Most technological progress today seems to be founded on the innovation that is happening in the realm of computers. If a society were to outlaw the use of computers, but the drive for scientific progress remained the same, how might that society evolve or adapt?

Let's assume the nature of the ban is a societal taboo or religious ban, similar to the 11th Commandment in the Dune universe, which restricts the usage or creation of AI's.

  • $\begingroup$ What is outlawed, exactly? Automated computational devices, electronics, personal computers, or something else? $\endgroup$ – Attackfarm Sep 17 '14 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ Let's say anything that uses digital / analog electronics. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Barron Sep 17 '14 at 0:50
  • $\begingroup$ That still has a very fuzzy edge in terms of just where the boundary electronics and other uses of electricity. It is also pretty much an entirely different question for what you started with. The exact nature of the ban and its enforcement would also be significant factors. $\endgroup$ – smithkm Sep 17 '14 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ What about mechanical computers? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanical_computer $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 2 '14 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ @JoshuaBarron: I think you will get a much better answer if you can articulate a bit of what sort of result you want. Speculation can always produce something, after all. If you want certain advances and not others, for instance, and you want all that plausibly linked to and predicated upon this cultural ban on computing, then the question immediately becomes highly specific -- at which point you may get an answer that helps your project directly. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Oct 4 '14 at 15:13

The human stance on legal proscriptions is that when anything is outlawed, then only outlaws use/do it. The more desirable the prohibited thing, the more people will be outlaws.

Unless the "laws" were such that they made people not want to use computing technology, people would surreptitiously be pushing at the edge of the proscriptions. Where do you draw the line between electronics (or even mechanics) and computing? How does law enforcement even recognize that a pile of components is actually a computer?

The main effect in my view would be that computers will be more primitive, and computer components would likely have other purposes that don't involve instruction processing, but a few seemingly unrelated items could be assembled into a computer.

That, however, assumes that your society is human and/or that proscriptions are things to be worked around.

It could well be that computers are simply thought to be impossible to make (or your society doesn't try to bend the rules), so no-one wastes time with them. In that case, secretaries and counting-houses (filled with abacus-using calculation personnel) will be a major part of the workforce as they were some years ago - someone needs to do all the repetitive note-writing and calculating that is now done with computers. They may not be particularly well-paid, but in those days, there was very little unemployment - even an employment shortage - finding a secretarial job was literally a matter of applying to a few companies and choosing which of the acceptances you would accept.


In response to the question's edit that this is a-la Dune's proscription about "Not making a machine in the likeness of a human mind":

Legal machines could well involve electronics of high complexity, but the proscription would likely be on not replacing a human. Thus, humans would be required to make decisions, while the technology would make making the decisions easier or faster. There could still be tech creep/encroachment and bans from the relevant authorities.

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    $\begingroup$ In Charles Stross's Laundry series, if you build a computer that's too powerful, Cthulhu comes. The state of things at the time of the novels is that the secret service enlists people who do things that approach the threshold. $\endgroup$ – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Oct 15 '14 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ Agree. A ban does not necessarily mean that governments will follow it. If there are huge gains in using and researching the technology then government/people will just skirt the outer edges of the ban. For an example see this list of countries that have bans on human cloning and/or genetic engineering. publicagendaarchives.org/charts/…. Now Google a country on the list add genetic research to the search term and you will probably get results. $\endgroup$ – tls Dec 9 '14 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ reminds me of Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick where people understood WHY ban on universal computers is needed - to prevent creation of yet another singularity-level AI (after all they arleady lost Earth). they mostly try to program humans/use simple electronics (which much bettter than our's 'universal computers') $\endgroup$ – Vikarti Anatra Jun 10 '15 at 10:37

The way technological progress always occurs in such societies: either underground in secret, or in a neighboring society that winds up siphoning off the smart members of the oppressed one.

It is good to keep in mind that this is a self-correcting situation. Any society that outlaws technological progress of a particular type will find itself outmatched by one that doesn't. Bans on technology are temporary at best, because they are an attempt to outlaw new understanding of the world, which is the same thing as trying to outlaw certain styles of thought.

