In Game of Thrones, their society dates back 8,000 years. Why have there been no advances in technology?
The simplest answer is their world is an amazingly harsh one in terms of weather, social challenges, political challenges and other environmental issues, including forces such as magic: pyromancy, divination, elemental mastery, shape-changing, and the potential to raise the dead! Not to mention, dragons which were once used as weapons of war.
Technology is definitely one of those things that is better developed when one is not freezing, under attack, being enslaved, imprisoned, eaten or starving to death with very, very long winters. While warfare may make military technology advance, other technology retardation is a logical extension of the overall nature of that particular society.
Technology progresses at different rates even in our human history. Their 8,000 years of technology development may seem long unless you look at all of human history in comparison:
- All of human history if we include our prehistory period when there was no writing is all of 20,000 years.
- If we look at our development of agriculture, we would have only started talking about being remotely civilized at 11,000 BC.
- Writing didn't occur seriously until Sumer and Mesopotamia about 3,200 BC.
- With varying cultural references depending on the technology, most of our real advanced technology didn't start occurring until after the 12th Century AD.
- Compare the Great Wall of China, which is 5,500 miles long and averaging 18-30 feet high and been around since 221 BC.
- Now consider the Wall of Westeros which is seven hundred feet tall and made of ice and stone, reputedly 8,000 years old, and stretching over 300 miles across the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, separating it from the wild lands beyond.
Not bad for a supposedly low-tech culture.
A Song of Fire and Ice takes place in a world that is pre-industrial, but the Industrial Age didn't just spawn itself out of the Renaissance, it took almost 300 years. And even then there were some things that happened before the Renaissance that helped it along from the Medieval period.
Just started reading the series, but as I've read through so far...
1) The Dothraki aren't the Mongols, the Free-Cities aren't Italy. While maybe similar, one thing the Mongols did was take their war engineers across their empire, allowing technologies to disperse. Gunpowder invented in China can get to western and central Asia, and then to Europe faster with the Mongols than everybody having to figure it out for themselves. And the Free Cities have a similar role to certain Italian city states (Genoa, Milan, Venice), but they aren't currently running in direct competition for little empires across an analog Mediterranean. These acted as dispersion factors in our history, which they don't seem to be in Song of Ice and Fire. The Dothraki hoard everything in their capital as monuments to their conquesrs rather than use them in further expansion. The Dothraki are a technology sink. The Free-States do their trading, and maybe a little warring, but they aren't empire building to need the hard lever of technological one-ups-man-ship.
2) No Compass. Compasses would allow the Westerosi traders to go further than the western shore of Essos, as they don't sound to be making regular trips to Asshai, Yi-Ti, or other areas of Essos and Sotheros. The interchange of various technologies with further trade might be hindering technological development as compared to Earth. A medieval invention out of China, this is an extension of the first issue as applied to a particular technology and the understanding that comes from exploring it (which didn't really make great strides on Earth until the early 18th century for understanding magnetic declination, and then further studying electricity in the mid 19th century).
3a) There are lots of Poor People. Poor people need jobs, and they will be paid so long as there isn't anything cheaper around. When the cost of feeding people starts becoming more than the alternatives, economic minded people choose the alternatives. Technology is no friend to the unskilled worker, as every increase in worker productivity means without a resulting increase in demand, people will be fired... unless there is higher demand for workers than there are bodies available, which leads to...
3b) No Steam Engines. For us on Earth, steam engines started off pumping out flooding mines, burning wood and coal for fuel. I think in post black plague Europe, societal demand for this kind of steam engine was a cheap labor shortage, which doesn't seem to be much of a problem anywhere on Westeros or Essos. Steam power was a kick-off for locomotives and paddle-wheeled boats, as well as a base technology for developing the piston combustion engine. (Though, in our antiquity, the Romans did have the capacity of using steam-engines for work, they just never did.)
