Enforced Technology Levels

This is a Speculative Fiction trope where, for whatever reason, there are certain rules about what kinds of technology can exist. The ways these rules are enforced vary, from the the relatively mundane (some kind of "technology" police) to fantastic (magic, nanotech, or the laws of nature themselves). What's consistent, though, is that these rules will effectively (or even explicitly) lock a society into a certain technological level.

When magic is involved, this might delve into a Magic Versus Technology War (since areas where magic works may not allow technology to work, and vice versa). For a rather specific example (when it's played literally), see Medieval Stasis. Compare with Schizo Tech, where differing levels of technology are all mashed up together. Compare Decade Dissonance, when this sort of things arises naturally, not due to any enforcement. See also You Are Not Ready, which might be the justification for keeping certain areas at a lower tech level.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • The world of Attack on Titan seems to take place in a medieval world despite the Three-Dimensional Maneuver Gear being far more advanced beyond that time period. It's eventually revealed that this is because the Military Police secretly captures or kills any who attempt to develop technology that could threaten the king or his "peace". Hange's response is the following:
    "Thank you. You've protected this world from the development of technology. Really, thank you."
  • In Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the world is a barren wasteland (though one filled with mechas). This is because humanity has been forced underground by the Spiral King Lordgenome, because humanity's potential would otherwise cause them to grow at an exponential rate and threaten the return of the Anti-Spirals. This is proven by the Time Skip, in which the world has become futuristic in a matter of seven years.

  • One Dexter's Laboratory movie featured a dystopian future where Mandark rules, and keeps people in line by preventing them from using any form of science (even going so far as prohibiting the practice of using friction to start a fire).
  • The film Men In Black features elements of this, as some of the alien cultures humanity has contact with are much more advanced than humans. The MIB organization prohibits certain advanced technologies on Earth, reasoning that humanity shouldn't be allowed to discover them until we're ready.
    • It's stated that they slowly release some of the alien technology using shell companies and finance their operations using the patents. A lot of it is confiscated tech, although some of it is given by friendly aliens (like those tall guys in the picture).

  • Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder is set on a space station with varying technological levels enforced by ubiquitious nanotech. Different groups of people, united by common philosophies/religions, have chosen the level of tech they're comfortable with. For example, a society that values communing with nature and living in harmony might purposefully limit themselves to only Stone Age tech. If someone from a more advanced area goes into a "primitive" area, they will find that none of their high-tech gadgets work. The main conflict in the novel is due to a single group trying to enforce their high-tech Hive Mind on everyone.
    • Another example from Schroeder is in his novel Ventus. The eponymous planet was terraformed by powerful AIs called "Winds" in order to be a paradise for their human masters. However, something went wrong, and the AIs no longer recognize humans. As soon as the colonists arrived their ships were shot down because the Winds see their technology as a threat to the fragile ecosystem of the planet. The survivors are forced to eke out a primitive existence on the planet, since anything more advanced than a plow is immediately destroyed by the Winds.
  • Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds features a giant megastructure known as "Spearpoint", a spiraling tower that is the last city on Earth. Within it, various technological levels are enforced by reality itself; the laws of nature seem to change between the levels. The higher up the tower, the more advanced technology becoming possible the higher up one goes. One of the lower levels is called "Steamtown", a higher up level is called the "Neon Heights", and even further up is "Circuit City". It's implied that people from the top of the tower, the "Celestial Zone", cannot even go to the lower levels, due to the advanced nanotech in their cells that starts to break down as soon as they go outside their zone. Most of the world outside of Spearpoint can only support basic machinery - Swarm relies on basic combustion and steam engines for its movement. In the Bane, the laws of physics break down enough that anything entering it ceases to function, including living beings; the ground of the Bane is a lifeless desert.
  • In Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought series, the physical laws of nature seem to vary depending on how far one is from the galactic core. Such that, the further you get away from the core, the more advanced technology is able to be. Earth is located in the "slow zone", where physics works as we currently understand it (i.e. faster-than-light travel is impossible, no such thing as anti-gravity, etc). Further out is called "The Beyond", where things like FTL travel and Artificial Intelligence become possible. Farthest is "The Transcend", a zone where magic and science lose any distinction and you have things like powerful AIs becoming akin to gods.
  • "The Rapture Of The Nerds", collaboratively written by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, is set in the aftermath of a Singularity: a countless number of humans have left Earth by uploading their minds to a network of Nanomachines, which have proceeded to consume every stray molecule of matter in the solar system not in contact with the homeworld. The remaining un-"raptured" population who have chosen not to join the network enforce a ban on similar technologies through a "technology court". Citizens are randomly signed up to serve on this court (as per the book's origin as the short stories "Jury Duty" and "Appeals Court" would imply), and their job is to evaluate the random bits of super advanced flotsam-and-jetsom that occasionally fall to Earth as "gifts" from the nanomachine network. The technology court is tasked with determining what new technology's effect on society at large will be, and anything too dangerous or too advanced (that might cause another singularity in the remaining population) is destroyed.
    • Notably, in practice this technology ban results in bizarre communities based on special interests rather than draconian police states - anyone, at any time, can upload themselves to the network simply by speaking of their desire for such, as the entire planet is kept under constant surveillance for that purpose alone.
  • In Harry Potter, magical spells can prevent certain technologies from functioning. On Hogwarts school grounds, things like guns, automobiles, or anything electronic simply won't work. Also, it's against the rules to enchant high-tech items.
  • In the Old Kingdom series, technology or anything made with technology rapidly degrades into ruin in the Old Kingdom. There was one guy whose outsider pen pal always uses machine-made paper, turning every letter he sends into an annoying exercise in forensic science. This is because most technology fails in the presence of magic (this also means that the Perimeter Guards are armed with both guns and swords, because any magical creature that gets close enough will make their guns fail).
  • The Well World novels (two series, by Jack L. Chalker) take place on an artificial planet divided into hexagonal territories. The creators of the Well World set up each hexagon to be home to a different prototype intelligent species, prior to transferring these new races to various uninhabited planets. Thus, each hexagon re-creates the environment to which the new-made species is intended to be moved, once it's been tested. As some of their intended destinations were lacking in metals or other materials needed for technological advancement, the hexagons where those planet's future inhabitants were tested had to be designed to prevent technology from working there: if the trial groups couldn't survive by low-tech methods, then they would need more tinkering before they could be shipped out to their new worlds.
    • As the Well World's creators had the means to re-write the laws of physics as they saw fit, it was easy for them to invoke this trope on designated low-tech hexes, with tech-failure kicking in at whatever point seemed appropriate to the destination planet (Stone Age, Iron Age, Clockwork, etc).
      • Originally, there was no movement allowed between hexes, however since the Markovians left the barriers (mostly went down), and a large part of the trade that developed between hexes involved moving the products of technology: a gun might not work in a low-tech hex, but a composite bow made from high-tech materials works just peachy, thank you.
      • The Well World inhabitants were also inspired in devising items that could function across different tech levels, creating a Schizo Tech situation where what looks like a sailing ship powers up the high-efficiency steam engine to run the propellers once it gets out of a non-tech hex to a low-tech one, and then switches switches the propellers from the steam-engine shaft to the electric motors powered by a compact nuclear reactor if it crosses into a high-tech hex.
  • The Church of God Awaiting in Safehold enforces Medieval Stasis through the Inquisition and the Proscriptions of Jwo-Jeng.
    • It is also enforced, though the citizens of Safehold don't know it, by orbital platforms that, if they detect strong enough power sources, will unleash a kinetic bombardment capable of devastating a small continent.
  • In the Genre Throwback Space Opera novel Grand Central Arena, certain technologies just don't work in the Arena, including AI, nuclear reactors, and nanotech beyond certain limits.
  • On Gor the Priest-Kings will smite anyone they catch experimenting with "forbidden technology" such as firearms. However, they do allow experimentation in some areas, such as medicine, which has advanced to the point that the Goreans are basically indestructible to disease and age.
  • In the Weis/Hickman Starshield books, the laws of physics aren't constant, but regional. Here, Newtonian/Einsteinian physics apply, over here it's demons and magic, over there it's sorcery.
  • In the future Earth of the Council Wars series, the omnipresent AI taking care of the planet, Mother, strictly controls how much energetic reactions can be used, with an upper limit that can't normally be breached, for public safety. When everything goes to hell, this means that firearms and explosives are impossible, and even most engines beyond very low-pressure steam ones. On the other hand, they've got several millennia of genetically-engineered crops and animals, previously-built supermaterials, and the odd item provided by the people who still have access to the Clarke-level tech.
  • A Russian novel has a colony on a planet whose star is unusually active and is constantly throwing up strong electromagnetic fields that interfere with most advanced technology. Only specially-shielded ships are used to travel to the colony. When a Middle Eastern nation takes over the colony, the Russian and German Empires send a joint fleet of their own to liberate the colony... using German World War II tanks. And the German soldiers here are the friendliest you can find, which is saying something, considering that this is a Canadian colony.
  • A Russian duology by Aleksandr Mazin (Time for Change and The Morning of Judgment Day) feature a world in the near future where nature itself seems to have rebelled against advanced technology. After a series of seemingly random catastrophes, which were correlated with research into certain areas of science which some may find questionable, a global ban was placed on specific fields of science and an international agency was set up to keep tabs and stop any illegal research. At the end of the second novel, China outright ignores the ban and launches a manned mission to Mars (spaceflight is one of the banned areas). However, just as the ship is about to reach Mars, all Chinese-speaking people in the world who are watching the transmission are rendered mute. The protagonist's father points out parallels between this and the Tower of Babel (i.e. humans attempting to reach the Heavens) and postulates that, perhaps, humanity is meant to stay on Earth.
  • In Jerry Pournelle's early CoDominium stories, the Bureau of Technology puts all scientific and technological advancement under tight controls to prevent the creation of any devices that would threaten the stability of society.
  • In Frank Herbert's Dune, artificial intelligence is banned by religious taboo ("Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of man's mind," according to the Orange Catholic Bible) dating back to the Butlerian Jihad. This is interpreted to mean pretty much all forms of electronic computing are proscribed; mentats are trained to process information at speeds and volumes far greater than normal humans and Spacing Guild Navigators look into the future to safely plot interstellar travel routes.
  • In the Star Carrier series, the Sh'daar Masters limit any development in four specific areas of technology for all their subjects but have no problem with the rest. This is the main reason for their conflict with the humans who refuse to abide by the ban. These so-called GRIN technologies (Genetics, Robotics, Information technology, and Nanotechnology) are believed to be the key to achieving The Singularity, which is what the Sh'daar fear.
  • In L. Sprague De Camp's "Viagens Interplanetarias" stories, the planet Krishna has a generally Medieval level of technology, and human visitors have to have psychological blocks implanted in their minds to prevent them from releasing any technology. It's not so much to protect the locals as to protect other planets from the Krishnans. Several of the stories center on innovative ways to get around this restriction.
  • The entire plot of Daniel Suarez's Influx: The "Bureau of Technology Control", formed shortly after World War II, has suppressed all the "disruptive" technologies developed during the latter half of the 20th century, and makes full use of everything they've seized to maintain that advantage. Five big things they've monopolized are cold fusion, Artificial Intelligence, Nanomachines, the Cure For Cancer, and immortality.
    • One darkly funny thing is that fusion was developed in 1985, and the Director of the BTC immediately imprisoned the designer and stole credit for it, even thought it would only be known inside the Bureau. What makes it funny is that over the course of the next 28 years, he's had to do it a hundred and twelve more times.
  • In The Lost Regiment, the various human nations on the planet Valennia have been stuck at the same technological level they arrived with, meaning Roum and Cartha are stuck at the same level they were in during the First Punic War back on Earth, while the Rus are stuck in the state of the Medieval Russians. Since the masters of Valennia are the 9-foot-tall Human Aliens that constantly travel in Hordes and expect tribute from their "cattle" (their word for humans) subjects in the form of grain and human meat, they make sure that the cattle never get too advanced to threaten the Hordes. Even the Rouman army is a far cry from the famed Marian legions in the heyday of the Roman Empire but mostly consists of untrained rabble with a single poorly-equipped legion at the center. The Hordes themselves descend from a powerful starfaring civilization that has built a vast Portal Network, of which Earth is a part. The Tunnels activate at random times, scooping up people and bringing them to Valennia. After their civilization has bombed itself back to the Stone Age, the Hordes have chosen to maintain their primitive nomadic way of life, eschewing advanced technology and burying any ancient relics they find. At one point, the even got their hands on some Frickin' Laser Beams from a race of Starfish Aliens (a typical example of Rock Beats Laser) that have also ended up on Valennia, but threw the weapons into the sea. Everything gets turned on its head when the 35th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 44th New York Light Artillery Brigade (along with a steamer) get scooped up by a Tunnel in the midst of the American Civil War and brought to Valennia. Suddenly, the Medieval Stasis is broken by a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who have the know-how to turn a bunch of Medieval Russians into an industrial power in a matter of years and form a "modern" (by Civil War standards) army out of illiterate peasants.