As far as computing technology in particular, a wall will be hit when the advance of any existing technology gets to the point that exponentially finer or more complex measurements and calculations become necessary to make a linear increase in quality.

So, for example, aerospace engineering today requires computers to simulate high-speed and low-speed aerodynamics on a single body. Without this capacity we would never have understood the importance of or the way to design variable shape wings for high-speed and low-speed flight.

That puts a concrete cap on certain military technologies, means you can't have high-speed and long range capabilities in the same craft, etc. and ultimately means that the practical cost to your society of fielding a military force that can compete with a society of otherwise similar capacity will be weighted drastically against you. And that's just one type of airplane.

Discovering optimal designs for submarine screws, anything with a guidance system, and any sort of system that compensates for human physical limitations of accuracy, etc. will be impossible beyond a very primitive level. Such a society will eventually either be wiped out by its neighbors, or overturned in a revolution from within by an underground that is vastly more advanced than the governing faction (most likely in an effort supported by a technologically superior external sponsor).


It is worth mentioning that the inevitable imbalance is an outcome of the outlawing of technology, and this can be the driving force behind any number of awesome stories or games. This can be a very cool plot device.

  • $\begingroup$ "Bans on technology are temporary at best" -- although the English ban on the crossbow as a weapon of war is still going strong, so the question becomes "OK, this will inevitably change, the logic is irrefutable, but when?" ;-) $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Oct 23 '14 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ @SteveJessop That is an example of regulation of ownership, not a society-wide ban. The government can (and always has) granted its own members an exception to this policy. The OP's question is a society-wide ban where even the government is forbidden to use the tech in question. I think the point you may be trying to make, though, is when a specific tech is so obsolete it is irrelevant and therefore bypassed. In those cases wacky prohibitions can stay on the books until a government tradition is entirely overturned. Every side of this is ridiculous, of course, but that's the human condition. $\endgroup$ – zxq9 Oct 23 '14 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ +1. Similar situations occurred during the colonisation of East Asia, in China and Japan. While ships were outlawed, the later arrival of Western steamships resulted in the destruction of these societies. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Dec 8 '15 at 4:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MarchHo Indeed! Trade and shipping prohibitions caused a cascade of strange effects throughout the region that lasted right up until colonization. It is an open question whether Arab and Dutch traders would have found the region as wide open had this not been the case. It is difficult to even begin to think through what would have happened without this restriction in controlled Asia. The term "control" being ironic anyway, as the pirates next door (and the Europeans) certainly didn't submit to that control. The regulation only hurt the good guys. Ready, aim, owmyfoot! (>.<) $\endgroup$ – zxq9 Dec 8 '15 at 7:24

The focus would be away from electronics. Technological advances have been made in other areas, and would have been made in another areas.

Likely purely mechanical machinery would be much more common. It's possible that some functions computers perform (particularly mathematics) could be performed without electricity (using the power of humans or animals, or water). Things would also not progress as fast, but they may still have progressed.

It's also very possible people would look for a solution to create power that wasn't electricity. Maybe things would run on very small differences in gravitational forces. Or, as this Popular Science article suggested, bubbles could be used instead of electrons to store data. This could allow for purely mechanical data operations (though screens wouldn't be possible).

And likely people would have just focused on things completely different than computers. Like making good fertilizer, or focusing on how to breed different animals, or the best way to turn wood into paper. Things we work on now, but with the help of computers, would be looked at in a different way and focused on more.

The things Monty have said are also very likely possible.