4) World Consistency and Magic? With magic floating around, and the varying seasonal cycles (if they are cycles), I wonder if there is enough consistency for physical properties to be continuously explored. If there are patterns to be grasped in nature, then those patterns need to be observable. If the situation or environment are too chaotic, then seeing the patterns might be difficult to allow for speedy tech-development.
Also, magic might siphon of demand for studying physical principles because it might be a "better" alternative. Combining known magics with known technologies (mechanical and other), as the Valyrians did, might also be the fastest way to advance. However, in a world where there are a finite but large number of magical and physical principles known, I can see a culture where combining different known quantities rather than exploring unknowns may lead to stagnation (in both magic and technology). Also, there are the opportunity costs to consider, and if magic is common enough and has a higher yield than technology, there might be less interest in understanding physical principles beyond academic reasons (rather than practical ones).
5) No Physics. While I'm sure the planet of Song and Ice and Fire is similar enough to Earth in many of the general qualities of gravity, atmospheric density, and what not, there hasn't been any discussion that I've seen in the books (and that I doubt they would cover on TV) about the cosmology. Part of the development of physics on Earth happened because of trying to figure out cosmology. In the West we tend to think of Copernicus as kicking off science in the mid-to-late Renaissance, with Galileo exploring both terrestrial and non-terrestrial phenomena, and Newton mathematizing the ideas that proved to be the undoing of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views. Without the impetus to understand why the planets were goofy, the development of physics would have been very different on Earth. Understanding physics might have helped Napoleon aim his cannonballs more accurately, but that was all well after Newton published. There did not seem to be much need for understanding physics in its mathematical form before. Rules-of-Thumb are more generally used by craftsman, picked up over the years, and then generally not well publicized less the craftsman finds himself less in demand. The Builders and siege-masters I'm sure would want to keep their pockets plenty full. If physics is a trade-secret, then without an ulterior motive to study physics (like cosmology), there is little incentive for academics to take it up. That is... if we even assume that apart from observable things concerning terrestrial gravitation, that the physics in this world even consistent with the universe we live in. They got magic and dragons and stuff... we don't. (Sorry to burst any bubbles there.)
I see the main issues in a lack of technology in a Song of Ice and Fire being lack of strong transmission vectors, and incentives to develop as quickly as Earth's history has.
As it happens, George R.R. Martin was asked this question in an e-mail correspondence, here's what he has to say:
TECHNOLOGY IN WESTEROS
[Interviewer] There is an aspect of a SOI&F (and all high/medieval fanatasy) which has me puzzled. Why is there so little technological procees[sic]? The Starks have been medieval lords and kings for millenia, and it seems that there is very little chance of Westeros ever progessing beyond a medieval society. Is this becuase the existence of magic inhibits or precludes linear technological progress?
[GRRM] Oh, I wouldn't go that far.
I don't know that "linear technological progress" is necessarily inevitable in a society. In fact, if you look at our real world, it only happened once. Other cultures and societies existed for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years without ever experiencing major technological change.
In the specific case of Westeros, the unpredictable nature of the seasonal changes and the harshness of the winters must play a role.
I do think that magic perhaps makes development of the scientific method less likely. If men can fly by means of a spell, do you ever get the Wright Brothers? Or even daVinci? An interesting question, and I'm not sure I know the answer.
-So Spake Martin, Entry 1071 - January 21, 2000
So the state of the World of Ice and Fire is the way it is because the author wanted it to be. His reasoning is that it's possible, so that's what he's decided to go with. Although bearing strong resemblance to our world, Westeros is essentially to be taken with a grain of salt - it doesn't have to be exactly like our world.
I think it is implied by the Maesters (or at least that's how I read it) that science was being pushed back due to the presence of magic. In a world where magic can build giant walls of ice, forge ever sharp swords, and dragons rule the sky there's very little place for technology.
There are theories that the Maesters somehow engineered the death of the dragons, and with it the death of magic. Which would account to how little they think of magic and those who claim to practice it.
Don't assume that it actually has been 8000 years.
