Low Culture, High Tech

Harold pwned by arrow lol. William probs king by xmas. Bk home soon, cya then k? luv u x

"The march of science and technology does not imply growing intellectual complexity in the lives of most people. It often means the opposite."
Thomas Sowell

While you don't need to know how a gun works to know how to use one, the society as a whole must be able to support the thinkers and builders of such a device for it to see widespread and sustained use. Not so when you have Low Culture High Tech; this is a faction, culture, or race that uses technology far in advance of their scientific and cultural knowledge, often for warfare.

Usually this group has pirated the technology from someone else. It may be Lost Technology that they have recovered and use, often very sturdy, self-replicating lost tech that only requires raw materials be input, if even that. Or it could be a Black Box tech that none of their existing machines can do without. There may instead be a group of "thinkers and builders" who use the primitives as shock troops or even as a Slave Race. It's also possible the tables are turned and the primitives have either taken the builders hostage or killed them all and taken all of their goodies (without bothering with the instruction manual). If the original source of the tech is Shrouded in Myth, they may become a Cargo Cult.

Typically, the primitives will only use a fraction of the technology's potential and not know all of its abilities. At best they will be able to maintain the equipment without knowing how to repair it should a major malfunction happen. It's highly possible that the original creators, or a group with sufficiently advanced science (even just curiosity and a working knowledge of the scientific method), can pull the rug out from under these primitives by either confiscating, hacking, or better using their pirated tech against them.

It's worth noting that a civilization doesn't have to be at stone age or Medieval levels of technology for this trope to apply. They just have to routinely use tech far in advance of their ability to comprehend. A story set in 21st century Earth could have this trope apply if the planet were given Imported Alien Phlebotinum. Even space faring peoples can have Low Culture, High Tech if they use stuff they don't understand.

Lastly, we want to draw attention to the following from the first paragraph "far in advance of their scientific and cultural knowledge". It's important to point out that not only are they using things they don't understand technologically, but for which they haven't considered the cultural, social, or ethical ramifications. It's one thing to give a hunter-gatherer society an Energy Bow, but giving them a cloning device? Their society may crumble from the onset of massive Cloning Blues, not to mention the ecological disaster of the massive population growth. It's because of this that many aliens (and future humanity) tend to subscribe to an Alien Non-Interference Clause or a You Are Not Ready attitude.

Related to Insufficiently Advanced Alien, which is about a race that's interstellar, but every other tech they have sucks comparatively, and they probably don't understand it. compare Crystal Spires and Togas . Contrast Rock Beats Laser. The Noble Savage inverts this trope, being essentially High Culture, Low Tech. See also Bamboo Technology, Aliens Never Invented the Wheel, Scavenger World, Giving Radio to the Romans, Technology Uplift and Cargo Cult. Not to be confused with "High Tech and Low Life." Compare Klingon Scientists Get No Respect, when a society undervalues the profession that make its desired lifestyle possible.

When adding Real Life examples, please use the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgement to avoid Unfortunate Implications.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • The nations of Dissith and Anatore in Last Exile qualify by virtue of not having anti-gravity technology which they lease from the Guild. The best they've developed is small fighter planes.
  • In The Familiar of Zero there are caches of weapons from Earth scattered over the continent of Halkeginia, which is a Medieval European Fantasy land. It is the result of a spell that is constantly pulling weapons from Earth for quite some time.
  • The airships in Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind rely on engines that reflect technology from before the Seven Days of Fire. Several times throughout the manga, characters scramble to recover the engines from downed ships as they are the only components that are irreplaceable.
  • The Saiyans from Dragon Ball Z are a brutal race of violent barbarians with a constantly warring society built entirely on an Asskicking Equals Authority political system. They initially lived stone huts and wore simple fur, but (depending on who you listen to) they gained high-tech after they reverse engineered the technologically of their advanced neighbors after wiping them out, or got it after being recruited into the Planet Trade Organization as Elite Mooks. They have access to technology far beyond their normal capabilities, such as interplanetary spaceships, healing pods, incredibly durable, flexible, and lightweight body armor, Scouters capable of reading Power Levels, as well as an assortment of other high-tech goodies.
  • Super Dimension Fortress Macross: This is the case for the Zentraedi. They have access to very powerful warships and Casual Interstellar Travel, as well as reproduction exclusively via cloning. However, they don't have a clue how any of their technology actually works. They can't innovate new technologies, and can't even repair what gets broken. Everything they have is a Black Box manufactured by fully automated factories, which are themselves a Black Box. This is one reason they were so interested in human society even before they discovered music and entertainment: humans had demonstrated the ability to repair broken tech, which the Zentraedi wanted to obtain for themselves.

    Comic Books 
  • Done in one issue of Thorgal, where a "sun sword" used by a minor warlord to conquer his neighbours turns out to be a phaser left after the villain of one of the previous arcs.
  • Some of the civilisations of Skartaris in The Warlord have access to advanced Atlantean technology, but no understanding of how it actually works.
  • The early mini-comics from the original Masters of the Universe toyline, that were packed in with the toys. The primitive barbarian tribe He-man belonged to, the Eternians, used technology that had been left by their technologically advanced ancestors.
  • In Richard Corben's Den comics, Neverwhere is a primitive Sword & Sorcery planet where Queen Kil has occasionally supplied weapons through magic, ranging from primitive knives to fully loaded automatic firearms.
  • The Horde of Strikeforce: Morituri are a race of alien invaders who plunder other worlds for technology and resources, but have a culture built on tribalism and terror. Human characters who manage to board their spacecraft quickly note the numerous jury-riggeed systems used to adapt it for the Horde's needs.
  • In Marvel Universe the nation of Wakanda is a subversion. It is a small yet high tech nation in the center of Africa with access to Vibranium, a super element. While its people still live in tribal lifestyle and maintain an absolute monarchy, they single handedly developed high tech capabilities and a beyond first world industrial base. While many westerners think it's odd that such a technologically advanced society is still rooted in tribalism, the Wakandan's usually point out that they have a higher standard of living than most western countries because their social roots remain strong. For this reason it also retains a very isolationist stance. On the flip side, the post of king is open to Klingon Promotion. On the flip flip side, the current king happens to be Marvel's nearest analogue to DC's Batman.
  • Also from the Marvel Universe, the Breakworld seen in Joss Whedon's run on X-Men possesses some very impressive technology, but exists in a constant state of warfare and tyranny. Most of the Breakworlders don't think this is a bad thing, and the one that does is the true Big Bad of the arc and an Omnicidal Maniac who wants to blow up her own planet to boot.
  • DC has the New Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips; they possess super high tech, and depending on how they are portrayed, are a super advanced alien race / or Physical Gods. Apokolips are styled in Greek / Roman aesthetics, with slaves being lorded by the New Gods.

