computers developed differently, either sooner or later then present. I think they are the most defining aspect of our present day. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 22 '14 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ I think definitely narrow it down a bit, answers are going to be far too long in this format. $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Dec 22 '14 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ WordStar beat out WordPerfect for best word processor. The implications are staggering. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 22 '14 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close your question as 'too broad' and suggest another approach: there have been some key technological inventions that allowed us to make leaps of progress (controlling fire, inventing the wheel, book printing, ...). Now ask: how could our technology advancement have been in the absence of one of these. I'm tempted to fire off some of these questions but that would be only for the rep ;-) $\endgroup$ – user3106 Dec 23 '14 at 9:36

I agree with Vincent that the question is very broad, but I'll take a stab at it anyway.

Start at a branching point, such as the discovery of electricity. Assume that the investigators into that aspect of the physical universe were trying to solve a real world problem such as the need for light or heat. It is the pressure of the unsolved problem which motivates the investigation which spawns the new branch of science. To create an alternative tree, all you have to do is solve the problem in a different way. So perhaps the 18th century solution seekers stumbled across an exothermic, light emitting fungus which provided cheap and renewable source of light and heat. A new branch of Biology spawned from the moment where the Electrical branch might have grown.

Now climb that tree to its current day heights. Would we have biological computers? Could the internet be rendered as a carefully cultivated networks of roots and vines, conducting signals between distant places as nerve impulses? What would a 747 airliner look like, if it was created to use biological rather than electro-mechanical locomotion?

-- Edit to address the OP's clarification of the question, focusing on earlier computers.

If Biology had received the majority of scientific attention for the last 3 centuries, (and in the absence of moral objections to experimenting on higher life-forms), we might have produced many computer-like devices, earlier than we created them in our own world. Bomb-carrying hawks would make very effective replacements for guided missiles.
Crow problem solving abilities already exceed current day AI systems, so imagine what they could do if we had the science to improve their cognition. Whale and Dolphin communication networks?

Non-computer technologies could also have corollaries... Canine olfactory senses might replace many clinical diagnostic tests. Bat sonar might substitute for x-rays. Certainly, our arsenal of drugs would be larger.

I think a biologically-based society might lack many of our number-tools, tabulators, spreadsheets and such. But I think that living computers would play an even bigger role in that world because unlike our systems which can only compute, their "computers" would be able to think and understand.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice ideas here. And a good formula to follow. +1. $\endgroup$ – mcbecker Dec 22 '14 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ This reminds me of Leviathan book series $\endgroup$ – roslav Jun 9 '16 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @roslav, Those books sound like a good match for what I was describing, except that different factions climbed different technological trees simultaneously which might not be reasonable given the fragile nature of secrets. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 11 '16 at 19:33

My favorite fork in history happened in 1274 when Mongol Empire, after capturing China, decided to invade the Japan, and failed (twice) due to hurricanes which sank the whole army (twice), resulting in a loss of about 200K Mongol/Chinese soldiers. This loss (200K) was about 10 times more than 20K which was enough to destroy Kingdom of Hungary in Battle of Mohi - after winning many other smaller battles. Imagine if ten armies like that were directed to plunder Europe.

If armies lost in invasion of Japan (which had no strategic significance for Mongols and could be postponed for later), these armies was directed West instead, it would easily took over Europe, and eliminated budding Enlightenment.

As a result, we all would be speaking Chinese, and unlikely we would have computers - progress would be much slower.

Mongol army had several decisive advantages over contemporary European armies:

  • leather-and-silk armor was lighter than metal. such lamelar armor was also used for horses, so for Mongol reiders was easier to kill knight's horses to dismount them
  • mongol recurved composite bow is stronger than plain wooden bow (shoots farther, up to 500 yards), yet shorter (easy to use while riding, even shooting back during retreat)
  • light mobile cavalry used modern moves like feigned retreat to set up enemies for ambush, avoiding melee combat and made superior scouts
  • each rider has 3-4 horses, which allowed horses to live off the land, rest and still cover up to 100 miles (160 km) per day,
  • in battle, they could maneuver several "armies" of rider-less horses to feign false attack from the other side, as directed by fast messengers and flag signals, using strategy and discipline instead of personal valor of the vulnerable leader.

The only thing what saved Europe from Mongol invasion was death of the Great Khan (according to Churchill), and next khan focused on China and Japan instead of Europe. Even so, Golden Horde ruled Eurasian steppes for centuries, slowly declining until 1783.

(I added few links, responding to comments: moving riders with horses would be trivial, and armies were trained to live off land, no need of supplies. Even if Europeans were warring for centuries, they had no ready answer for Mongol strategy - and it took few centuries to develop one).

  • $\begingroup$ Moving the Chinese armies to Europe is an immense technical challenge. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Dec 22 '14 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ The Mongols would have had more problems with the stone fortresses of West Europe and lack of plains to fodder horses. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 22 '14 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ There were Mongol riders, and they were devastatingly effective few years sooner at Battle of Mohi with only 20-30K of riders. Europe was lucky that they never came back. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 22 '14 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat - they don't have to attack fortresses. They will "harvest" all food in villages and knights will be forced to fight them (and lose) or starve. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 22 '14 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ I never heard of a horse starving in summer. Read about Mongol invasion of Europe - the only thing what stopped Mongols was that Great Khan died and Batu has to return to elect new Khan. That's opinion of Churchill $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 22 '14 at 22:56

I had a couple of turning points come to mind.

  1. The Manhattan Project. Suppose that this never came to fruition, or failed in some way (even spectacularly). The Allies eventually had to fight it out with chemical and biological weapons, ravaging many of the islands in the Pacific, including Japan. Today, we recognize that Japan has been a great force in improving many things in the processing world. So maybe computers and the digital age never really came to pass, or is only just doing so. Additionally, biological research, particularly in the weapons and vaccinations against weapons, has exceeded anything we have now. Add in the mix the energy shortages the world has with no access to nuclear power. You can even imagine the turmoil over the use of biological weapons - the world has more or less written off the two bombs dropped in WWII as necessary evil, but the biological effects were more widespread, and America has few allies today (especially after the diseases went rampant across Asia and thinned populations there and in Europe).

  2. A more subtle approach would be the Tesla/Edison switch. What if the world had gone with Tesla instead, what if he had had a breakthrough with his theories? There's lots to research there, and I'm woefully inadequate at really extrapolating an outcome in this case, but you'd see subtle differences, like perhaps there being no wires for any appliance, no power lines, no telephone poles. Weapons might be right out of science fiction, with energy weapons (think the lightning gun in the movie "The Matrix") as opposed to projectile weapons.


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