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Which technologies or ideas should survive civilization collapse?

  1. Nov 3, 2012 #1
    Let's assume:
    - we have standard civilization collapse (let's ignore the reasons, but assume that whatever the event was it devastated everything quickly and there are no serious additional lingering effects like significant fallout)
    - there is low amount of remaining people and they are somewhat scattered
    - there are few remaining artefacts (at least few working remaining artefacts)
    - there was a period (at least two generations) during which the majority had to become hunter gatherers by default

    Which technologies (ideas) would be easy to preserve?

    My first idea what would matter and is easy to preserve (even in long run as religious commandment / taboo) is hygiene. It would matter a lot, does not require high tech and everyone knows about it.

    Rhythm method?
    Alphabet??? (a bit trickier, but phonetic alphabet is useful and it is knowledge that practically everyone has)
    Evolution and Mendelian genetics?
    Contemporary astronomy (including big bang) preserved as equivalent of tribal creation myth?
    Democracy?/Codecs of law? (Of course in simplified version or at least mentioning it legends of perfect ;) past)
    Domestication of animals and plants? (or attempts to restore this procedure)

    Any other ideas?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 3, 2012 #2


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    Definitely a scenario where this t-shirt would come in handy.

    I think you're definitely right about hygiene. I'd add to the list:

    - Germ theory
    - Basic metallurgy
    - Non-technological agriculture
    - Evolution (handy for selective breeding of crops and animals)
    - Carpentry
    - Basic principles of the industrial revolution e.g. standardisation, production lines
    - Reading and writing so that any recovered books can be learnt from
    - Mixing the last few together the importance of publishing ideally with a press but if not then with a scribe/scholar class

    With things like this hopefully it will only take a few centuries to get back to a contemporary level of technology/industry/economy from a hunter gatherer state. This is a bit tangential to the question but something like the Open Source Ecology project simplified to take into account not having access to modern technology (with the exception of things that might be salvaged e.g. basic tools, metal from cars etc) would be a great thing to have around.
  4. Nov 3, 2012 #3
    Impressive link, thanks!
  5. Nov 7, 2012 #4
    As Ryan tentatively mentioned, a lot hinges on what happens to books, it seems to me. Realistically, I'd expect any disaster which leaves a non-negligible number of people alive to leave a fairly complete corpus of technical literature intact in any given region - undergraduate textbook level, at the very least. After all, books are perhaps a bit less tough than people in the short term, but also a lot less fragile in the medium and long term, since they don't need to metabolize to stick around.

    If that's so, as long as basic literacy is preserved, the theoretical side of things is readily available for re-acquisition once things settle down and immediate survival needs no longer dominate everyday life. Most of the practical side of things will unavoidably be lost once the original survivor generation starts to die out, but having either one of the two sides means you're a lot more than halfway there, I'm thinking.

    If you manage to find a handwave that explains why hardly any books did make it through, the question becomes a lot more interesting. I really can't think of anything remotely plausible for that, though.
  6. Nov 7, 2012 #5


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    It all depends on the nature of the disaster, who and how many people survive and how long it is after but I think that most books wouldn't get you more than halfway. My reasoning is that text books are generally written with the assumption that the reader has:
    • A certain level of background knowledge on the subject
    • Other resources that can explain further what the book does not go into
    • At least one professional in the subject with the ability to teach
    Like I said it all depends but I imagine that a post-civilisation-destroying-disaster-society would for a long time be concerned with basic survival. They'd likely try to set up shelter in an old settlement and spend their time maintaining, savaging and growing crops to the best of their ability. If they find any old technology they'd like to try and fix and get running without an expert it's going to be quite difficult to do even with textbooks. Admittedly quicker than not but still quite slow.

    There are two good ideas for a story there: one focusing on such a society in which there are members whose sole job is to read all these books from the past and try to make sense of them and another in which, owing to foreknowledge of the disaster there is a society in possession of a library designed to teach laymen with no prior knowledge and without expert help.
    I can think of a few things that might make books rare and inaccessible. The first is that due to most people dying the vast majority of buildings go unmaintained. Over time windows will break, walls will crack, damp/animals/plants will get in etc. Most books aren't kept in dry sealed rooms so will likely suffer damage because of this. The second is a question of time and literacy. If the first generation spends most of their time holding things together and the second helping them then by the third or forth being able to read could be a rare thing or at least something not regularly practised. Remember for the most part these people won't have any use for any advanced technical knowledge. It could take them generations to build up their population numbers to the point where they could start a Victorian era industrial revolution and then they'd have had to spread out enough to have found many of the natural resources they are going to need.
  7. Nov 7, 2012 #6
    I started thinking about me reading something technical that I have no knowledge about in let's say Russian. It wouldn't be an automatic failure, though it would be tricky, time consuming and I would end up only with partial understanding. So taking some scattered around books it would give civilization some edge in random places where something understandable was preserved.

