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"Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken."
Chairman Shen-Ji Yang, "Looking God in the Eye"

In Hollywood, people seem to believe that technology starts at fire and ends in people turning into energy; the interim would follow the exact same steps on every possible world. Often, this takes the form of people not from Earth creating exact replicas of Earth technology right down to the last detail -- such as interface panels ripped right out of the Apollo missions on an alien space station. These copies are often similar enough that people who are from Earth often have no trouble at all using the device, or even interfacing their own hardware with it.

Similarly, seemingly distinct, diverse technologies will always develop at the same rate. An alien world with 'renaissance' era technology (ignoring for the moment that the renaissance spanned four centuries and giant changes in technology) in, say, firearms, will also posses lenses, ships, building materials and mathematical principles identical to those that Earth (read: Western Europe) possessed along with said firearms.

It's only rarely that a civilization will break off the path, and usually as a result of external forces providing them with something outside their capabilities (intentionally, accidentally or incidentally), such as a 1920s planet with fusion power, or a 1700s planet with radios. However, mastering this technology does not actually give them an understanding of related concepts, or even concepts which would be required to use this technology in the first place. (Thus averting Possession Implies Mastery)

Remember, don't think path, think tree, just as with the evolution of biological lifeforms. Except, in this case the distant descendants of unrelated branches can inspire and influence the future of others. For inspiring viewing, see the James Burke documentary series Connections, which shows the sometimes ludicrously unlikely places where inspiration and discovery come from, and the web-like connections between seemingly-unrelated inventions.

I, for one, can only look forward to the day that crystal-based technology paves the way for our conversion into energy.

See also: Enforced Technology Levels, Evolutionary Levels, In Spite of a Nail. Contrast Schizo-Tech, Aliens Never Invented the Wheel, Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology, Anachronism Stew and/or Fantasy Gun Control.

Has some actual reference in the real world Kardashev Scale (how much total energy one get to play with, no matter how). The other wiki used to have a list. See Abusing the Kardashev Scale For Fun and Profit for some fun speculation.

Examples of Technology Levels include:


Film

  • The movie version of Harrison Bergeron created an elaborate setting where, while technology's capability was late-21st century, everything appeared to be set in the mid-'50s of the US, as people seemed to be "happiest" then, according to the Space Clothes wearing people who managed the conspiracy of the average.