  • Twice in Battlefield Earth. Much of the Psychlos' technology was stolen from their rivals, at one point they had a slave race of scientists which they later destroyed. They got away with this by using massive and sudden deployments of chemical weapons in their conquests, so that enemy races were defeated by the time they knew they were under attack regardless of technology. The humans end up this way towards their own and Psychlo technology.
  • Played for laughs in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure when Beethoven gets access to modern synthesisers.
    • And when we see cavemen chewing bubblegum.
  • The aliens from Cowboys and Aliens give off this distinct impression. They have interstellar travel, powerful energy weapons, and all sorts of other advanced technology, but when it comes down to it, Wild West humans come off as more civilized (let that sink in for a second). They seem to prefer brutally ripping their enemies in hand-to-hand combat, and some even eat fallen humans, or at least go for the throat, despite having ubertech guns that can blow up houses. Also, they have a bad case of interstellar Gold Fever.
    • It's also claimed that a single ship with a few scores of these things is enough to destroy all of human civilization.
  • The Prawns from District 9 are pretty animalistic, but only because the ones we see are part of a rather unintelligent worker caste that don't know how to do anything unless they're told. All the more intelligent leaders died before their ship arrived at Earth. Well, most of them did.
  • In The Fifth Element, Arms Dealer Zorg agrees to sell crates of ultra-cutting-edge assault rifles to Omnicidal Maniac Warrior Race the Mangalores in return for their finding him the Macguffin. And then as soon as he walks out of the room, he deconstructs this trope by pointing out that anyone smart enough to use the weapon would be smart enough to ask how it works. The Mangalores promptly blow themselves up by accidentally triggering the self-destruct button.
  • The original Planet of the Apes (1968) film has the apes wield repeating rifles (the movie props are modified M1 carbines), at least a century more advanced than any other tech they're shown using.
  • In the Predator franchise, the Predators are an ancient alien race that have advanced technology like plasmacasters, cloaking devices and advanced metallurgy for melee weapons. However, their society seems to be extremely primitive, almost tribal in nature, with no visible culture beyond hunting and warfare. According to Expanded Universe and Word of God, this is because their species scavenged technology from failed alien invaders and they neither develop their own technology or have any understanding of how the advanced stuff works. So, as a species, they're stuck.
    • Other sources instead claim that they did make their own technology originally, but they've become so culturally fixated on hunting over cultural or technological development that they've made no meaningful improvements for thousands of years — the weapons they were using before human civilization rose are the same ones they're using roughly contemporary with the Alien films. And yet another interpretation backed up by other works is that their technology is still advancing, but they don't use anything beyond what we've seen because it's not considered "sporting" to use against humans.
  • A partial example in Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, where Pirk, Dwarf, and Info are stuck on modern-day Earth after traveling from their own time. When the First Contact with the Vulgars is messed up by a rock star (the Vulgars are too busy partying and doing drugs), Pirk takes it upon himself to establish the P-Fleet by using a bunch of disgruntled Russians to build the CPP Kickstart (Expy of the Enterprise-E) based on Info's remembered plans and the Vulgar Anti Matter reactor. He then allies with the Russian President and retools the Russian military with futuristic technology, quickly conquering the world and establishing the P-Union with himself as The Emperor. However, Info reveals that the comparatively low level of human technology means that the ship's systems are not up to their usual standarts (due to impurities in Anti Matter, the Kickstart can only go to "twist" factor 2). As such, despite Pirk using the resources of the entire world to build a space station and dozens of ships, they lack the power to actually reach other stars in any reasonable amount of time (years at best). The CPP Kalinka (an Expy of the original Enterprise) looks so crappy compared to the Kickstart because they ran out of good-quality materials and had to make due. During the Space Battle, the Kalinka sustains damage despite the fact that it was never fired upon. Hell, the enemy doesn't even bother attacking the rustbucket, figuring it'll fall apart on its own. Pirk's entire reason for invading the Babel-13 universe is to conquer habitable planets and get more resources.
  • Yor: The Hunter from the Future has, as Spoony called them "Cavemen with Lasers".
  • The barbarian class in Zardoz are given rifles and guns by more advanced humans.
  • A bizarre example in Idiocracy. The futuristic technology was built before the human race began its slide into stupidity, so now the descendants of the people who built it have no idea how it works.
  • The Jedi of Star Wars kind of subvert this. The galaxy around them may have reached the pinnacle of technological development, but they stick to (comparatively) lower tech and chivalric ancient customs... because they're more civilized than the current ones. Whiiiiiiich comes to bite them in the ass. Just because you cling rigidly to custom doesn't mean your archenemies have to. The Sith actually become more successful once they ditch the Evil Wizard schtick and become modern politicians.
    • Not to mention countless species who were early in their development when they became part of the Republic/ Empire. The Tusken Raiders are comparable to Bedouin nomads but have access to laser rifles, the Gungans have force field generators but deploy them on mounts, etc.