What we are talking about here is a mythical backstory. Everything revolves around a single fixed date (Aegon's landing, approx. 300 years ago) but history itself is preserved in the works of Maesters and other people. While it may be given a semblance of reality, always remember that you have an unreliable narrator here.
By way of comparison, look at the Sumerian King List in our world. This would have been as real to our own ancients as the history of GRRM's world is to it's inhabitants, yet it describes hundreds of thousands of years, and kings who reigned for tens of thousands. Do you really think that happened?
The danger lies in taking description of ancient times in the context of the world and the age literally. You don't have a literal history, what you read is the eqivalent of the King List, so read it with the same mythical point of view.
@Thaddeus answer is the best here, but I can't resist offering my own crackpot theory:
Their world isn't pre-industrial. It's post-industrial, or at least post-Enlightenment. It's a world in a state of tumultuous decline. The technological revolution happened already, long, long ago. The known world might even be post-apocalyptic, similar to the Four Lands of the Shannara series, which are shown millennia after their mythic (and implied-to-be nuclear) "Great Wars".
The strange seasons of ASOIAF's known world could be explained by some kind of prior cataclysm. Perhaps the planet has been knocked off its axis by a massive tectonic shift. Perhaps an asteroid collision threw its magnetic field out of whack. In any case, the planet is now dying, and lacks the stability and/or resources to sustain technological growth.
Perhaps many millennia ago, there was a civilization that did achieve great technological advancements -- and they were destroyed by the cataclysm, and their traces were wiped away by millennia of ecological and human upheaval (glaciers, earthquakes, migrations). Continents that were once at the equator were flipped to the poles. Oceans swallowed up whole regions. Think Fingerprints of the Gods, a great fantasy book in its own right ;-).
Perhaps the Doom of Valiria, which laid waste to that city, was a kind of aftershock to this prior cataclysm, or just one of a string of disasters related to fact that the planet is broken.
One tiny bit of corroboration for my (again, crackpot) theory: GRRM has said that Jack Vance -- author of the The Dying Earth stories -- has been a major influence on his work.
for the past fifty-some years [he] has ranked among my very favorite writers. Every time a new Jack Vance book came out, I would drop whatever else I was doing and read it [...]
Note that The Dying Earth stories take place on an Earth in the far future, when the sun has begun to go out. Perhaps GRRMs fantasy world is similar to Jack Vance's in that respect.
If magic being some sort of hindrance to technological development, why has it not prevented all the developments in technology up to this point? There is plenty of siege machinery and advanced masonry and medicine and animal husbandry. Magic may exist but its not a force of history. The Qarthian brotherhood and the Faceless Men seem capable of nothing more than momentary hypnosis, and genuinely powerful magic is obviously very difficult, otherwise Melisandre would birth an army of shadowraiths and smite anyone holding a sword.
There seems to be a contradiction when it comes to the effect of dragons as weapons of war. If an overwhelming alien force can suppress technology, then the whole necessity is the mother of invention idea cannot stand. If necessity really is the mother of invention, that means a need for a way to fight dragons should make people think about killing dragons with projectile weaponry. You fight fire with fire. With gunpowder.
And therein lies the technological bottleneck in this world. There are no controlled explosives. They haven't invented gunpowder yet. In fact it appears that the dangerously unstable wildfire used in the Battle of the Blackwater against Stannis Baratheon's fleet is the first use of large quantities of an explosive in war. I cant find any reason for the lack of gunpowder, which comes from a mixture of sulfur and water and charcoal and saltpeter, which on Earth was originally made from mineral deposits in caves or from guano. People and animals piss and shit plenty in Westeros so there's no problem with acquiring the chemicals of production. There is also an entrenched culture of science and alchemy across Westeros and Essos, so its probably sooner rather than later that the black powder will be discovered. Once proper armour piercing bullets and the small arms to fire them appear and became more accurate and cheaper, plate armour will be on its way out on Westeros as surely as it happened on Earth, and with it will go city walls, the feudal system as well as all the swords and dragons, at least as weapons of war.
tl;dr: Technological advancement at a pace that we would think of as more than glacial was something invented by Europeans after 1500. Westeros isn't Europe.
