I recently heard about a solicitation to submit short stories for an anthology based on the concept “after the fall of technology.” I was included in the solicitation, so I gave it some thought. Eventually, I decided: What fall of technology?
Yeah, I just can’t see it happening at all, much less in some form analogous to our so-called “Dark Ages,” as most people imagine such a scenario. For one thing, those “Dark Ages” weren’t so dark as some would have us think; and for another, the world is so vastly different now than during that Dark Age, that it is virtually impossible to “fall” so far now as we did then.
The Dark Ages are primarily known for their lack of innovation and minimal spread of education. This was a period just after the end of the Little Ice Age, which had dealt European civilization a serious blow, and they were still in the process of picking up the pieces; life was still mostly about day-to-day survival. There seemed to be no room for science and education during that period.
But that is an untruth. Science and education went on, even in the Dark Ages: In Europe, most of it was related to agriculture and animal husbandry, in order to support their primary activity of the day (and to the tools of war, to support the secondary activity of the day). What we consider “simple peasants” today were actually shrewd farmers and tenders of livestock, and as they domesticated and selectively bred animals like dogs into varied companions and assistants, became very shrewd hunters as well.
And during this time, a select few scientists were advancing knowledge in other areas, less immediately practical, but useful as forming the groundwork for research and development that would come later, when resources were better suited. This knowledge continued to accumulate and be recorded, until relative peace came to Europe and time and resources could be diverted away from war and towards social improvement.
Now, this is important: All of the above applies to Europe only. While Europe was having its “Dark Age,” the Chinese empire was flourishing, growing and developing at a rapid pace. Its knowledge in many areas surpassed that of the West, though there were areas where the knowledge of both supplanted that of the other. Egypt had, centuries earlier, surpassed them both, and only the damage done by the desertification of North Africa laying waste to the Egyptian empire before Europe’s Dark Age prevented them from being the likely technological masters of the West at the end of Europe’s Dark Age.
And lest we forget, there was already an empire in Central and South America, and a thriving pre-industrial culture in North America (whose extents we are only now beginning to decipher). All of these cultures were technologically accomplished in one area or another, almost all of them in the areas of agriculture, social engineering, animal husbandry, textiles and basic pottery and metallurgy. These regions could have continued to expand and thrive technically, and would have in most cases, if national competition or other environmental factors had not brought them down.
The European “Dark Ages” were only dark in Europe. The rest of the world was advancing and developing just fine. Yes, Europe recovered, and thanks to their own accumulation of knowledge and theory in store for better times, arguably managed to speed up the process of industrialization that further accelerated scientific knowledge; but that’s no reason to assume that advancement had died during their absence, nor would not have continued without their help.
One of the reasons for this limited view of history is the relative isolation and perceived superiority of the regions described above. Europe didn’t know what China was doing, any more than China knew what Central America was doing, or Central America knew what Egypt was doing… and all of them just assumed they were the most advanced place in the world, with nothing to learn from others. They were growing and developing in relative isolation, so some regions concentrated on different technological areas, and as a result, knowledge of a particular field was stronger in certain regions than others. When they all began to meet, trade and collaborate (or compete), knowledge became more evenly dispersed between them… or, as an empire succumbed to another, some specialized knowledge was lost.
But eventually, we came upon a point in history when, thanks to worldwide communications and trade, the entire world shares the same knowledge. We have spread to the far corners of the world, mass occupying every continent save one, and sharing resources, manufacturing and trade worldwide. And that’s where we find ourselves today.
Now, imagine a catastrophe, as large or small as you’d like. Imagine a small or large proportion of humanity was impacted by the catastrophe, maybe even wiped out. But this is a world in which we have people, knowledge and a viable manufacturing base in every corner of the world except Antarctica. Even if we nuked the crap out of the northern hemisphere, there are still billions of people in the southern hemisphere to pick up where the northern left off. Floods could wipe out huge swaths of coastal lands, and still leave billions of people at higher elevations behind.
If Chile, for example, needed information or products that it used to get from Germany—but because of some disaster, it couldn’t now—it has the same knowledge and manufacturing capability to make that product or divine that information itself. It has the resources to maintain its equipment, and to make new tools to support that maintenance. It can teach itself how to take on duties formerly done by others in foreign lands.
In fact, there is little that one nation can do that another couldn’t learn and take over. If, in the worst of disasters, certain highly specialized tools or energy sources became impossible to get, some areas of technology might have to scale back or go into effective hibernation until the infrastructure can be replaced. But we could still accomplish a lot with what we had left.
Even individual creators, mechanics and craftsmen now have the capability of fabricating almost anything in their garage, thanks to modern tools, including the latest lathes, 3D printers and molding technology, capable of creating the most intricate productions barely imaginable just a decade ago.
The more likely scenario, in a major disaster, would be people either traveling to the location of the disaster once it was over, to see if there was anything to recover (or take over) in that area; or, if it was too far gone, they would alter trade patterns to accommodate the loss of a major player or region and move on.
So, you see, it is highly unlikely that we would or could ever suffer a “fall of technology”; it’s a concept based on a myth. A disaster, even a worldwide one, might do a great deal of damage to civilization… or it might effectively wipe us off the face of the Earth, and it really wouldn’t matter much at that point.
But as long as there are a few makers left… a few people with fabricating tools, a power source and the knowledge to use them… humans will build, rebuild, and continue to advance. Technology would not fall; at worst, it would retool.