  • The ruling class in Book of the New Sun have access to anti-gravity, energy weapons and genetic engineering. But since they get all these things by trading with aliens, they don't actually understand how any of these technologies work. The actual technological level of the society is more primitive than ours, though it's not clear how much of that is lost knowledge and how much is simply that their desperate material poverty makes it impossible to maintain a technological society.
  • In the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, this is one of the major themes in the first book. As the Galactic Empire begins to come apart at the seams, planets on the very periphery of the Empire lose the ability to build nuclear reactors. Even in the heart of the Empire itself, scientific knowledge has stagnated so much that they can only perform routine maintenance on their power plants. As early as 25 years after Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the Empire, a reactor on a planet experiences a Chernobyl-like meltdown, and the response by the Empire is to restrict further nuclear testing. The Foundation first manages to establish hegemony in the fringes of the Galaxy by providing the independent Kingdoms around them with nuclear technology, as well as technicians able to run and maintain the devices (and keeping for themselves anyone smart and educated enough to design new technology).
  • In the first Honor Harrington novel the Havenites gave a faction of the primitive Medusan natives flintlock rifles in an attempt to manufacture an incident that would give them an excuse to invade the system (and claim its wormhole) as a "peacekeeping action". Unfortunately for them Honor discovered the plot and sent a platoon of marines in Powered Armor to curbstomp the offending faction.
    • Also unfortunately for the Havenites, they underestimated the Medusans' skill and tech base, and found that the primitives were now mass producing the weapons, leading to their Havenite handlers losing all control of the situation.
  • Known Space has the Kzin, tribals bootstrapped by an alien race as mercenaries turned galactic conquerors. Had no idea reaction drives could be used as weapons. Their culture also is heavily influenced by what happens when Bronze age cultures get genetic engineering and try to engineer their men into Heroes, and make their women become less naggy. They make their women effectively non-sentient, and their men into buff warriors with few skills but leaping and yelling.
  • The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad, features "The Steel Commander", a metal truncheon that has an apparent weight and mass of tonnes and yet can be effortlessly wielded by a person of sufficient genetic "purity". It was created by an enclave of scientists who'd survived "The Fire" (a global nuclear war) for Heldon, the father of a fascist movement to preserve a core of unmutated humans (and who slew them for their trouble).
  • Novella "Minla's Flowers" and short story "Merlin's Gun" by Alastair Reynolds take place tens of thousands of years after humans had colonized the Galaxy, and while protagonists (and their enemies) have interstellar flight and other technology far beyond 21st century, they are in awe of things built by people long lost in the past (but far future for us).
  • In Old Man's War one alien faction was gifted a device by a more advanced species that allowed them to predict exactly when and where ships would be arriving via FTL. This immediately grants them a massive advantage in their war against the humans, who have to come up with an exceedingly risky plan to counteract it.
  • The entire plot of the Robert A. Heinlein novel Orphans of the Sky. The novel's characters live on a Generation Ship whose crew mutinied several generations back. By the time the novel takes place, the crew has become so backward that they think the ship is the whole Universe, and a large portion live as subsistence farmers. The only reason the ship still works is that its reactornote  can convert any matter into energy at pretty much 100% efficiency. Everything that is no longer useful, including the dead, are used as fuel for the reactor.
  • In Rocannon's World by Ursula K. Le Guin the protagonist is attacked and captured by barbarians: savage, primitive nomads who wield explosive heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. The dissonance is justified because the nomads are being covertly supplied by The Empire.
  • In Uplift every single extant alien race was uplifted by another and got their technology from "the Library", several species uplifted as warriors seem downright barbaric to humans who had to develop a near-utopian society through trial and error.
  • In World War the British, unable to build a lightweight radar unit to install in their planes, cannibalize surviving radar units from the Lizards' planes that they've managed to shoot down, citing this premise in doing so. Similarly, the Nazis develop armor-piercing, discarding-sabot shells based upon shells they've captured from the Lizards.
    • It helps that the Race's military technology is ahead of that of humans by a few decades at best. It's heavily implied that the Race arrived at just the right time in our history to pose a threat to humans without being able to completely steamroll over us. Had they arrived only a decade earlier, this is what would've happened. Had they waited a decade or two (as some of their superiors wanted), they would've faced a Cold War-era world with thousands of nukes and two superpowers gearing up for war, not to mention the beginnings of space exploration (i.e. orbital delivery platforms) and advances in computing.
    • Their first action is to detonate several nukes in the upper atmosphere, planning to scramble Tosevite electronic systems. Except, humanity hasn't developed integrated circuits yet, and vacuum tubes/valves are a lot less affected by EMP. Had they arrived during the Cold War, circuits would have been in use already, except military tech would be, for the most part, shielded against EMP.
  • Inverted in Roger Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon: the inhabitants of the mythical land understand very well how firearms work and how to build them; the problem is that the intrinsic magic of the land blocks the use of explosive agents, so... no gunpowder. Until the climax, when everything is at stake.
    "We won because I brought rifles. I finally found an explosive agent that functions here."
  • In the Hammer's Slammers novel At Any Price the generally stone age natives have powerguns purchased from human traders, which actually makes them better armed than the human colonists whose army is equipped with shotguns. But not the Slammers of course.
  • The Hellborn from the Jon Shannow trilogy ride horses, practice human sacrifice, wear goats' horns on their helmets... and pack high-quality firearms.
  • In Stephen King's book The Tommyknockers, the titular aliens (and the people who are transformed into them) create devices that have incredible power, but which they have no philosophical or ethical insight into. As the main protagonist puts it, they're "Thomas Edisons rather than Albert Einsteins".

