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An Analysis of Tech Levels

Editor's note: This article was originally posted to the Freelance Traveller web site in 1999, and was printed in the December 2010 issue of the magazine as a response to some relevant discussion on one of the Traveller forums.

The standard "Miller Scale" of technological development (the familiar Tech Levels) is a hexadecimal scale of zero to 15, covering the spectrum from no technology to the most advanced generally found in the Third Imperium. These sixteen Tech Levels break down into four main "ages", divided by "plateaus".

A "plateau" is a stopping point of technological development, where a civilization can hold at a "steady-state" for an extended period of time with little or no advancement.

In addition, Tech Levels 0-9 have common names from Terran history; these are given in parentheses. (It says something about human motivation in technological progress that many of these tech levels are named after wars.)

Pre-industrial: TLs 0-3

TL 0 Stone Age
TL 1 Bronze Age or Ancient
TL 2 Iron Age or Medieval
TL 3 Renaissance to Napoleonic

The Tech 3 Plateau

Over nine out of ten civilizations never progress beyond TL 3 on their own. By the time a civilization reaches this plateau, the nobles have everything pretty much the way they like it, and view any change as a threat. (The classic illustration from Terran history is Imperial China, where TL4 technological innovations always got lost in the immense bureaucracy.)

The slow pace of technology up to this point leads to static paradigms such as the "Great Chain of Being", where everything in existence has its proper (and permanent) place -- "the serf in his hovel and the lord in his castle". A society at the Tech 3 Plateau literally cannot think in terms of technology or progress -- the vast bulk of the population is too busy surviving each day subsistence-farming and the nobles (and other educated classes) have more important things to think about (like who has the most toys, who's court favorite this week, struggle for the throne with dagger and poison, or proper calligraphy in triplicate on all forms).

Introducing higher tech from outside often causes major problems. The civilization usually attempts to graft on the high-tech goodies (with priority to toys for the nobles and weapons to take over the neighboring nobles' holdings) without changing anything else (especially trying to keep their social system completely intact -- example "The Enlightenment of Pagett, M.P." by Rudyard Kipling, late 19th Century C.E.). The resulting strain usually cracks the society completely, after a period of "gravs, fusion, and peasants in mud huts plowing behind draft animals" familiar to all Travellers to low-tech worlds.

A textbook example of a world/culture stuck at the Tech 3 Plateau with outside high-tech coming in after contact is Gennare during and after the Long Night.

Industrial Age: TLs 4-7

The dividing line between TL 3 and 4 is an "Industrial Revolution", a technological breakthrough and paradigm shift where:

At this point, technological progress becomes synergistic, leading to a rapid advance in Tech Levels:

TL 4 Victorian
TL 5 World War 1
TL 6 World War 2
TL 7 Early Cold War/Vietnam War

The Tech 7 Plateau

The dividing line between TL 7 and 8 is the development of solid-state electronics. Without this, only the simplest automation is possible; a live pilot remains the best all-around control system; and limited/bulky/expensive compute power generally slows development. One effect of the latter is that TL 7 effectively forbids Jump Drive, owing to the massive compute power required for controlled Jump entry and navigation.

This does not mean that spaceflight is impossible; a civilization stuck at TL7 can have quite an extensive in-system presence, especially if they have been at this plateau for some time. Space travel at the TL7 Plateau is best described as "Gernsbackian", a word of unknown origin. Spacecraft would be reaction-propelled "rocket ships" (including nuclear-fission and nuclear or solar-powered ion drives) with "hands-on" pilots and navigation calculations done by specialized electromechanical or vacuum-tube computers or the ubiquitous "slide rule". Space stations (usually spinning "ring" or "doughnut" configurations) would be small by Third Imperium standards, and serve as way stations instead of permanent settlements ("sky-cities"). Permanent off-world settlements would be in the form of domed colonies on other in-system worlds, more like outposts instead of true colonies. Space weaponry would be primarily missiles, with kinetic-kill guns for short ranges. Maintaining such a TL7 space presence is expensive; those few who venture off-world ("astronauts" or "cosmonauts") often have heroic, almost mythic status.

Time spent at the Tech 7 Plateau allows the society time to absorb the advances up to this point, giving them a stable foundation for the next age's even-more-rapid advances. A common paradigm of the time is the exact opposite of that of the Tech 3 Plateau -- that technology will continue to advance at an ever-increasing pace unto infinity; stalling against the limits of TL 7 restores some perspective. The Solomani of Terra(Sol) -- the original humans -- lucked out discovering semiconductors early on, missing the Tech 7 Plateau completely. Unfortunately, they later discovered the Scout Service proverb -- "The less time you spend at the Tech 7 Plateau, the harder you hit the one at Tech 11!" -- the hard way.

Information Age: TLs 8-11

Tech Level 8 is defined as the paradigm shift caused by the development of solid-state electronics, where:

TL 8 Late Cold War/ Desert Storm
TL 9 Y2K
TL 10
TL 11

The Tech 11 Plateau

This Tech plateau is more subtle and arbitrary than the previous plateaus. The dividing line between TL11 & 12 is purely a paradigm shift, where the civilization starts thinking in terms of the interstellar community rather than the homeworld and secondary outposts/colonies -- outward-looking to the planets and stars instead of always limited to the homeworld.

A common symptom of this plateau is the "Cyberpunk Syndrome", where the specialization of and dependence on information technologists/specialists turns them into a secret society of magicians and priests in all but name, too involved in Cyberspace to even acknowledge the existence of physical reality; neo-nobles attempt to control the information flow (by manipulating the information specialists) and use surveillance technology to block any threats to their status quo (i.e. "Who dies with the most toys wins") in a repeat of the Tech 3 Plateau, while the society at large flees "information overload" into entertainment, amusing itself into inward-looking stasis using virtual reality technology ("Holodeck Syndrome"). It normally takes a violent external cause to shake a civilization out of this trap.

Interstellar Age: TLs 12-15

This are the ruling Tech Levels of the Imperium familiar to all Travellers -- a network of worlds connected by Jumpspace.


The Tech 15 Plateau

Few civilizations advance beyond TL 15. At this point the "information overload" reaches the saturation point for organic brains, regardless of the amount of cybernetic assist. (The "Firehose Into the Teacup" limit.) Advances beyond this point are usually minor, piecemeal, and fragile, dropping back to TL 15 on a regular basis.

Size also matters. To keep a civilization the size of the Third Imperium from shattering, interstellar society must become extremely stable, leading to a damping effect on innovation similar but not so extreme as the Tech 3 and 11 Plateaus. In combination with the above "information saturation", this seems to have braked Imperial civilzation at TL 15; presumably, an alternate civilization of smaller "pocket empires" would be more dynamic.

"Tech 16"

The best-known TL 16 civilizations (such as the Darrians, an archetypal "pocket empire") incorporate only minor detail improvements over TL 15. Beyond this, there is only speculation and the Ancients. Further confusing the issue is the common use of "Tech 16" as a generic term for anything higher tech than the Imperium, from Darrians to Ancients.

Estimates of such ultra-technology (the theoretical TLs of 17-20) postulate faster and more controllable starship drives, improved artificial intelligence (to the point of full sentience), widespread antimatter power, massive use of nanotechnology and geneering, practical technological teleportation, and cheap and easy "replication" of any inanimate object from raw energy (using applications of the teleportation technology). Any civilization incorporating these advances would probably be so different as to be unrecognizable -- "evolved beyond" anything comprehensible to an outsider.