    Live-Action Television 
  • In Star Trek, the Federation is prohibited from developing its own cloaking devices (which is like saying only one side can have submarines).
    • A whole TNG episode is devoted to trying to cover up one such attempt at developing it.
    • The game Star Trek Away Team features a modified Defiant-class ship whose holo-masking system tries to sidestep the letter of the treaty, if not the spirit. The USS Incursion can appear as any other ship, even sending out falsified transponder signals. Not true cloaking, but definitely useful for infiltration. The ship made a cameo in a Star Trek: Armada II mission. The Romulans later steal the technology and use it to attack the joint Federation-Klingon Unity station. After the Klingons grumble about not being told about the tech, the Federation bans it too.
    • The Star Trek Expanded Universe novel Serpents Among the Ruins reveals that the act of terrorism that preceded the Treaty of Algeron (the one banning cloaking tech for the Federation), known as the Tomed Incident, was orchestrated by Starfleet Intelligence and the captain of the USS Enterprise-B in order to make the Romulans look like violent and dishonorable extremists and get the Klingons on their side. They knew ahead of time that the Romulans would insist on the Federation banning all cloaking technology but didn't care. In reality, only six Romulans and no Federation citizens died during the incident (involving a Romulan starship performing a suicide run at an asteroid and disabling containment of its quantum singularity while at warp). The thousands reported killed were, in fact, already dead whose deaths have been quietly covered up.
  • One episode of Farscape featured a planet where most advanced technology was rendered useless by a power-draining machine, set up to keep the colonists beholden to their original masters. Much awkwardness results when it turns out that Rygel is a descendant of said masters.
  • Reality TV shows often will ban certain items (such as cell phones or computers) during the course of the show. Ostensibly it'll be to encourage teamwork and communication, as well as to make sure the contestants aren't distracted by the outside world, but in reality it's most likely to increase the drama.
    • Survivor is a particularly extreme case, as the contestants are placed on a "deserted" island and must live without basic amenities.
    • There's also a whole subgenre of reality shows dedicated to historical re-enactments; shows like these would obviously prohibit contestants from using technology that wasn't available to the time they're re-enacting.
  • Firefly all but outright states that this is happening in the Rim and Border worlds, with the Alliance deliberately keeping the formerly independent worlds at a lower tech level than the Core worlds to keep them subjugated after the Unification War ended. At least one Border world baron has access to enough money and technology that he could easily build a modern city but keeps everyone at pre-1900's tech because he wants to be the one with the hovercar and handheld lasers while everyone else rides around on horses.
  • When the Mythbusters work to replicate an urban legend or dubious story, they generally restrict themselves to the tools and techniques that the parties involved in the original events are reported to have used. In the interest of time and efficiency, they will bend their rule and use power tools for things like making a cannon out of a tree trunk.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons expanded second edition (I think) rules book "High Level Campaigns", it's mentioned that, when designing a plane of existence, it can be given a tech level. Technology above that level will not function, unless the tech level is at least five levels higher than the magic level.
  • Gamescience's Superhero 2044. In the standard campaign setting, the World Council of Peace's Science Police is devoted to ensuring world peace. They control the creation of new inventions and confiscate any devices that could lead to another World War, including weapons of mass destruction.
  • BattleTech's ComStar, after its transformation from a neutral power dedicated to maintaining the Subspace Ansible network into a Church Militant dedicated to hoarding technology, actively sabotaged science facilities and assassinated scientists working for the crippled Successor States that were trying to rediscover Lost Technology after suffering from a hundred years of total war. Their assassination efforts stagnated almost all technological research for almost a hundred years. When the Grey Death Legion uncovered the Helm Memory Core and began to duplicate it, Comstar's grasp began to collapse, which culminated a schism after the Clan Invasion, with Comstar (under new leadership) becoming secular and pro-technology, while the Word of Blake separatists used terror tactics to continue the old Comstar's mission.
  • In Mutant Chronicles, The dark legion causes electronics to go haywire, thus most technology has been stumped to diesel punk, till the mega corps can find a way to make their tech to work without the dark legion crippling it.