    Live Action TV 
  • Babylon 5 is interesting in that most of the races qualify to varying degrees. Much of the Narns' technology is reverse engineered from captured Centauri examples, and while the Narn seem quite capable of building and using the weapons, they never acquired the Artificial Gravity technology used by the Centauri's ships, meaning they were still at a marked disadvantage. Similarly, the Minbari were given advanced technology by the Vorlons, and the humans ended up acquiring Shadow technology. In both of the later cases, the younger races were hard at work figuring out how the technology worked so they could apply it to their own designs.
    • Speaking of the Centauri, this happened to them multiple times. The first time it was actually passing Technomages teaching them enough things to advance their technology from Renaissance-era level to 20th-century level (enough that, with Technomage assistance, they succeeded in repelling the Shroggen when they invaded their homeworld while chasing the Technomages themselves), but after that they started grabbing every piece of advanced or unknown technology they could buy, conquer or get away with stealing, study its inner workings and use the knowledge so obtained to both improve their technology and build a copy of it (an example are Earth's magnetic monorails for moving inside space stations: the Centauri first saw them brand new on Babylon 5, and a couple years later their capital city has a whole transportation network of them). Between this and their pride imposing them to perfect everything, they became the most advanced of the Younger Races bar the Minbari, and, at least in some fields (most notably energy weapons), aren't too far behind them either.
    • The Centauri and Minbari despite being technologically more advanced than humans, resemble a late medieval/Renaissance European or Indian society and still have stuff like legalized duels, arranged marriages, a caste system and an absolute monarchy.
  • Doctor Who
    • A Sontaran gives rifles to a 12th-century English warlord.
    • "The Power Of Kroll" has the boss of a mining rig hire an arms dealer to sell defective weapons to the natives of a moon that orbits his planet. This is to justify removing the natives because his company wants that moon.
    • In the early 21st century, humanity are in possession of a weapon that can one shot spaceships out of orbit, salvaged from alien technology that has been recovered from Earth. The Valiant was built with a smaller version of this weapon, in addition to using designs given to them by the Master.
  • On Earth 2, the Terrians (underground-dwelling humanoids who share a symbiotic relationship with their homeworld) appear to be tribes of Hunter-Gatherers, but due to the green rock-like properties of their planet, wield staffs that shoot lightning bolts. It's implied several times in the series that the Terrians used to be much more like humans, and may even have had more conventional, industrial technology, before they evolved into a species of benevolent symbiotes. It's also implied that the Terrians are also not native to Earth 2 and are colonizing it as well.
  • The Pylons from Land of the Lost (1974) are remnants of a past civilization yet are more advanced than anything the Sleestaks could create.
    • The Library of Skulls.
  • In one episode of Lexx, the Lexx visits a planet populated by a seemingly medieval-level society composed entirely of men. When Kai wonders how they reproduce, one of the elder members explains to Kai that their ancestors left behind special pods that produce new brothers. In the end, he reveals the truth: their ancestors wanted to create a simple society free of sexual competition, believing that was the only way to maintain peace. Their advanced knowledge was passed down only to a select few like the elder. Believing that Xev's presence has permanently "tainted" them, the elder triggers the self-destruct sequence of the entire planet.
  • The alien invaders in one Saturday Night Live sketch apparently had this problem. After landing and threatening the people of Earth with destruction, they overplay their hand, as the Earthlings do not, in fact, tremble before the power of their mighty flintlock muskets. It seems all their technology other than starships was woefully behind that of 1990s Earth. The police dealing with the situation suspect their ship was stolen.
  • Stargate SG-1:
    • It has this apply to humans and the slaves of the Goa'uld. SG-1 gets a lot of tech they only barely understand, and later on the Asgard gift humanity with a database and replicator for all of their advanced tech (which most likely will take centuries to reverse-engineer everything). The Goa'uld purposely make their (also pirated) tech user friendly for the Jaffa to use.
    • The Jaffa, whose society is almost identical in theme to the page image. They expertly utilize the extremely advanced technology provided by the Goa'uld, even to the point of flying their motherships for them. Yet Chulak, the Jaffa homeworld, is apparently still stuck in the Middle Ages.
    • The Tollan deliberately invoke this with "primitive" societies that haven't reached their technological level. They once gifted their technology to another species to help them, and as a result the species wiped itself out in a single day. Since then they have been extremely leery about sharing tech with anyone else, even Earth.