Literature

  • Parodied by The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where a species with a lot of arms is specifically cited as being the only species to invent the underarm deodorant before the wheel.
    • Likewise in Irregular Webcomic, possibly as an homage to the former. When asked about the low population of elves, a PC replies, "Elven children breast feed for 30 years, teethe for 20 years, throw tantrums for about 100 years... and don't take to toilet training until they're about 200." "Yeah. Elves invented effective contraception before we could use fire."
  • It is stated that the Ferengi, who have super-sensitive hearing and live on a planet of frequent rainstorms, invented soundproofing before they invented the steam engine.
    • Of course, how they even evolved that way in the first place is anyone's guess.
      • One could argue that on a constantly-noisy planet, those with better hearing would be more likely to survive long enough to pass that trait on to their offspring (by being able to hear the predators sneaking up on them), and so forth. Maybe.
    • And then there's the Vulcans, who had very little metal and as a result skipped right to making a spacecraft to get some from off-world.
  • A Larry Niven short story takes a jab at this when the Kzinti encounter puny humans, who are still stuck with rockets when the Kzinti acquired the next step however long ago. It turns out that humans, having more experience with them, have much better rockets. Later they turn a Bussard Ram-Jet into a guided missile.
  • Averted, at least at the primitive end of the scale, in The Ringworld Throne. Discussing whether or not a troublesome species of Ring World hominid is sentient or non-sentient, it's mentioned that different borderline species have developed different skills: an aquatic variety can't use fire in its native habitat, but has developed flaked stone tools; a raw-meat-eating species doesn't need fire, but raises livestock; and so on.
  • In the Icerigger trilogy of Alan Dean Foster, the residents of Tran-Ky-Ky are an Iron Age culture that never invented the wheel. That's because Tran-Ky-Ky is an Ice World, and the natives mount anything heavy that needs to be transported on ice skates.
  • Jack Chalker's Well World series name-checks this trope. "[Each hex on the planet] is also maintained at a given technological level.... Anything beyond it just won't work, like Hain's pistol yesterday."
  • This gets brought up in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep when the protagonists are trying to send aid by remotely uplifting an alien species on the planet they are traveling to. It is remarked that technological progress is much less like a ladder and more like a rock climbing wall, there are many possible routes to the same types of technology and they need to figure out what the aliens already have in order to figure out how to give them the secrets behind constructing shortwave radios and firearms.
  • Discworld has been thumbing its nose at this trope ever since Moving Pictures. Notably, while the invention of film in that novel was a result of alchemists' being infected by the spirit of Holy Wood, it's also straight-up subverted when the resulting industry invents color movies before sound.
    • Several different processes of color photography were invented during and even before mute movies era. They just didn't happen to be ones easily appliable to a long reel.
  • Myth Adventures has vastly different dimensions, but also trade in both technology (dimension travelers posing as inventors) and ready goods. So there's obvious difference between "rustic" and "advanced" places, but whether any given world is stronger or weaker in magical, technological or combined areas depends on tastes of its denizens, local resources and chance. And it can be specialized, of course.
  • Greg Egan's Incandescence gleefully avoids this. Mostly it concerns itself with physics concepts -- when you're a pre-industrial civilization orbiting a black hole, physics is really important -- but, for example, the aliens in question discover the Kerr metric for a rotating black hole (which we derived in 1963) slightly before they figure out universal gravitation (discovered by some guy named Isaac Newton in the late 17th century).
  • Somehow, in Animorphs, the Andalites invented computers before books. They consider books to be more convenient. Apparently they have yet to invent a "Search" function.
  • In Dragons Egg, while the Cheela's technological evolution is loosely patterned after mankind's, some of it is necessarily influenced by their environment -- mostly the huge gravity and magnetic field of the Cheela homeworld. So they invent the sleigh instead of the wheel because gravity makes axles impractical and in their "metal casting"[1] the molds need to be oriented along the magnetic field.
    • Even after their First Contact with humans, where they model their culture and technology after mankind's, there are some things they just have to do differently -- such as developing Anti Gravity before space flight, because there's no other way to get off their world.

Live Action TV

  • Star Trek's Prime Directive prevents them from interfering with cultures "below the warp drive level".
    • The novel Where Sea Meets Sky in the Captain's Table series has the Federation debating whether a species that has simply domesticated living starships counts, since they have warp travel, but not based on technology.
  • Stargate SG-1 is pretty much built around this premise. Although the plot explains that aliens posing as gods are purposely shaping development across the galaxy, this usually constitutes keeping people from becoming advanced enough to be a threat, and cultures which have broken-off from alien control continue to advance 'as expected'.
  • On Babylon 5 the step before "become energy" is "Organic Technology".