Suspend your disbelief
The world of Game of Thrones has a number of deviations from what we would expect of history, and frankly cosmology. Examples include the mechanism of the long seasons, and how it is possible for life to survive (it's equivalent to a nuclear winter, or a dustbowl - such an event would be utterly devastating), or conversely, if life is so adapted why the flora and fauna of Westeros are so similar to those of Europe; or why banking basically doesn't exist at all.
We're not in Venice any more, Toto
If you must grasp for an explanation, probably the best that can be given is that technological research only really takes off in Europe around the end of the Renaissance, a time characterised by substantial wealth, able to support an increase in population, an increase in the number of educated persons, and an increase in the funding provided to scientists and mathematicians. The latter was in great part due to the very large number of small independent states vying for both prestige and technical advances that could improve their revenues.
The main thing that enabled those conditions were colonisation of other parts of the globe by Europeans who were desperate to take the wealth of other parts of the world, and able to do so because of Europe's advanced military capacity, which itself was an effect of the earlier era of warring states. (History buffs: this is of course a massive simplification).
The impetus to do so was a combination of the fact that those lands were there, the practice of building empires within Europe, and the intersection of Europe's financial, economic, and social culture.
Now, the culture of Westeros doesn't really have anyone to colonise (in fact, they seem to be technologically and militarily backwards), they don't really have a bunch of small independent states, and they just had a period of peace and centralised rule. In essence, they have yet to enjoy their Renaissance, and they don't appear to have an equivalent of the Arabs who have preserved and developed a common body of knowledge which is shared with Westeros.
The developing of technology arises from limitations. You cannot achieve something, so you develop technology to accomplish it. You want to travel faster and further, communicate better, prepare food more efficiently, and not the last, destroy your enemies more efficiently.
In a world with magic, a lot of incentives that kick-started the industrial revolution might be absent.
Another good example is Harry Potter. Because of their reliance of magic, the technological level of the wizarding world is hopelessly overtaken by muggle technology.
First of all the question itself comes with 2 assumptions, 1) that Westeros' technology has remained the same for 8000 years and 2) that our Earth technology has actually made huge leaps and bound in 8000 years.
Westeros at a glance
Given that different groups within a song of ice and fire have different levels of technology in their given societies. The Dothraki are nomads and while they have some metal weapons there is no proof that these items were created of their own technological advances so much as having captured slaves provide the skill/technology to create them. The children of the forest work no metal at all (stone age) while the first men work bronze (bronze age). Iron came with the Andals, who learned from the Rhoyner (iron age) and steel seems to have come from Valyria. That said there are signs that technology has been changing with time.
Meanwhile on Earth
Now as a contemporary human on a laptop, I'll admit that technology has been moving along at a pretty powerful pace here on earth as of late. We can look at all the new gadgets each year and be shocked by how different the world looks each year, but with so much of it being due to the chance discovery of electricity and initiative being used to harness it.
Yet most of our inventive process has been quite slow. A new innovation comes along and it does provide for even more new inventions but they can often take hundreds of years to emerge.
Take the Lens for example.
The Nimrud lens is almost 3000 years old and the oldest example of a lens we have. A play from the 5th century BCE makes mention of burning glasses, so at that time at least a lens' capacity for making fire was known. Nero apparently had an emerald that he used to watch gladiatorial games. Pliny and Seneca the Younger write about how water in a glass globe (think fishbowl) magnifies the image. "Reading stones" a semi-sphere paper weight that magnified text beneath it emerged between 1000 and 1200 CE. Spectacles came about roughly 1280. The Optical Microscope was invented in 1595 followed by the refracting telescope in 1608.
That's roughly 2600 years to get to the telescope. Life probably didn't change much between individual inventions in and of them selves. Spectacles don't function any differently than reading stone, but they were easier to carry around and emerged at a time when the technology to craft lenses had become much more efficient and of higher quality.