    • One episode in particular has SGC retrofit a Goa'uld fighter with Earth-tech modifications and show it off to other members of the military. On a test run they accidentally triggered a homing program that tried to return it to its point of origin across the galaxy at sublight speeds. Given that SGC didn't have anything nearly fast enough to retrieve the ship and crew they had to call for help from the Tok'ra, who berates them for slapping an Air Force label on a ship they didn't understand. Later episodes showed they learned enough about the technology to build comparable fighters from scratch and eventually made their own battleships. Bonus points for the person berating them being a former US Air Force general (implanted with a Tok'ra symbiote), so he knows how things work on Earth.
    • It is often pointed out that the Goa'uld aren't all that different. They are just as 'unready' for certain Ancient technologies and this seems to be one of the things that causes the large amount of infighting that allowed human and Jaffa to overthrow them. Despite the Goa'uld having stolen the capacity for interstellar flight thousands of years ago, the Ancients and Asgard are still sufficiently far beyond them. Both of those races had reached intergalactic flight technology (with at least the Ancients even having traveled to galaxies outside their original local cluster long before their technological peak) before the Goa'uld even got off their original planet.
    • An early episode had O'Neill resolve a problem late in the episode by giving a local Mongol warlord his handgun, which the warlord celebrates by Firing in the Air a Lot, and O'Neill lampshades that they should get going before he uses up the ammo in the single magazine.
    • Provides an Establishing Character Moment in Stargate Atlantis, when it's revealed that the Athosians are not the primitive society that they initially appear to be, but merely The Remnant of an advanced society that had been repeatedly bombed into the stone age by the Wraith. For instance, not only does their settlement reside in the shadow of ruined high-tech city, but one of the rare pieces of Athosian technology to survive is a lighter that uses energy beams to ignite objects.
  • Star Trek: The Prime Directive, which bans interfering with the development of less advanced societies, exists to prevent this from happening.
    • There's an interesting example with the Talosians from the original pilot episode "The Cage." Their brains are actually significantly more evolved than those of their ancestors, to the point that their powers of illusion essentially (though not technically) make them Reality Warpers. However, this also caused them to lose any motivation to do anything besides entertain themselves with their fantasies, and their more cerebrally-primitive ancestors' technological knowledge was lost.
    • In "A Private Little War," Kirk and McCoy discover that the Klingons gave flintlock weapons to the natives who didn't have them before. To restore the balance of power, Kirk provides another group (a bunch of cavemen) with them. McCoy compares their situation to the "Brush Wars" of the mid 20th Century.
    • The episode "Bread and Circuses" featured a world with 1960s-level tech (television, firearms) but a society that mirrored the Roman Empire, complete with the slow rise of Christianity (albeit 2000 years late).
    • The Ferengi in The Next Generation were originally designed to follow this trope and were introduced by one of the characters explaining that they are a species who simply should not have been given access to advanced technology yet, as they have not yet reached a sufficiently developed state to use it responsibly. However, there was a very strong sub-human racist vibe to it and they mostly disappeared until being revived as a greedy merchant species in Deep Space Nine.
    • The Pakleds are bright enough to steal whatever technology they can get their hands on (as well as abduct Engineer Geordi LaForge), but express themselves in infantile terms (they want LaForge to "make [their ship] go" so that they can be "strong") and are fooled into surrendering by a harmless, if Technobabble-laden, pyrotechnic display. Whether these two Pakleds are representative of their entire species is never really addressed, however.
    • The Kazon from Voyager don't exactly inspire confidence with their technical abilities. However, they only recently acquired it, namely by overthrowing their Trabe conquerors. There's a reason the Borg deemed the Kazon to have absolutely nothing worth assimilating.
  • A sketch on Dave Allen at Large shows Allen as a native American chief who a British explorer is negotiating with; he is offered trinkets for various tracts of land. He wants the "stick that goes boom" (a rifle) but is refused. Finally he offers all the land they're trying to acquire for the "stick that goes boom," and the Brit, seeing this as a huge bargain, agrees. Brit gives Chief the rifle. Chief shoots Brit, and then he & his tribe members take the chest full of trinkets.
  • In the Australian/Polish sci-fi series Spellbinder, the Land of the Spellbinders is an agrarian/mining society with technology equal to the medieval era. The land is ruled by the Spellbinders, an order of scientists masquerading as sorcerers. Their power comes from technology based largely on electricity and magnetism (such as radios, flying ships and electrical combat suits). The Spellbinders' technology was created so long ago that the current Spellbinders do not even know how their own equipment works, nor can they repair it if it breaks.
    • The Big Bad Ashka manages to make it to our world and tricks an engineer into re-creating one of those combat suits using late 20th-century tech. The resulting suit looks less like ornate Medieval armor and more like a sleek black body-hugging jumpsuit with gadgets. Not only that, but it's better than the original Spellbinder suits, able to fly. It's also waterproof, since that would be one of the things an engineer would do to a piece of tech, unlike the original suits that could be stopped by a puddle.