Tabletop RPG

  • More or less justified in the Warhammer 40000 universe, where human civilisations in different parts of the galaxy pretty much had their technological progress railroaded by the use of Standard Template Construct systems. In the past ten thousand years or so, humans haven't really developed their technology at all, so they avert this trope by side-stepping it.
  • Traveller's first edition originated (or at least popularised) the idea in RPGs.
  • The d20 Future supplement of the d20Modern RPG gives technology based on "Progress Levels." Modern humans, depending on geography and infrastructure, go from about PL 4 to (late) PL 5. These, along with most of the supplement's flavor, were transposed directly from Alternity, which was previously published by the same publisher.
  • The GURPS RPG has a similar system of tech levels. It's very helpful when calculating whether a certain piece of equipment is available for purchase (and what it costs). Crafty game masters are advised to assign different tech levels to various sections of society. Tech Level 5, for example, is the Industrial Revolution.
    • The system also introduces the concept of divergent tech levels, with the notation "TL('x'+'y'). TL (5+1) is Steampunk tech, for example.
  • The 3E Ravenloft products use "Culture Levels", which combine technological progress with social changes in a sequence that's closely parallel to that of IRL European history. Probably justified, because, unlike many fantasy settings, the Land of Mists is intended to emulate the real-world historical past, thereby capturing the authentic flavor of Gothic fiction's classics.
  • Tech levels are an integral part of the tabletop wargame Starfire. Your tech level determines what systems you're allowed to install on a starship. At Tech Level I, you get ion drive engines, nuclear missiles, lasers, and basic deflector shields. By Tech Level X, you're sporting 3rd-generation shields and armor, heterodyne lasers, charged particle beams (and overload dampeners that can absorb the impact of such beams), tractor beams (and tractor-nullifying shear planes), narrowly-focused force beams that ignore shields and armor, and space fighters.

Video Games

  • The Civilization series is a mishmash of historical accuracy and ridiculous(ly well-working) deviations for gameplay. Its Tech Trees rigidly follow Earth (Western) development on maps that are likely to look nothing like Earth. Civ III was particularly Egregious.
    • It is possible to focus too much on one branch of the tech tree. In Civilization Revolution, it is possible to develop bombers, nukes and electronics before electricity. Likewise, in Call to Power, it's possible to develop fusion (giving you 23rd-century Fusion Tanks) before tank warfare (needed for 20th-century Tanks).
    • It can get worse. In Civ Rev, the British can get knights before most nations have Alphabet. Knights are pretty much superior to anything that isn't a industrial or modern unit. One wonder might let you learn Advanced Flight ahead of flight. This can lead to you learning Space Flight before your nation has steel, electicity, combustion, or flight. How did we launch a spaceship without that?
    • While not as egregious as some of these examples, in Free Civ, it is perfectly possible to build Ironclad units without having researched Iron Working, and to build and launch a spaceship without ever having discovered Sanitation.
  • Age of Empires I has four technological levels: Stone Age, Tool Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Its sequels follow suit, as do many Real Time Strategy games inspired by it.
    • In particular, while it would be hard to go straight to making stone tools without using unmodified stones as tools first, parts of Africa skipped the Bronze Age altogether, and a Bronze Age setting with good heavy trade could similarly skip the Iron Age. For geological reasons, copper ore tends to be far from ores that would make decent bronze with it - so when metal trade is interrupted, or never gets going in the first place, humans turned to the softer iron.
  • Rise of Nations, which covers a much broader range of history (from the Stone Age right through to Twenty Minutes Into the Future), has eight - three of which are in the 20th century.
  • Averted by the latest Galactic Civilizations 2 version, but followed by the rest of them.
    • Right down to the last detail, in fact. The "Technological Victory" condition literally involves researching a set path of technology until the entire race ascends to a higher plane of existance. Although choosing ones alignment (Good, Neutral, Evil) does alter the technology tree very slightly.
  • Master of Orion has a highly developed technological system that allows development in different directions in different games. There are disciplines with independent levels -- 6 in the first game, 8 in the second.
    • Only in the third game is it made explicit that later technologies rely on earlier research, however. While some technologies are said to be extensions of earlier tech, one could go, for an example from the first game, to Scatter Pack X missiles tech without having access to the option to research the Stinger missiles on which they're based.
  • Mass Effect plays with this. The Reapers deliberately expose and spread mass effect technology, along with the mass relays and the Citadel, to deliberately guide organic technological evolution along the paths they prefer. They then cut this off when they invade and wipe out all advanced life while their tech is still at a limited, controlled state. It is implied that the geth, being a purely synthetic species, are developing along a different path than that set by the Reapers.
  • Averted hard by the Shee of Creatures. Both said aversion and the Shee's general mindset are best explained by a quote:

  "The Shee were a race unique in their mindset, most likely having invented the steam engine as an offshoot of an attempt to design a better way of brewing tea before they invented the wheel."

