TV Tropes Monday: Technology Levels


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It is very common in science fiction stories and some strategy computer games to assign Technology Levels to different stages of technological advancement. These serve as reference for the audience/players of where in the scale different groups/factions/species/worlds fit into relatively to human history. Often they come in two types:

  1. Stone Age to Modern Age
  2. Pre-FTL to Current FTL standard

Some mix the two by adding the second type to the first one. Usually the scale goes from 0-10 (instead of 1-10) where 0 is the base value (Stone Age/Pre-FTL) with the following ages going up the scale. Yet, actual technological development is neither linear nor simple. There are several factors an author must consider before applying this trope:

  1. Maturity/Resources
  2. Cultural/Historical Conditions
  3. Martial vs. Civilian Applications

Technological devices, from the lowly flint axe to the modern computer just don’t appear out of nowhere. Each of them is a result of a combination multiple research disciplines, manufacturing techniques, and available materials. Thus each tool or item is the aggregate of mature research and experience. Since time is money, it also means that new pieces of tech tend to have a high cost (which includes the R&D it took to put it into the market) while older tech has a lower price point since it is well known technology that is easier to manufacture and replicate as time goes by. Unless it is obsolete which tends to make the item rare, but also worthless.

But technology exist for a reason and that reason tends to be not only socioeconomic as well as historical. A given culture might have the know how to create a given item, but neither the cultural affinity nor the economic need to do so. One has to be careful and avoid blaming technological stagnation on cultural reasons. Human beings (or for that matter any tool users) are, by definition, pragmatic in nature. If it works, why fix it? If it is better (for a given value of “better”) I want it yesterday!

Finally you have the divide of martial (war) vs. civilian applications. In times of war nations seek to perfect their tools as to win (or at least survive) the conflict, while in time of peace, technology is driven by commercial needs. It is false to presume that you only see rapid technological advancements during wartime. Take the Second World War and the Cold War. The Second World War saw advances in electronics and propulsion which were quickly adopted for military use, but it wasn’t until the Cold War (a time of relative peace in the First/Second World) that you saw civilian applications of some of these technologies (as well as military). A device may languish in a civilian lab until war breaks out, while a hot piece of war time tech might be nothing more than surplus after the war. Authors should be weary of applying maxims about technology based on war or peace.

Finally, while useful, technology, like most human endeavors does not fit into neat little boxes. Today we live in the Information Age, but did the information age start with the integrated circuit (microchip), the personal computer, the wireless (either internet or radio), telegraphs, telephones, the first computer? Are we out of the Industrial Age even though most of the products we buy are made in factories? Overlaps are no only inevitable but unavoidable. Not to mention a rock can kill you just as easily as a laser, and in some instances might be preferable.


2 comments on “TV Tropes Monday: Technology Levels

  1. Good article. In my current WIP, I want to mix and match technology levels, particularly between my cultures. I thought I was doing a noobie thing by doing that, but you just gave me just cause! Thanks. 🙂


  2. An author who did this quite well was Sir Terry Pratchett, who started writing Discworld as a kind of sword-and-sorcery parody, and quickly delved off in many different directions, one being the development of society out of the age of imperialism into the industrial revolution.
    Gold standard to floating currency. Printing press. Semaphore communications towers. Steam power. There’s a discworld book centred around each, and the examination of the impetus for change is part of the fun in them.

    For a non-war plausible theory about why western industrial nations developed so rapidly since the 19th century, while other advanced civilisations continued to happily stagnate (Qing Dynasty China comes to mind): european lords and entrepreneurs at the time had access to raw resources, but local workers were relatively expensive. Any proposal that could allow more efficient use of manpower was a good investment, and so money was spent on technology (puddling steel, turning coal into coke, using great big lime furnaces, etc). In other societies with cheap labour but expensive resources there simply wasn’t the need to advance. I think the book I read this in was called The Knowledge – how to rebuild civilisation from scratch, by Lewis Dartnell


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