There are many stories out there, that have a plot device, like a swarm of nanites that drain all energy (Revolution), radiation that tamper with your cognitive abilities (maddrax) or a big reset button (horizon zero dawn). Or simply lose the technology to manufacture anything more complex due to a state of total anarchy (as I walk these broken roads).

How many generations would it take if the state of anarchy is to big to overcome, to completely lose any idea of technology and revert to (there be dragons / this is magic)?

Is that even realistic with our drive to constantly improve? And the knowledge of such things as the electron tube and steam engine still be in the heads of people.


As requested: Tightening it up a bit.

Access to Information: What the people know and information available in paper form.

Digital records, as long as the battery lasts and or a generator is available.

Land is usable outside of densely populated areas / strategic targets.

Travel is unrestricted as long as you can muster the resources, for example a car without fuel won't do much good.

I'm trying to keep the scenario as broad as possible (disease, solar flares, nuclear war), I know that adds much leeway, but as stated, im intrested in how long it would take!

  • $\begingroup$ Just my opinion, but you need to tighten this up a bit. General Population size. Access to knowledge, written, digital etc. Usability of the country as a resource(were huge sections rendered unusable, can people move across the country etc). If you can and it works, the Ratio of Adults to Children as in the fewer Adults the more likely technology is toast and hunter gathering is the landing zone for the fall of the children. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate: How would humanity enter a Dark Age? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ Not so much intrested in the how, but moreso in the how long $\endgroup$
    – Git
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ @gismo infinitely long without any "how". "How" is the key part to "how long". $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ Re "this is magic", to perhaps 99% of the people in the world today, a cell phone, music player, or even an LED lamp are purest magic. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 17:49

3 Answers 3


As your scenario is prolonged total anarchy, the structures that would break down first are those which need a high level of cooperation to work properly. I think one of the first victims of the breakdown would be the electric grid, as this needs a constant and careful regulation in order to work properly. Now, these days a lot of that is automated, so the grid would not fail immediately, but as individual parts of the system would no longer be maintained, it would only be a matter of time until a chain reaction makes the whole network fail. The same is true for the fuel distribution networks; although they are much less prone to local failures escalating to network-wide failure, they need much more maintenance for the components to remain in a working state. Also, a lot of it also depends on electricity.

The moment the grid fails (and it won't be gotten brought up again due to the anarchy), also the communication networks will break down. Some individual networks will continue to work for a while on batteries and/or generators, but with the distribution network for fuels no longer working, also that will fail after some time.

The same will be true for all the other networks like water, which will make the cities more or less uninhabitable, at least they will not be able to support the number of people currently living there.

Also note that modern agriculture very much depends on energy supply, as well as products like artificial fertilizer. As the various networks break down, the supply of those will break down as well.

The result will be that within at most a decade, due to the breakdown of the networks it will no longer be possible to support as many people as there are, which means a big famine with many people dying. Everyone dying will take with him the knowledge in his head; this includes a lot of knowledge that cannot be found in books. Moreover, those surviving will be full time busy with their survival, so they won't pass on most of their knowledge to the next generation either, except for those parts relevant to the current situation.

Which doesn't mean the knowledge will be completely eradicated; there will, of course, always be people who teach their knowledge to their children. But the knowledge will no longer be organized; there will be individual people with individual bits of knowledge.

Also note that today, a lot of our stored knowledge is digital, and a lot of it isn't even stored on local media, but somewhere in the cloud (think Wikipedia, or this very site we are on); everything not printed out will be lost, and even printed out material will rot, as you'd not normally would print it on high-quality material. Also printed material would be subject to rot due to no longer being properly maintained; however printed material has much better chance to survive. However books are only useful to those who can read them, and therefore the vast majority of the population will lose access to them in just one or two generations.

Additionally, in such an apocalyptic scenario, one can expect both established religions and cults gaining support, with some of the latter growing to new full-blown religions. Strong religions have rarely fared well for general people's knowledge.

However there will still be some organizations caring about knowledge, which will at the beginning be most concerned with collecting and preserving the knowledge that still exists. Which means that science will be turned back into scholarship, preserving the past knowledge instead of researching. But then, the same existed in the medieval time, with monasteries having libraries and monks being busy copying ancient texts. So that's not in contradiction of new dark ages, but actually a part of it.

Note also that for those who have the knowledge, there will be incentive to control it, as those who control knowledge control the world. Also, they will have to arrange with religion, which probably means that, just as in medieval times, the places preserving knowledge will be the same places that maintain religion, and most knowledge is restricted to those committed to the religion.

My assumption would be that the full-blown dark ages will be reached as soon as those who actually experienced the pre-breakdown period are dead.

  • $\begingroup$ Functional dark ages,yes but it doesnt take much for electricity generation, a water/windmill of some sort paired with some wire and you got yourself an electric stove. Or do you think that the warring factions, would drive the rest of the area to lets say madmax territory? $\endgroup$
    – Git
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ @gismo: I think you underestimate how much it takes to build a useful generator. And overestimate the number of people who would be able to do so. Not to mention there will be little incentive wasting your time to build a generator and an electric stove when you could use the same time to obtain some food and cook it on a bit of burning wood. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ but shouldnt atleast every person that finished for example highshool be able to build a rudimentary generator and heat coil? $\endgroup$
    – Git
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 8:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @gismo: But a rudimentary generator and heat coil will not cook your meal. It will at best warm it up. And there is usually a big gap between should be and is. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 9:28

To revert to "I don't understand it thus It must be magic" you need one generation. You can check this with people of flat earth, "sink holes are portals to mole kingdom", or generally doctor Spaceman type of mindset.

To erase all human knowledge from 5 century till now you would need total eradication of humans and their knowledge.
Many times on this site we proved that steam engine was actually a fruit of need rather than sudden discovery. They knew what steam engine is, how it's work etc. They just adapted it to their growing needs during industrialization era.

I think that early XX century is the limit of "resetting knowledge". After that we went beyond natural materials that can be "easily" mined and used. Before there are things were made without very precise tools and technology. We had phones, telefaxes, telegrams, trains, simple cars that was very hand made and unique with every item produced.

You would also have a large disposal of "precatastrophy" parts. So you would lose the ability to produce complex things in "made in china" quantity but you could make few items for you and your pack.

  • $\begingroup$ While I think you could find "here there be magic" people fast, I think it would be individuals or families, not "society", since people would be trying to teach kids. Two or three generations (grand-kids and great-grand-kids) seem more likely to me, depending on how hard survival is and how widespread where what attempts to educate kids. There will be people who remember, their kids will be frantically taught, for their kids, grandparents' tales will be stories unless fairly relevant, next generation most will probably see anything beyond the life their people actually live as just myth. $\endgroup$
    – Megha
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ You could see this in countries/societies where religion is playing major role and science have very low share in teachings. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 7:42


The modern world is highly networked. Thus, if something critical would collapse the effect can cascade. Most of the nations depend on oil suppliers. If the oil supply is cut off, then transportation goes there and then there is no silicon supply and then we have no wafers to make computers. Any other supply line is also fine as an example. Or anything else as critical as oil. The society would end up in chaos because food and water supplies depend on oil. After the chaos, the world is in practice in the dark age.

or 2

Because many people still know about the science it is not totally the dark age, but because there is no longer a society where people can highly specialize in science the knowledge deteriorates. We are nowadays in the point where there is so much knowledge that it takes lifetime dedication to be a specialist. To get a doctor degree it takes 7 year full-day study. Clearly a farmer does not have that time.


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