Understanding Technological Decay


Years ago, there was a PBS special by James Burke called "Connections" about the interconnectedness of things here in the modern world. At the beginning of the series, he states that if it all were to go away, man would have to revert to the simplest technology, the plow, to survive. If the viewer were to take the proposition purely at face value, he’d conclude "Oh my God, I don’t know how to plow anything, we’d all be dead!". I’m not sure if it was Mr. Burke’s intention to frighten the viewer with this prospect. If it were the case that "if something were to happen, we’d immediately have to go right back to the most basic technology", then we modern people would have a very high investment indeed in the world that we have created, so we had better not question any of it! After all, if one tiny thing would be different….down it could all come like a house of cards, and everybody will be dead within a few weeks.

Contrast this with another more fictional work of the media, the Mad Max series of films. Throughout these you get to see conditions become more and more primitive over time. As more advanced technology falls into disrepair, what’s left over is modified, salvaged, and pressed into service once again. So which of these scenarios would be more accurate?

To understand technological decay we’ll first have to understand how technological progress works. A task exists that requires human labor of some sort to be profitable not only in the monetary sense, but in the sense of delivering a necessary good (such as food) the human population. A machine is invented essentially as a labor saving device. Instead of cultivating fields by hand, humans now have a plow to hitch to oxen, allowing fewer people to successfully conduct the task, and faster than the old way to boot. This new technology is continually revamped by human creativity to allow fewer and fewer people to do more work in less and less time. This leaves more humans with more time to pursue leisure activities such as education, which leads to a larger industrial base, which refines and accelerates the process even more. Soon steam tractors do the work, then fossil fuel powered ones do it, etc. This is progress. Technology is primarily a labor and time saving device.

As new technologies replace the old, the old items are left by the wayside, falling into disrepair and disuse. Often, such as in the case of the modern automobile, before it’s full useful life is realized. It is the rare individual who "drives it ‘til it drops". A point is reached where actual new-ground-breaking innovation becomes less frequent. I cannot speculate here why this is, perhaps some sort of point of diminishing returns is reached, perhaps something else. The prime example of this in modern times is the same dogged fossil-fuel-powered automobile. Why not some other fuel that would be more efficient in terms of the needs of the society that adopts it? But I digress…

Lacking new innovation, new products still have to be brought to market, so the makers will add numerous "bells and whistles" to their new product, or simply make them look different and more fashionable, though it really doesn’t add much to their basic function. Soon, parts are designed to last only a specific length of time. Planned obsolescence becomes the rule of the day, and disrepair and disposability gets built into the process of technological/industrial advancement.

Occasionally, some new groundbreaking innovation does indeed occur, and it usually takes some time before it is perfected and mainstreamed throughout the industrial base. This could have the effect of synergistically making many technologies even more efficient in their basic functions, or may simply add more "bells and whistles".

Now that we’ve built ourselves up, let’s kick out a few of the foundations of our technological base and see what happens – enter, THE DISASTER ! This could be anything from the now rather "traditional" nuclear war scenario to a more "exotic" scenario of a regional "brain drain" of the educated class via forced emigration by a dictatorial regime. I’ll leave it up to your fertile imaginations.

The way the disaster impacts the society the most is by killing or otherwise getting rid of it’s members, that ever-important educated labor pool that maintains the machines that keep the technological end of that society running. This has the short-term advantage of having fewer mouths to feed, but is devastating to that society’s technological capabilities.
Though it is true in theory that increasingly efficient technologies require fewer people to run the system, reality teaches differently. For example, how much paper does the modern "paperless" office use/waste? The laws of diminishing returns and unintended consequences seem to be rearing their ugly heads again, despite socialist fantasies of machines eventually being able to run everything, leaving mankind to an eternity of endless intellectual advancement (and  boredom). But, back to the task at hand…..

So do we now immediately go back to the hand plow? No, probably not. Once made, technological items don’t just disappear into thin air. The availability of left-over technological items will be based on the nature of the disaster, of course. These items will be a valuable resource for those with the know-how of how to repair and maintain them, though to the ignorant they would be only appear to be so much useless rubble.

In this example, let’s take a disaster that leaves us unable to get any fossil fuels. The good old automobile from our previous example becomes an immobile hulk. Those with the creativity, ingenuity, and motivation to carry it out might try their hand at converting their autos to some other fuel system that can be supported better, such as methane, propane, alcohol, etc. But instead of merely resorting to the most primitive mode of transportation, walking or running, people will most likely resort to modes of transportation that preceded their current technological wonders, such as steam power or coal. Then, as those those "engines of a former age" wore out, they might get from one place to the other via bicycles or on horseback. They could go from automobiles right to horses, skipping the intermediate step if resources for this were not available. Of course, walking would still be done. It has been the poor man’s mode of transport throughout the ages. Don’t get me wrong here, it’s just that those with an advantage, even if only temporary, will use it as long as they possibly can.

