A small (initial population in the order of 10k) human colony has been established on an Earth-like planet in a solar system far from their home world. Due to resource limitations, ships traveled round-trip; that is, once colonists and cargo were offloaded on the new planet, they promptly returned to the original world with any desired exports. It is also worth noting that these ships are the only means of communication between the home world and the colony.

After some number of trips, the colony is well-equipped enough to be self-sufficient and permanent, and further shipments are scheduled primarily for trade (luxury goods from the home world, new raw materials from the colony). However, the next ship never arrives. Space travel is difficult, so time estimates require padding to remain realistic, so the colonists patiently wait out whatever may have delayed the ship. After a sufficiently long time, the colonists realize something catastrophic could have befallen this particular ship, but the next one would surely arrive at its designated time, likely bearing news of the first ship's fate. Yet no second ship arrives, nor will one ever again.

The following conditions apply to the marooned colonists:

  • Some unknown event has befallen the home world, cutting off travel and communication between the two planets
  • Some method of FTL travel was employed by the ships used, thus relatively little time passed before contact was lost (most of the first generation of settlers are still alive at this time)
  • No spacefaring vehicles are present on the colony
  • Edit for clarity: this planet has a limited but hardy biosphere (none of the flora or fauna have thus far been established, but assume this provides additional resources that can gradually, if crudely replace processed goods and consumables. (see below)
  • The colony has the resources and means to survive indefinitely (Edit for clarity: Fresh water is adequately abundant on this planet and water purification systems are among the colony's initial tech. Food in the form of crops and livestock from the home world can likewise be cultivated enough to sustain the current population. Other resources such as medical supplies and clothing are finite, but can be supplemented over time using materials found locally, as mentioned above)
  • This planet's environment is hospitable enough that the colonists do not need advanced equipment to survive. The colony, having only existed a short time, lacks the facilities to produce said advanced equipment en masse.
  • The colonists, while currently all working together, are informally divided based on profession/vocation

My question pertaining to this setting is how long would it take (in years or generations) would it take before technology regresses to pre-spacefaring levels? Alternatively, will technology degrade even further/not at all?

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    $\begingroup$ You are asking two distinct questions How long would it take for technology to be lost, and How long until the colonists are politically divided. Please limit yourself to one question per post. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ This depends entirely on how well thought out the colony is, if the colony was designed correctly it will be self sufficient thus technology will not degrade, the colony needs infrastructure to produce technological devices when what they have wears out but they have the means to build that, and should be able to do so within a few generations. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ You are making an asumption that they would regress. But why would they? What calamity happened, lost entire adult population, plague of amnesia,.. technology does no regress without a catastrophe, $\endgroup$
    – Pliny
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ Edits have been made in an effort to improve the now singular question. I see your arguments that my assumed degradation might not occur in the first place. What about a slightly different context in which the colony was not intended to be permanent, initially relying heavily on home world shipments, but by handwavey dumb luck/human will to survive they managed to reach self-sufficiency living off the land? $\endgroup$
    – MSet
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darkover_series#The_Founding , also honorverse.wikia.com/wiki/Protectorate_of_Grayson#History ... the thing is that degradation in technology needs some catastrophe, or bigot religion/ideology. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 18:08

4 Answers 4


Another question may be relevant for yours.

Apparently your colony is too small (by several orders of magnitude) to sustain modern technology. It is said there bare minimum to sustain technology against specialization seems to be over 10M, probably nearer to 50M.

Many of the reasons explained there IMHO hold true, but I would add a few caveats:

  • The analysis is done in the current world trade model: this means small countries (like Cuba) did not produce (i.e.) computers in this world, mainly because it was cheaper to import them, in spite of embargo.
  • In real isolation several things that's "cheaper to buy abroad" will be manufactured, simply because there's no "abroad" available.
  • You are dangerously near to MVP (Minimal Viable Population) which is estimated in 5k individuals (but there are known "lucky" cases where it worked with much less).
  • It strongly depends on exactly which kind of manufacturing equipment and abilities are available: I would guess a colony not daily connected with homeland should have means to, at least, produce replacements for whatever they have. Having a detached colony with a long list of "irreplaceable" seems foolhardy.