    Tabletop RPG 
  • Common in Warhammer 40,000:
    • Humanity's scientific knowledge peaked several millennia ago in the fabled Dark Age of Technology, and in the modern Imperium, technology is monopolized by the Adeptus Mechanicus, a religious order that turns activating a new engine into a mystic ritual involving incense and chants in Binary. Weapons like a lasrifle can be reliably produced across the galaxy, but more advanced devices like plasma weapons are less understood, and some of the Imperium's oldest technological artifacts are irreplaceable because no one knows how to build them anymore. How much the AdMech knows about their sacred technology is dependent on the author - in some accounts they're the only humans in the galaxy aware of the scientific method, or are deliberately playing up the rituals to keep laymen from getting involved (and potentially repeating the "Men of Iron" disaster). But in general, any technological progress the Imperium makes happens very slowly, and for the most part its tech level is either stagnant or in decline.
      • In the backstory the technology Humans used to colonize the galaxy was deliberately designed to allow this. The SCP systems that contained all the plans for things colonies might need were themselves incredibly advanced technology based on a deep understanding of physics, but the plans they produced were cunningly designed so that no particular understanding or even mechanical skill was needed to build even the most advanced of technologies. All of these systems, and the knowledge behind them, were lost in a galactic Dark Age more than ten thousand years previous. This makes intact printouts the most valuable things in the galaxy, and a working system is practically the Holy Grail.
    • Orks are a starfaring race capable of building energy weapons, force fields, and teleporters, but what "kultur" they have is all about using those technologies to wage war (and yes, they've found ways to weaponize force fields and teleporters). They don't have scientists that we'd recognize, but Mekboyz and Doks who are born with an instinctive ability to build machinery or perform surgery. Some of their stranger creations shouldn't even function in the first place, but Orks are unconscious pyskers, and expect them to work, so they do. Justified since the Orks were a last ditch effort by the Old Ones to create a race of living weapons to fight the Necrons and the C'tan. Their instinctive engineering ability, psychic powers, and "kultur" revolving entirely around warfare are deliberate hardwired design choices. Unfortunately for the rest of the galaxy, the Old Ones vanished before they could get around to installing the "off-switch" on their living murder machines.
    • Eldar Exodites seem like this trope, but are actually a subversion. They live a low-tech, pastoral existence on the galactic fringe, yet have access to the same laser and fusion as their Craftworld Eldar cousins, as well as Knights. The Exodites still retain the knowledge to make all this themselves, but choose to use only as much as necessary in order to avoid succumbing to the decadence that led to the Fall and the ruin of their race.
    • The Necrons have extremely advanced technology millions of years old, but all of its construction and maintenance are automated. After eons in stasis and robot bodies, only a small caste has a clue to how it works, the race's leadership comports itself like Bronze Age warlords, and the rest are non-sentient drones.
    • The Kroot can build Warspheres to travel through space, and use the odd plasma-based weapon gifted by their Tau employers, but for the most part live in a tribal society focused on hunting and eating. This is deliberate as their Shapers want to keep their people strong without becoming reliant on technology, so they focus more on picking up evolutionary upgrades from their prey then on inventing things. They only learned how to build spaceships in the first place after eating some Ork Mekboyz.
    • Rogue Trader introduced the Rak'Gol, a race of aliens that makes the Orks look positively cultured - their bionics are crude and bulky, their FTL-capable spacecraft are powered by unshielded nuclear reactors instead of plasma drives, while the aliens themselves seem to be little more than extremely violent, Chaos-worshiping beasts. It's hinted that they are merely the pawns of some other power that presumably uplifted them.
  • A few societies in Exalted are in this boat, most notably the Realm, and to a lesser extent Lookshy in the Scavenger Lands. Both societies have control of significant amounts of technology left over from the Old Realm, but this technology requires a degree of infrastructural sophistication that can't be maintained without the oversight of the Solar Exalted. The Realm embraces this fact, and its power is largely built on ancient Ancestral Weapons while the average peasant grows rice in the fields. Lookshy tries to avert this, and much of their society is organized around maintaining their tech and even building new stuff. To the extent that this trope applies to them, it's because they still have lots of Black Box technology that they could never hope to replicate - their culture has adapted to work with most of the Magitek that they use.
  • In the Dark Sun setting of Dungeons & Dragons, the civilized halflings have actually lost most of their life-shaping technology (though it is still miraculous to anyone else). They can still replicate life-shaped tools and creatures, but only in a ritualized manner, much like using a cookbook for doing advanced chemistry when you don't know anything about chemistry, but still having it work.
  • In Traveller, the Aslan are a Proud Warrior Race with little social organization above the "clan" level. They somehow developed Jump drive and became a major race, it's been suggested often that they reverse-engineered it from one of the "true" major races.
  • In BattleTech the Successor States don't know how the Lost Technology they rely upon, most notable Faster-Than-Light Travel, works or how to replicate it. In a twist they're more or less the same civilization that invented them, it's just that most people who knew how it worked died in the first Succession War. In a subversion the Clans have a culture that seems like it would fit bronze age warriors (as opposed to the Successor's feudalism) but they know how their technology works (or at least their scientist caste does) and have even improved upon what the Inner Sphere considers "Lostech".
  • One of the many Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed to Do in an RPG is give feuding TL1 tribes TL12 weapons and post the results on Pay Per View.
  • This trope is one of the reasons suggested in 1001 Science Fiction Weapons for the OGL system, as a potential explanation for the existence of the many melee weapons in the book created with advanced technology, from regular swords made from alloys and composite materials far beyond modern technology to warhammers made out of hyperdense materials with a little antigravity motor inside in order to allow the use of little anime-esque schoolgirl characters wielding hammers that weigh five tons or more (they become unusable when the power runs out, as not so many sci-fi settings allow playable races that can lift that.) The idea being that advanced races develop these things for their more primitive hirelings who are more familiar with more primitive weapons but need a technological edge when it is uneconomical to train them with gun-shaped energy weapons, unlikely as that sounds. It also provides the rationale for many of the disposable weapons in the book; the "idiot guns" series are meant for warlords to issue to their Child Soldiers who can't read with a minimum of training (hence the pictorial instructions on the outside) resulting in not so much a gun as a claymore mine that is held onto, while the Liberator assault shotgun is an automatic shotgun meant to be dropped to rebel and extremist groups who can't be trusted to care for a firearm, for purposes of slaughtering many people as messily as possible, and therefore cannot be reloaded and may as well be tossed out when empty, as it doesn't make a very good club.