  • Halo has a scale of technological levels based on the abilities of the culture, ranging from basic tool-construction to world-creation.
    • An amusing species on the scale are the Brutes, who have successfully climbed to the tier involving space-flight only to drop back down to tool-making again twice; hyper-aggression and nukes don't combine well.
  • Ascendancy doesn't have it explicitly, but pushes from Min-Maxing toward a general sequence. Theoretically, after a few must-have picks the Tech Tree allows very lopsided development as long as prerequisites are met. Practically, to climb up with sensible speed you need to generate lots of research points, so you need Prosperity to have more people working in labs and factories (at least until Automation is invented -- after that, population growth is only necessary for colonization), you need production to build facilities that actually give you research, population, prosperity and more production.
    • Since alien ruins located on a number of planets give you random technologies, it is possible to get something from the very end of the tech tree at the very beginning of the game. Of course, good drives, shields and weapons on ships tend to need more powerful reactors and/or cost a lot, but facilities and improvements are immediately useful.
  • In Diggles, the first buildings are made from wood and stones, then require sturdier materials like metal, then require mechanical energy, and in the last stages the power source of choice is a pseudo-nuclear reactor.

Western Animation

  • At first glance, Avatar: The Last Airbender seems to play this straight. The nations use their bending powers to help create technology- for example, Fire Benders use their head to power the steam industry. There is a clear progression in technology; in the original series, we see a nation having their industrial revolution while the majority of people used more old fashioned methods, while by The Legend of Korra they've got things such as cars and motorcycles readily avaible. In the end, its subverted. Although there's a progression in technology, it seems rather chaotic. Lampshaded by the abridged series as follows.

  Sokka: Let Me Get This Straight.... You can invent tanks, jet skies, and a GIGANTIC freaking drill, but the concept of a hot air balloon eeellluuudddesss you?

  • Played with in Ben 10. On one hand, most planets do follow a near-fixed path of technological discovery. On the other hand, said path is very unlike Earth's -- universal translators are usually invented about at the same time as combustion engines, and radio transmissions rarely predate nuclear fusion. Some technologies on earth are far in avance of what we should be able to produce.

Real Life

  • Almost averted by the Roman Egyptian philosopher Heron of Alexandria, who was messing around with steam expansion and pistons, but never quite put the two together. In fact, the Romans appear to have invented steam power at least three separate times. The problem is that steam couldn't hold a candle to slave labor economically, so they didn't do much with it.
  • The Incans had a system of roads that spanned their entire empire... but never invented the wheel. It Makes Sense in Context: the Incans lived in the steep Andes, so most of their roads involved steps up a mountain. Wheels would be inconvenient compared to walking or riding animals.
  • Writing in general is an aversion of this trope. Most societies (e.g. the Inca, above) with more than one city and a centralised government of any kind end up inventing a system for representing numbers and identifying objects, so that tax reports can be filed and the empire maintained; only very, very few times has anyone independently had the idea to take this to the next level and try to represent sentence structures, so that narrative structure could also be recorded.
    • According to one theory, the alphabet was only invented once, with everyone from the Norse to the Javanese borrowing it from their neighbours, modifying it for their own pronunciation quirks, then having the next tribe over do the same thing. For the Latin alphabet, the progression goes something like this: Hieroglyphs -> Phoenician Alphabet -> Greek Alphabet -> Etruscan Alphabet -> Latin Alphabet.
    • Although true in general, Hangul and Zhuyin are alphabets derived from the non-alphabetic Chinese writing system. Hieroglyphs themselves are also non-alphabetic, but include an alphabetic subset. Non-alphabetic scripts seem to be more likely to have independent origins (Linear A, Mayan, cuneiform, Chinese).

Notes

  1. using crystalline materials found on their star rather than actual metals
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