Said this, a few more considerations:

  • All effort will go into surviving and expanding: this means they will switch to "pioneer mode" as soon as they recognize the fact they are effectively alone.

    • scientific research not finalized to finding resources would stop.
    • women will start producing new colonists on a very short cycle.
    • children will be very much pressed to learn "useful" things fast.
    • youngsters will be employed in manual labor as soon as they can.
  • All this, together, means:

    • current technological level will be maintained, but no advance.
    • some technological gadgets, not considered "useful" will not be produced (at least in the first generation).
    • medical capabilities (especially for coping with alien viruses; vaccines brought from Earth might not be what's needed) will be severely stressed.
    • social model will (probably) revert to small-town with high social control over the individual.
    • in a few generations this will produce a diaspora of dissidents. These will not be able to be self-sufficient.
    • this is a discontinuity point where two very different outcomes are possible:
      • the colony continues to work as a group, possibly imitating the "Japanese-style big corporation with side branches".
      • the colony spawns semi-independent child-colonies, only lightly tied to "mother".
    • Note: semi-independence will happen sooner or later, but when it will happen will make difference. If sub-colonies will be to small they will revert to lower technology, possibly turning "rogue".

All in all a setback seems unavoidable, but it may be temporary (say, till population is in the range of 100M) or may be a slow decline ending up with some XVI century technology from where to restart.

  • $\begingroup$ Of note is that future technology may not require nearly as many people to be useful. An automated mining rig could do the jobs of a number of people, and multi-purpose manufacturing via things like advanced 3D printing could seriously slow technology loss because it needs fewer people to run and know things. $\endgroup$
    – Andon
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Andon: problem is not manpower. Problem is specialization. A medieval society could be self-sufficient with a few hundreds of people. Modern technology needs a zillion "experts" each doing his niche work. Did you ever had the time to see all "acknowledgments" following the end of a modern videogame? There are several thousand names! ... for a videogame. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @ZioByte your source material is poor. I agree genetics might become an issue. But the rest the colony can surmount if they have the knowledge base and the standard equipment for self sustaining coloies. As long as that equipment has a standard 10-20 year life span. $\endgroup$
    – PCSgtL
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ If you have advanced 3d printing and files describing everything you need, do you need any experts? Could literally every task, or at least most of them, be automated? Is making a new ship a question of pressing print and waiting? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @DonaldHobson: maybe you are right. In future it may be as you say, but then no colonists would be needed: send a smart A.I. and some tourists, if interested. I don't think that's what OP had in mind. I'm pretty sure I won't live long enough to see an A.I. capable to "3D-print" a new vaccine to cope with an alien virus... but I'm pretty sure I won't live enough to see interstellar travels either ;) $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 21:00

Why Assume They Will Regress?

A lot of the questions and answers seem to assume a technological decline thanks to a relatively small population and lack of sufficient numbers of people to deeply specialize in various fields. It is presumed that as soon as the colonists go into "frontier mode", technological advancement stops or slows. I believe that this is an incorrect reading of human history.

Humans are an inherently territorially aggressive, pioneering species by nature. In almost every case in history where a small population of humans has faced a dangerous, unexplored frontier, rapid technological advancement has gone hand in hand with settling that frontier, regardless of the population sample size. In my opinion, this is because we (sort of like a lot of apex predator types) are inherently lazy (as a survival mechanism). When we don't HAVE to innovate in order to survive, we do so only very slowly. When we DO have to, we go on innovation turbo, a process we refer to in old fashioned terms like "necessity is the mother of invention".

Examples Of Small Populations Innovating Rapidly While Surviving

Some examples: the "dark ages" are often misunderstood as a time of technological stagnation. This is totally untrue. The good old days of Rome saw massive stagnation through the entire second half of the Imperial period, to the point that a lot of knowledge was on the verge of being lost before the real barbarian invasions began. As soon as the dark ages started, military technology began to accelerate in extraordinary ways. Within a hundred years of the fall of Rome, military armor, weapons, and tactics had changed more than in the entire nearly two millennia since the perfection of the Phalanx by the Greeks.

Vikings established tiny colonies in sometimes barely habitable areas, battling nature as they did so. They also rapidly developed the most advanced sailing ships of their era, radically surpassing the ship technology of much larger, more prosperous kingdoms. Their arms and armor were also way ahead of their time.