  • $\begingroup$ Computers != electric gadgets. $\endgroup$ – zxq9 Oct 21 '14 at 4:56
  • $\begingroup$ @zxq9 true, but many, if not most, electronic gadgets have computers in them. And they wouldn't be as much focus on electronics if you couldn't make computers. But I will try and add that to the answer. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 21 '14 at 5:05
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    $\begingroup$ There are other forms of computing technology. "Computer" before 1945 meant a clerical worker adept in the use of mechanical and table calculation devices. Programming massive parallel computations was done by writing out instruction sheets and graph tables to fill in by teams of such computers. Had we not stumbled on electricity it is likely refined versions of analytical engines and rotary calculators would be much more advanced than they are today. Whether this would pose the same threat to establishment as per the OP's proposed world is another matter. That's all I'm getting at. $\endgroup$ – zxq9 Oct 21 '14 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ @zxq9 thanks for the comments, I'll look at that. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Oct 21 '14 at 5:31

One only needs to look back to about 1950 to see science and technology advancing without using computers. In some cases, even to 1990. Books, letters, telephones, calculus, slide-rules, graph paper, physical devices, human brains, etc.

Of course, if computer technology was developed to be very useful, and then outlawed, there would probably be some outlaws using it.

Postscript: One can also look back thousands of years. See for example the "Antikythera Mechanism" from circa 150 BC, which is an astronomical calculator showing complex understanding of astronomical movements etc.


Look no further than John Norman's Gor series of novels. Electricity and internal combustion are proscribed by the alien beings who control the planet, leaving society (with some exceptions, mostly in medical science) stuck at a late medieval technological level.

Sailing ships that won't venture far from shore, field armies fighting with swords and lances, bow and arrow.

Long range transportation using those sailing ships, animal drawn carts, and domesticated birds (the planet he describes has birds large enough for a man to ride them while carrying a load the weight of 10 or so other men).

There are some ambiguities, as there's a form of artificial light that's not precisely described, and some rather advanced medical technology like a serum that halts aging and leaves the recipient effectively immune to most disease.

  • $\begingroup$ Wait, what? We routinely crossed the Atlantic and fought with muskets without the help of electricity or internal combustion. There's a fair bit between "late medieval" and "industrial". Is the Gor tech ban actually at a lower level than that? I guess I could inexpertly hazard that the "fair bit" is largely to do with the benefits of trade and specialization rather than specific breakthrough technologies, though, so maybe Norman gets away with it via that reasoning. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Oct 23 '14 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ @SteveJessop the ban includes explosives as well as internal combustion. The society Norman describes is idiosyncratic. Warfare is a mix of ancient Greek and Roman technology with some early medieval stuff thrown in. Trade and commerce are more at a level of late medieval Europe. There's ample slave labour, allowing some mass production and animal/human powered machinery like industrial cloth mills. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Oct 24 '14 at 6:19
  • $\begingroup$ Polynesians with stone age technology were capable of trans-pacific voyages. If explosives are banned, we would have huge trebuchets, catapults and crossbows. No way we are going back to medieval times. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 8 '14 at 0:02
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar take a look at your town or city, replace everything with an alternative that uses no explosives, electricity, or internal combustion engines anywhere in its production process or operation, and see where you end up. It won't be far after the medieval period, maybe early enlightenment. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Dec 8 '14 at 3:44
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting - we are in violent agreement. I am saying we will still have huge range weapons, no way back to swords and lances. You too. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 8 '14 at 15:17

It depends on what kind of advancement you're looking for. Shall we consider, for example, space travel? Rockets can be designed and trajectories can be planned using math on paper. Without computers, you don't have the option to test designs using simulation, so these people would be expert model-builders, very handy with tools. They'd probably have numerous and very sophisticated wind tunnels and related tools to simulate vacuum and zero gravity. They would rely more on tinkering and trial and error than we do, and less on trying to simulate or predict performance from theory. (In silicon valley they call this "design thinking".)

The spaceships they design would likely be over-engineered: for example, carrying way more fuel than theoretically needed, because a human can't adjust a course and trigger a rocket burn as precisely as a computer. Designed to re-enter the atmosphere at a wider range of angles, because the human eye is only so precise. They would incorporate "fool proof" technologies as much as possible: for example, rather than landing upright on a landing pad like SpaceX's latest rockets, these ships would land using parachutes, be rugged enough to land on any terrain, and be designed so that the crew could lever or jack them back upright from any angle.

Basically, their machines would be less precise but more rugged and robust, so they could be adapted to situations rather than trying to predict and control them.


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