    Video Games 
  • The theocratic Covenant of Halo base most of their technology on Forerunner artifacts, and despite their copied tech being vastly inferior to the Forerunner originals, any attempt to even better understand it, much less actually improve it, runs the risk of being seen as blasphemy. It's gotten to the point where their grasp of Maxwell's equations is actually worse than that of humanity's.
    • While operating a captured Covenant ship, Cortana rewrites the firmware to make the ship's slow-moving plasma mortars shoot pinpoint focused ion beams. The native shipboard AI is so enraged by her simply fiddling with the settings that it accuses her of blasphemy and notes her changes as one of its chief grievances in a distress signal.
    • Even on a social level, many of the Covenant races are somewhat old-fashioned; the Elites live in a feudal society complete with serfdom, the Brutes and Grunts still organize themselves by clans and tribes, and the Jackals have no real governments of their own outside of the Covenant High Council, though it's worth noting that both the Jackals and Elites still managed to independently develop space colonization technologies not only back when humans were still using swords and bows, but before either of them ever began reverse-engineering Forerunner artifacts. And the only reason the Elites did the last part was because the Prophets were beating them badly with a single Forerunner Dreadnought, making them finally realized that they had to commit sacrilege and study the Forerunner relics in order to improve their tech to match the Prophets'.
  • In Mass Effect 2, Professor Mordin Solus refers to the "uplifting" of the Krogan as this.
    Mordin: Like giving nuclear weapons to cavemen.
    • Technically applies to all races in the setting, since they are purposefully manipulated from trying to explore or understand the technology and principles behind the Citadel and the Mass Relays. Before the Protheans altered the Keepers to prevent them opening the hidden Mass Relay built into the Citadel itself, millions of years worth of Cycles ended with the Reapers showing up and taking control of the Citadel, locking down the Mass Relays and declaring Game Over to the entire galaxy.
    • Humanity freely admits that discovering the Prothean archives on Mars jumped their technology level ahead over 200 years. Upon their entry to the galactic scene they were roughly on par with the turians in term of technology development, despite having only having mass effect technology for 11 years at that point, while the turians had possessed it for little over a millennium.
  • Fallout:
    • Every game is like this, with only a few of the most advanced factions (Brotherhood of Steel, Enclave) actually understanding any technology more complicated than basic firearms and explosives, although other factions do utilise them, thanks to it being a Scavenger World.
      • And all of the factions who understand the technology selfishly guard it because of the advantage it gives them. In Fallout games with a crafting system, this allows the player to become a Badass Bookworm.
    • Applies to the Pre-War society as well. Even in 2077, with an abundance of futuristic technology at their disposal, America (and perhaps the entire world) remained culturally locked in the 1950s. An idealized 50s with full racial and sexual equality, admittedly, but still the 50s.
    • In Fallout: New Vegas, due to House's machinations the Mojave was spared the worst of the Great War, allowing for a lot of advanced technology to survive the collapse of civilisation. Later he would "civilise" three tribes into governing his casinos, while he himself maintained New Vegas' independence from NCR annexation by using his Securitron army to prevent any attempt to take over the Strip.
    • Taken to new heights in the Fallout: New Vegas add-on ''Honest Hearts." The entire reason the plot is in motion is because the White Legs tribe were given automatic weapons by Ulysses, as well as a huge store of ammunition and the knowledge of how to clean them. The White Legs are otherwise a stone age civilization, yet their "storm-drummers" have tommy guns.
  • The Skedar from Perfect Dark, who have spaceships and cloning technology but no culture to speak of besides warfare and violence.
  • Somewhat the case involving the Pieces of Eden in Assassin's Creed, although by the time of Revelations (the fourth main game) the Abstergo Industries articles given to Abstergo Industries' secret insiders reveal that they knew a lot more about the Pieces than was let on in the first game.
  • Shown in passing in Mortal Kombat 9, with Kano supplying modern weaponry to the Tarkata who clearly have no idea how to use them. One nearly blew their own head off by curiously looking down its barrel.
  • Analogue: A Hate Story: The people living aboard the Generation Ship Mugunghwa have somehow degraded culturally into something resembling Joseon-era Korea. It's implied that none of them understand the principles of how the ship works, or know anything about astronomy.
  • In Wings of Dawn, this is the case for the Nordera. Their spaceship technology is crude and primitive compared to the other species' (it works, but only just), but even that much was given to them by the Hertak. On their own, the Nordera had gotten about as far as discovering large-scale metalwork and explosives.
  • The Cuotl in Rise of Legends is a Mayincatec empire ruled by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens. Their warriors give off a distinct Stargate feel. Their battle dress looks similar to that worn by Jaffa, and they wield energy weapons shaped as staffs.
  • Humanity itself in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, where you spend the game furiously reverse-engineering alien tech just enough to know what it does and how to build more of it. Justified by humanity being at war, fighting against extinction or enslavement. Your R&D teams seem pretty confident that, given time, they could take the tech all the way apart and learn how it works. For now, though, "here's a new gun, it shoots plasma, we can build it, ASK QUESTIONS LATER" is pretty solid tactics. That being said, XCOM's Chief Engineer Dr. Shen openly states his fears about pretty much this trope coming into action after the war.
    • It's implied in some of the fluff that this is true for at least one enemy race; Mutons apparently have some kind of tattoos or ritual scarification, which combined with their observed behaviour in combat (including some sort of war chant) leads Dr Vahlen to theorise that they're some kind of tribal society forcibly uplifted as Mooks.
  • In Final Fantasy X the population of Spira has existed for a thousand years under the control of an anti-technology theocracy. People do not understand how what little advanced technology they have access to even works. The Al Bhed tribe actively salvages and studies advanced technology and are deemed heretics for their trouble. Even with their better understanding of engineering principles, the have learned almost everything through painstaking reverse-engineering and still don't understand how some of their most advanced technology (i.e.: flying ships) works.
  • Starbound has Avians, who received spacefaring technology from a precursor race, and yet still have priest-castes and human... well, avian sacrifices to their god, with atheism being a crime. So, you have Mayincatec Bird People in space.
    • Much, much worse are the Florans, a race of tribalistic, flesh-eating Plant Aliens who somehow managed to reverse-engineer a crashed avian spaceship and subsequently became a menace to the galaxy, going so far as to drive the Hylotl from their own homeworld. It's only recently that SOME of them are beginning to understand the concept of sentient animal life and the value thereof. Expect the occasional tasteless remark.
  • Throughout The Legend of Zelda, the plot has involved several technologically advanced civilizations in the distant past who either disappeared or lost their knowledge of their tech, leaving the advanced artifacts behind for Link and others to figure out and use:
    • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: the unnamed civilization in the Lanayru Desert region had built large industrial complexes that produced mining facilities, advanced ships, "Time Stones" capable of locally shifting time, and intelligent autonomous robots maintaining them all. But their unchecked expansion led to the desertification of what was once a region of lush fields and seas and the collapse of their civilization. By the time Link arrives there, he must use the Time Stones in order to shift time back to when things were still functional, and even then he must rely on the robots to work some of the more complex devices.
    • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: at a time when Hyrule produced many advanced technologies, the Sheikah decided to develop a variety of high-tech Magitek tools to help the future Hero fight Ganon: the Divine Beasts, the Guardians, the Shrines, and the Sheikah Slate. Millennia later, when a less advanced Hyrule unearths these things in preparation for Ganon's imminent return, they set up the Divine Beasts and Guardians and try to decipher the Shrine entrances and the Sheikah Slate's runes. They actually do pretty well in putting these artifacts to use, but the fact that Ganon had turned into an Eldritch Abomination capable of possessing the Divine Beasts and Guardians and turning them against Hyrule was a major unforeseen factor.
  • Might and Magic VII: This turns out to be a hinge point in the conflict between the two groups of eight mysterious visitors once their origins are revealed — they're the protagonists if III, so while they have acquired an impressive knowledge of Ancient technology, they're still using technology far beyond their cultural background and with limited knowledge outside how to repair and use the machinery. Half recognise this, and want to keep looking for the Ancients on the logic the people who actually built the things in the first place would be far more capable at uplifting their lost colonies. The other half... wants to take over the world. They try to spin it as uplifting where they are instead of keeping on looking for a civilisation that might be long gone, but their actions and less restrained dialogue make clear they mostly just want to rule as kings.
  • RimWorld plays this both forwards and backwards, as the background concept is that on any given rim world there are distinct cultures that interact with each other but are nonetheless living at very different tech levels. In game terms, your own faction begins at either "tribal" or "colony" (space-faring but stranded) level, which dictates which technologies on the extensive tech tree will be pre-learned. Anybody can use the products of any technology (e.g., scavenged weapons, advanced medicines bought from a trader), but to make something yourself may require research—a lot of research. It works both ways, in that beginning at a higher tech level leaves some more primitive techs locked, and actually puts you at a disadvantage when you try to research them. For example, colonist types have forgotten how to brew beer.