The American Westward expansion saw tiny, isolated settlements of very few individuals cutting houses out of sod, building shelter however they could, and in some cases going years between regular contact with the cities out East (particularly in the early half of the 19th century). This population, relatively small compared to the huge cities on the East Coast, was disproportionately represented in the inventions that heralded a time defined by: 1, battles for survival against nature (and also a huge civil war), 2, radical population growth and focus on growth particularly in the West where more kids meant more hands to help out on the farm, and 3, THE most rapid technological advancement and transformation EVER seen in human history.

The state of Israel was founded in a state of utter crisis and emergency. Ragged concentration camp survivors with nothing to their name but the clothes on their backs flooded into a VERY small "state" which was simultaneously battling invasion on ALL sides by every neighbor in a war that saw them vastly outnumbered. Food, clothes, ammunition, and pretty much EVERYTHING necessary for human survival was in short supply. The population of the state was way too small for anyone to specialize the way they did in larger states, and nevertheless, immediately, Israel began to develop technological advances and become a technology leader, even in the middle of several crises. In fact, Israelis say that the need to survive drove innovation.

Specialized Knowledge May Actually Slow Down Advancement

There is a theory about knowledge that basically states that specialization in advanced, high-tech societies is a game of diminishing returns. As society trends toward greater and greater specialization (ever deeper knowledge of ever more narrow fields), true innovation actually slows down over all (per capita). In other words, innovation still occurs, but now we need 2 million minds to come up with the advances that we used to get from 2000. If you look at the history of science (particularly the Enlightenment era, where it was still conceivably possible for one person to actually know all of the important scientific knowledge that existed in the world at the time) we see that the broader and less specialized the focus, the more rapid the technological advancement. I don't believe this is because old technology is inherently "easier" or "simpler" to understand. If you study things like early metal smelting from pre-bronze age times, you have to sit back almost in awe of the minds that came up with some of the processes they used, based on the starting point they had.

Conclusion: They Will ADVANCE, Not Regress (Or They'll Die)

If there is something to the "laziness" and the "less specialization is better" and the "necessity leads to invention" theories, then I would speculate that your colony would NOT revert technologically. What it would do based on historical patterns is CHANGE the direction of technological development from whatever path it had been on in the greater society they broke off from, toward a track focused much more on that colonies' survival needs. In areas that touch on what that colony needed to survive, they would likely end up MORE advanced than the "mother planet" (for example: suddenly developing rapid cloning technology not available on the homeworld in order to deal with their population problem). This is very much in keeping with what we see in history with successful pioneering attempts. What we see with unsuccessful attempts by small populations is usually just a lot of death.

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    $\begingroup$ I can only agree with your very through answer (+1 for that). I'd like to add that it's probably not likely to have all the skills required, in a population of 10k, to even make a functional FTL-engine -- so, from the point of view of the OP, day 0, would propably be the day where they lost their ability to become a spacefaring nation on their own. $\endgroup$
    – Clearer
    Commented Nov 26, 2017 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Very possible, though they would certainly have records showing exactly how the FTL drive they used to get to the colony had been made. Just knowing it is possible and the basic principle is a huge deal actually. There is a lot of debate about how much espionage was involved in the development of the Soviet atomic bomb versus just the knowledge that it could be done (which was of enormous importance). It is possible that they would lose FTL capability and it is also possible that they would develop a radically simplified, improved FTL drive because of their manpower limitation. $\endgroup$
    – JBiggs
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ Having the schematics isn't nearly enough. 10k people is not a lot if you want to build anything really high tech. You could start playing around with robots and such, but on their own, even with the schematics, I don't think it's likely that 10k people would be able to build a functional FTL-drive; magic not applied. $\endgroup$
    – Clearer
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ Estimates of population requirements in these scenarios tend to make some totally unfounded assumptions. MVP assumes inbreeding will cause a dramatic drop in the 'utility' of future generations, as opposed to the overwhelming wealth of evidence in non-human breeding that shows us the contrary. Most jobs performed are entirely unnecessary, rather an indication that people need jobs than jobs need people, a society focused on re-establishing contact with the wider 'world' doesn't need a starbucks on every corner or 15 million sci-fi authors. $\endgroup$
    – Giu Piete
    Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 14:00

It depends on three things:

  1. how far along the colony is to start with, a world with Cornucopia Machines and industrial Utility Fogs isn't going anywhere unless it faces an elemental bottleneck, like a lack of transuranics in the crust.