So what would this mean for a post-apocalyptic society?

Individuals with the know-how of the technologies of the current or past ages could become extremely valuable. The material resources to carry out industry would as well. Even raw information in book form (along with the skill of literacy) could literally become worth its weight in gold. This could be quite a source of conflict between post-apocalyptic communities. For example, individuals with practical scientific, industrial, or even historical knowledge might be actively recruited to communities of banded-together survivors. At first anyway. As people grow more desperate, more direct methods might be used, such as kidnapping, theft, or even outright warfare for a particular piece of workable technology.

Those on the bottom rungs of society's ladder with skill sets that would now be considered "dubious" (such as criminals) will find the civilization keeping them in check gone, leaving them with more power than they had before. Power that they won't know how to handle or turn to any constructive use.  Those without the skills relevant to the new environment could find themselves on the bottom of the new "social order". This may be deal quite a blow to the ego of those who formerly commanded attention and obedience. In desperation, they may resort also to the methods of desperate men throughout the ages: piracy, banditry, and warlordism. Some may commit cruel atrocities simply to re-assert their former sense of power. These individuals will pose yet another threat to those with (limited) resources and the know-how to maintain them.

Plenty has been written on that already, so enough of this dire picture….

There may be some communities who, realizing the situation that they’re in, develop a workable plan for effectively using the resources they have at hand. If disuse and disrepair can be planned into technological progression via planned obsolescence, perhaps the natural wearing-out process of machines can be staved off for a time with similar creative planning.

One of the ways disaster wrecks havoc in human societies is due to rapid changes that people must undergo in order to survive. Some cannot adapt as quickly as the new conditions call for. This rapidity and it's lethal effect is essentially what makes a disaster a "disaster", rather than simply being a "change".  Those that don’t adapt effectively to the new conditions die in the "secondary kill" of the disaster. 

Remember in previous paragraphs where it was said that technology is a labor and time saving tool? If they were designed to save time, they can give it also.

A post-apocalyptic community could develop a plan to maintain a critical piece of technology, but with the deliberate knowledge that eventually this item will break down. This time is then spent researching an alternative to their current system, quite possibly a previous-era technology if the available resources allow it, one that can be supported by easier means given their situation. Then, when the item finally does break down, the new system has been thoroughly worked out and is already in place. The result: minimal or no interruptions in the delivery of the necessary goods. As this back-up system is working, a second or even third or fourth alternative could be explored.

The net result of this is that the community has more time effectively plan for an unknown future and condition themselves to the new environment. It would mean survival for more of their own by lessening the rapidity of change and quite possibly a higher set of living conditions than those who did not plan. Eventually it could even set them onto the road of further recovery and rebuilding. They may also have more time to hone and preserve their own moral and ethical sensibilities, though these would probably have to be toughened somewhat to adapt to new circumstances. But they may keep many more of their moral precepts rather than being forced into a corner and simply deciding to throw out all ethics out of ruthless necessity. It may allow them retain more of their humanity.

So as technology can be built up, it could effectively be "stepped down". It took planning and innovation to build it up, so the same would be required to reverse the process with an eye on maximizing the community’s survival prospects.

How to End the World:

Set your conditions for the "Inital Kill".  This is the disaster itself.  One roleplaying game that I know of went into great detail with this, having the player "destroy" the country with a soviet nuke strike.  Every bomb was rolled for to judge the individual effect.   This will kill off a certain percentage of your population.  You could go from the opposite end, and determine that you want, say, 90% of the population gone and then research the disaster that would do the job.  After this comes the "Secondary Kill" in which the initial kill survivors cannot meet the immediate demands of the new environment.   Kill off about half of whoever's left over.  This will give you a dark new pallette to paint your game world on.

In terms of game scenario and campaign design, which is what this article is about, you can use your normal gaming concepts of "tech level" and just reverse the process. You could probably even get away with skipping a tech level or two here and there depending on what you set up as the initial cataclysm. There are no guarantees that there is anybody around to build or service, say, a McCormick reaper or Steam Tractor after the Diesel powered one goes kaput. But you don’t have to immediately have the denizens of your former high-tech world go straight to the trusty old plow either.

I hope this has given you some food for thought when you design your post-apocalyptic campaign or game world. And in the contest of media works, Kennedy/Miller wins!

Have fun and good gaming!