    Think about it - you lead an excavation aimed at retrieving lost technological knowledge... and you end up with stack of well preserved love story books... ;)

    No seriously - think about popularity of certain books and amount of books that are simultaneously:
    -easy to understand for non expert;
    -contain applicable knowledge;
    among the whole "population" of books.
  8. Nov 7, 2012 #7


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    True, ordinary homes would not be a great place to look for helpful literature (although it might be worth sending a few scavenger crews around from time to time. A great place to move to would probably be a university campus. Huge libraries and buildings with all sorts of diverse tools. You still might have the problem of loss of tacit knowledge and not having an expert to help but there's no other places I can think of that would be better.
  9. Nov 7, 2012 #8
    Metallurgy would still exist, Artificial Selection would be around for the start of farming, Germ Theory would stay intact mostly, and I believe that anything associated with industry would most likely survive (factory lines, etc).
  10. Nov 9, 2012 #9
    Yes, that's all I meant by "a lot more than halfway there". It took historical hunter-gatherer culture millenia to go from becoming sedentary to utilitizing basic technology (that is to say, the kind that doesn't require supporting technology for the manufacture of the components it uses), like waterwheels and windmills. These hypothetical future hunter-gatherers, assuming they have retained sufficient abstract thinking skills and literacy, could duplicate that feat in mere decades, if they had a book describing the fundamentals, I'd guess. Inventing something new is orders of magnitude harder than re-engineering something that you already understand in theory, even if that understanding is rather vague.

    That's a good point, I was mostly thinking in terms of the minimum times mentioned in the OP. Then again, it wouldn't require an excessive amount of effort for the original survivor generation to assemble a library of technical literature within their lifetimes and to instruct their descendants to, and how to, preserve it as well as possible. Eventually, either that injunction would be forgotten or the paper would start to disintegrate even so, but that relatively simple step extends the number of generations you've got to play with before the regression becomes irreversible significantly (as much as an order of magnitude, I'd think).

    I don't get the "Russian" analogy - why would there be a language barrier? Does the collapse somehow scatter the survivors far abroad?

    All of the specific ideas mentioned upthread, and a whole lot more besides, can be gleaned from any good encyclopedia. In Western Europe, most estate houses (which would be among the most worthwhile places to go for salvage in any case) have a 20+ volume Britannica, or its national equivalents, as part of their "default interior decoration", to put it somewhat condescendingly. Those have well-crafted bindings, too, which ought to add to their longevity in the face of exposure, compared to the bulk of fiction which is published as lower-quality paperbacks.
  11. Nov 10, 2012 #10
    I'm Polish who has been learning Russian for a few years. Given a while I can roughly understand a text in Russian. Actually very archaic Polish that I've been reading wasn't much easier to understand. (Factors: evolution of language + different set of common words + presumably such scholars would often lack some expected knowledge or cultural background)

    I absolutely agree that main ideas would be easy to preserve. It would save money on R&D projects aimed to learn how to transmute lead to gold. ;)

    They are better than I am. I merely have 6 volume PWN Encyclopaedia. However, general idea of fertilizers and the chemical formula is one thing, while ability to implement Haber process is another.
  12. Nov 10, 2012 #11
    Oh, okay. Now, the analogy makes a lot of sense. I guess I fell prey to anglocentric thinking there (and I'm not even a native speaker, either).


    Agreed. They'd be able to do some things much more easily than was the case for our ancestors, by recycling raw materials. No need to learn the finer points of metallurgy, for the time being, if there's already lots of high-quality scrap steel lying around all over the place, for example. Wherever that's not the case, they'd have to climb the technological slope all over again, they'd just be a lot quicker at it because they'd have a map to follow.
  13. Nov 10, 2012 #12


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    Something that's worth thinking about is that there are few references materials for topics that don't rely heavily on the reader being in a technological society. Books on modern metallurgy for example wont necessarily start with how to make a clay kiln. So what might be most useful for a small group that has survived a collapse of civilisation are books that discuss iron age methods of living. In my room I noticed I have a book of essential bushcraft that would probably be the most useful of all my books because it assumes you've got little more than your hands and a wood before teaching how to build basic tools and shelters.
  14. Nov 14, 2012 #13
    How fast did the mass of books circulating in Roman Empire disappear?

    After fall of Rome, basic literacy remained - for relatively limited number of clerks and scribes, whereas the majority of nobles and rulers were illiterate, let alone commoners. And Roman literacy was alphabetic.

    After the fall of Mycenean civilization, all literacy did disappear.

    Note that in the dark ages after Mycenean fall, plant and animal domestication did remain.

    How many cases of disappearance of plant and animal domestication can be presented?
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