    Video Games 
  • This trop is why the church of Yevon rules the world in Final Fantasy X. According to their teachings, men became too lazy and proud as technological progress evolved, culminating in the appearance of Sin, who destroyed almost all of the world and technology. Nowadays, the church strictly controls the diffusion of "machinas" to prevent Sin for destroying it utterly and labels as heretics anybody who uses or pleads in the favor of technology. It's all a lie.
  • The Reapers of Mass Effect use a subtle version. They leave enough traces of technology from previous races to guide the next generation down a specific technology tree, one that the Reapers can predict and easily counter.
    • A more explicit version is the Citadel-enforced ban on developing artificial intelligence due to fear of a rebellion.

    Western Animation 
  • In the pilot of Ben 10: Alien Force, Ben and a Plumber come across Kevin selling "level 5" alien technology, at which point the Plumber points out Earth's only cleared for "level 2" technology.
  • On the Men In Black animated series, the agents mention that some alien technology should not be discovered by humans until X years later.

    Real Life 
  • The Morgenthau Plan would have forbidden Germany from any sort of heavy industry, reducing it to an agricultural nation. As Herbert Hoover pointed out, for the idea to have any chance of working, Allied forces would have to exterminate 25 million people or move them out of Germany.
  • To some extent, the world community's treatment of Iran and its nuclear program. Through sanctions and other actions, the world community is "preventing" Iran from achieving nuclear technology, due to the fears of Iran developing a nuclear bomb.
  • The Amish purposefully police themselves, in terms of technology, as they believe in a simpler kind of lifestyle and think that modern technology will tempt and lead people away from religion/God.
    • Though it's a little more complex than straight Technology Levels- some Amish will occasionally admit the use of specific items of modern technology, but only if it doesn't interfere with their way of life. So, for example, phones are not permitted in the home, but they might have a one in a "phone shanty" shared amongst the community in case of emergency. Acceptance of technology also varies between Amish sub-sects.