  2. availability for resources, mainly this means energy but also materials, if nuclear and solar power are freely available from durable sources then maintaining high technology is relatively easy, provided you can access the materials needed to manufacture the technological artifacts you need. There are a number of questions like this one that discuss the possibility that a planet may present difficulties in access to metals for advanced technological applications.

  3. the manufacturing principles used to produce the equipment the colony is using, if a modern "disposable consumer goods" approach is used then the colony is in deep trouble as basic tools and systems needed for maintaining existing technology will start to break down almost immediately.

Really the answer is that the technological base will remain intact as long as the recording systems that hold the information are intact and usable. Technology is the knowledge of what is possible not whether you can use that information right now or not. This is not a situation I'd want to find myself in 10,000 is pretty close to non-viable any major issues will kill basically everyone. I would think that this colony's material culture, the technology actually in use, would start to suffer on day one and continue down to some weird equilibrium not quite like anything in human history. Have a look at Destiny's Road for some ideas about the shape of the culture that might emerge in such a situation.


Concise Answer: Within 100 years it will either be approaching stability or have begun its decline. The rate of decline depends upon how many unplanned disasters they have to deal with.

As one settlement of around 10,000 people they are one major calamity away from preindustrial technology. One small metor impact of the level of the Chelyabinsk impact on the right spot would end their tech base for sure. An earthquake or volcano could make quick work of their tech as well. This event could happen tomorrow or never.

That being said, your current description has it set up that with proper management they would maintain industrial levels of technology. With 60 years they could be spread out enough (with 80,000 population) to ensure one catastrophe does not wipe them out.

Within 100 years with focus and a bit of luck they could easily be at or beyond current space tech and industry. Especially if they had a complete data dump of the home worlds internet and technology before they were cut off.


I’ve reviewed ZioByte’s answer and links. An interesting read. However the real world examples that are used to base their examples are not ideal for this situation. Cuba’s population of 11 million (establishing the minimum baseline) maintain an industrialized economy, however that is not its primary goal. Its primary goal (arguably) is to keep the establishment in power. To that end many resources are wasted on the military, the police, propaganda, and upon the elite ruling class.

If the 1st generation colonist stay in power for most of their lives. If they make their focus the maintaining and enhancing of an industrial economy. They will be able to guide the next 60-80 years. If they keep standard of luxury and entertainment low tech/resource and focus most of the high tech resources on maintaining and expanding their industrial base they can continue to support their current tech.

The final issue is transitioning this platform to the next generation of leadership. The original colonist will be dying off when the colony is between 200,000-400,000 in population. This is one doubling away from truly becoming sustainable and increasing standard of living.

A different baseline than Cube is Great Britain of 1750. They started the industrial revolution with a population of 6.5 million. http://www.tacitus.nu/historical-atlas/population/british.htm This was at a time when 60-80 % of the population had to work in agriculture to support the population. So with 1750’s tech you need 1.3 million to 2.6 million people to support the nonagricultural portions of an industrialized nation.

With modern tech you can support your agricultural needs with less than 2% of your population. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture_in_the_United_States If you cut out luxury goods, and most meat you could do it with less than 1%.

1.3 million * .01 = 13,000 people using modern tech could feed a population of 1.3 million.

From 1910 to 2015 the U.S. used technology to reduce its manufacturing work force by 4 times (from 32% down to 8 %) https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/employment-by-industry-1910-and-2015.htm While increasing its manufacturing output by 600% (20 million metric tons of steel production in 1900 to 120 million metric tons in 2015). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_and_steel_industry_in_the_United_States#/media/File:USGS_Iron-Steel_1900-2014.png This amounts to a rough guess at 1000% minimum efficiency increase from the 1750’s tech level numbers. So you need 1/10th the labor. 1.3 million /10 =130,000 population of people directly in the industrial sector.

Right now we are using 143,000 people to fill jobs for the agricultural and direct industrial positions that can support a population of 1.3 million people.

Assuming a doubling rate of 20 years your colony gets to this level at 80 years (160,000) and has significant surplus at 100 years (320,000).


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