How far is technological progress deterministic?

Imagine an alternate 21’s century. Say the world diverged around 1900. Assume the same rough overall rate of technological development. No golden age, nuclear war, collapse etc… How different would their technological landscape look to ours? Would they have discovered most of the same tech’s we have or would we have vastly different technologies and progress in different areas?

This question is a subset of the more general question: how far history is chaotic vs path-dependent. Is our civilization like a river flowing through a canyon, one set path with only minor short-term diversions possible, or like water flowing over a plain where even small changes in initial conditions can carve out different channels?

Some thoughts on what makes a tech highly prevalent vs only existing in some possible worlds

  • The "distance" or leap needed to reach a new tech from existing tech. Whether the core discoveries that make the tech possible are incremental and linked to existing knowledge or areas of study or one-off, random insights. (I think the internet may be an example of the latter. Not sure thought. Networks between devices were always going to be a thing Maybe a global network of some kind would have arisen naturally even without the nuclear war proof distributed system we got)
  • Whether the tech is gated behind various understandings in many fields or progress or requires one field only
  • Whether there is a clear an pressing problem that the tech solves or if the uses of the tech only become apparent after it is developed, sometimes decades after
  • Whether a tech is politicized or not. (e.g: Eugenics/selective-breeding in the west. We could breed super-geniuses, we don’t because it’s taboo to engage in selective breeding, even if it’s not coercive)

It’s clear that certain technologies would exist in most non dark age possible worlds. It’s clear that some subset of tech would not. I doubt MOBA’s would have been discovered in other timelines as their creation seems to be just so accidental.

Why does this matter?

  • It determines how much low-hanging technological fruit may be lying around, open for exploitation if we engage in creative institution design or some other kind of reform/experimentation
  • It determines how far we should expect to be able to predict what the tech of extra-terrestrial civilizations will look like. Often people think of ET’s in terms of an overall level of tech development and how their level will compare to ours. A different view is that tech isn’t like a beachball but like a sea urchin. Different civ’s can have radically different levels of knowledge in different fields. Maybe there exist aliens with amazing materials science but no computers or AI or any kind. Maybe there exist civs with no mathematics but excellent biological spaceships made from pure intuition. (The more likely outcome by far is a dead universe or one filled with optimized AI ish life expanding at the speed of light)

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