  • In Jix the Ambis acquired much of their advanced tech from another species who tried to invade their homeworld.

    Web Original 
  • One SCP is a pair of hillbilly Feuding Families stuck in a Forever War with random weapons, sometimes primitive, sometimes futuristic.
  • In the AlternateHistory.com story MalÍ Rising, the Kingdom of the Arabs (OTL's southern Algeria), a sparsely-populated desert state, suddenly finds itself flush with money upon the discovery of oil. The nomadic way of life and traditional social structures that prevailed before oil begin to break down as young people head to the boom towns, producing crime and unrest. As a result, the government starts heavily subsidizing the remaining nomads to prevent further flight to the oil towns (and all that that brings with it), leading to the evolution of a nomadic lifestyle of luxurious RVs and shopping and entertainment brought to them by motor caravans.

    Western Animation 
  • Justice League: At one point, two time-traveling Thanagarians crash landed into Ancient Egypt. They couldn't get home, so they spent their days giving technology to the nearby villagers. Naturally the village became a grand kingdom within a generation. The people never learned how to make the tools though - only use them - and when the aliens died, the society collapsed pretty quickly.
  • The Homeworld Gems from Steven Universe are extremely advanced, forming an intergalactic empire with faster than light travel and instantaneous communication across galaxies. They also have no concept of art or music, and have actually declined culturally over the last thousand years.

    Real Life 
  • When it was in power, the Third Reich was regarded as this trope embodied, by British and Francophone sources on one side and by the educated classes of German society on the other. German society before the Nazis had been very classist, playing on conservatism, modesty, classical German culture, Catholic and Protestant religion, and established social relationships. The Nazis, however, disregarding the British proverb which said "it takes 3 years to build a ship, but 300 years to build a tradition", judged everything by power as the universal medicine. They could build advanced weapons and industrial machinery, motorways, modern architecture, and public TV stations, and for this reason they felt no obligation to listen to anyone else. They could afford to disregard entirely the evolution of culture and arts before them, and throw anything not suited to their ideology into the garbage as "degenerate and Jewish art".

    There was no surprise in the fact they were hated for it and treated like primitives suddenly endowed with power and technology. The nouveau riche attitude of the political leadership, with men like Robert Ley, Christian Weber, and Hermann Goering ruling their departments and flaunting their wealth like Mafia bosses, only made things worse. In more practical terms, the Nazis took the same attitude to Jewish scientists like Albert Einstein and rejected their research in favor of promoting hare-brained ideas in physics and other fields simply because non-Jewish Germans came up with them. Among the results of that bigotry were that many of those scientists fled to nations like Britain and the United States, which gave them the advantage of the skilled personnel needed to develop nuclear weapons.note 
  • Global commerce can cause this too, with societies that have cell phones with more computing power than was available to put humans on the moon, who also still have chunky water.
  • Also kind of a hobby of most of the major powers in the Cold War, who were arming their various Third World allies with ultra-modern weaponry in an effort to stymie the other side. Of course, after the Cold War ended most of those alliances fell apart, leaving a lot of guns in some rather questionable hands.
  • Political scientist Basam Tibi termed the desire of fundamentalist organizations or societies to gain access to sophisticated technology (especially weaponry) while totally avoiding any social modernization whatsoever "the dream of incomplete modernity".
  • The idea that humanity in general is Low Culture, High Tech is a common thread of many primitivist and anti-industrial thinkers.
    • This was a key part of the ideology of Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber. In his manifesto, he alleged that the behaviors and social organization needed to run a modern industrial society clashed with basic human instincts written by thousands of years of natural selection, producing most of the social ills of the modern world in the process. Therefore, he felt that humanity was biologically unsuited to any mode of organization and technology more advanced than hunter-gatherers, and used this as justification to launch a terrorist campaign aimed at airlines, universities, and industrial and high-tech concerns.
  • Let's just say, this trope + modern weaponry = Very Bad Things. Most horrible example ever? World War II.
  • Korean (and to a lesser extent, Chinese and Japanese) culture can be considered this when it comes to aviation, with the highly hierarchical "respect your elders" Confucian-influenced culture being in some cases lethal in airplanes. The co-pilot has to double check everything the captain does and vice versa, yet co-pilots often are afraid to correct their captain's mistakes, as the captain is their elder. This has actually led to crashes. Korean Air has acknowledged this and is attempting to fix the problem with new pilot training.
    • American ex-military junior pilots sometimes also have this problem. They are among the best in the world technically, but they can occasionally fall back on their conditioning to respect a chain of command.
    • Conversely it's sometimes said that the safest co-pilot to have in the cockpit is an Australian, because they are culturally least likely to recognise any hierarchy except that of professional competence, and are thus more likely than any other nationality to tell an erroneous Captain what he's doing wrong.
    • This was likely the cause behind the horrific double-Jumbo crash in Tenerife in the 1970s, still the worst in aviation history. The captain responsible was THE public face of KLM as well as being one of the senior flight instructors, and he seems to have bullied the co-pilot (whose job hung in part on his captain's approval) into accepting an airways clearance as a takeoff clearance (when the airport was bedecked in fog and a Pan Am 747 was taxiing up the runway, unseen, in front of him). The rest is history.
  • The internet. Especially when in the midst of a Flame War. Lampshaded here.
  • What happens when traditional "sons, not daughters" societies as in the Middle East, India and China gain access to prenatal gender testing and abortion? Well despite laws actively trying to prevent it, the birth ratio is as skewed as 100 male to 90 female newborns in some places. If there were no laws against it, the ratio would probably be even worse. China, in particular, has a massive problem with this in that there is now a whole industry build around human trafficking and forcefully marriage.
  • This is in some ways how Karl Marx defined capitalism. Humanity has developed to universally fulfill needs, but the culture, government, and organization of society had not caught up to the sheer ability to produce and provide for those needs in spite of that. So a revolutionary change must be made in order to bring human society up to the standards that technology and industry make possible.
  • The fundamentalist terrorist group Islamic State (aka ISIS/ISIL/whatever) has access to modern weaponry (assault rifles, missile launchers, explosives, even some stolen tanks), yet their beliefs in regards to women's rights, LGBT rights, science, etc. are straight out of the Dark Ages, as they take a very, very literal reading of the quran (which results in most of the victims of their reign of terror being other Muslims with more moderate views, since to ISIS, these folks are just doing it wrong).