So many of our "modern" inventions are older than people realize. The steam engine, such an essential player in the industrial revolution was known to have existed in the possession of Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century and there may have been another steam engine a century earlier than that. Windmills and Waterwheels(slightly older than the other two) came about at roughly the same time.
Back to Westeros
Just because Westeros appears to lack the accidental discovery of gunpowder doesn't mean that it lacks a highly sophisticated level of technology. They have Telescopes in the form of what they call a far eye and we have no indication that they've had far eyes for all 8000 years of their history.
There is likely the constant slow progression of technology that has been ever present throughout human history. Brandon the Builder might well have been shocked by the futuristic world that our Bran lives in.
As others said, MAGIC. 1) when mighty people are those who control it, they will not push for development of things that helps those without magic. 2) People in world with magic does not see natural phenomena and magical. They see both. So their reasoning is hindered, because natural laws are often superceded by magical ones.
BUT it is happening. After fall of magical state (I forgot it's name) and overall fading of magic, motivation for natural research was increased (who have better weapons and troops to handle them have advantage). BUT by the time story begins, they need to begin scientific career with proving for themselves that magic does not work. So they are still infected by magical thinking.
In the end, I find believable that there is some slight progress, but not much, because it was not 8000 years of progress, but shorter time (only when magic is weak for long time). After weak magic period (long summer) there comes magic (winter) where magic saves the day, so it stars again (with bit better techs).
What my answer seems to be is that there has been technical progress in Westeros. We know that there was one obviously magical construction around since 8,000 years ago. (Plus aFFC and aDwD raises the question that the timeline isn't correct.) The wall has been around for 8,000 years. Winterfell about as long, and Storm's End as well. Everything else has been evolving and growing since that time. We only have writing since 5,000 years ago, and yes, its longer than our human timeline, but this is a fantasy. The society hasn't been stagnant at the level we see in aGOT since 8,000 years ago. The first men seem to be a bronze age, partially nomadic society, like the Dorians that took over Greece in 1200 bc. I can see the first men civilizations being much more like ancient citadel-states, joining together to invade Westeros. The Seven Kingdoms weren't solidified for most of the history of the Andals. The Starks only finally controlled the North 1,000 years ago. So there appears to be a pretty natural movement from citadel-states, to feudal warring mini-kings, to local kings with enemies, to finally true kingdoms. Its just hat the time has been stretched, which we can attribute to many things, the easiest being the fact that George decided it to be that way, and also it seems to be a fantasy staple. (LOTR has at least 6,000 years of mostly stagnant or regressing Medieval society recorded by Tolkien, and that doesn't even count the first age) I guess the point I want to get across is that Westeros isn't a stagnant place. Theres obviously been tremendous growth in technology since the age of heroes, just in weaponry and the ability for more than legendary characters like Bran the Builder to build castles and fortifications, and theres evidence of a pretty historically normal progression in society. Its just taking longer than it did here. And thats the way Martin wants it to be.
Stagnant technology and agricultural revolution I'm certainly no expert but it seems like they have had the same tech technology without advancing for far to long. In the age of heroes casterly rock is meant to have been built and still stands today as one of the best castles, but in our history things were always improving, few great roman castles were still in use during the Middle Ages without being modified. Of course correct me if I'm wrong, the castle may have changed. However so much of westeros is based on the real Middle Ages and is meant to be very real and believable, not tolkien (apart from the dragons) I don't think it's too much to ask for some great scientists! As for winter, tough times I think have always led to great tech development afterwards ( as michael said, Necesity) as if a decade of summer isn't enough time too! Since producing food is their real problem they should have begun (and maybe they have) the agricultural revolution which eliminated the need to leave fields fallow (nitrogen fixing plants like beans, pulses etc, maybe from this china place far away)and as far as my historical knowledge goes ( and not far either) the people in Europe did not require money from overseas colonies to do this (industrial revolution sounds more likely), though maybe a few plants were brought in ( like I said, from this china place). Don't forget, it's not all Abot gunpowder!
The simplest answer is that the Industrial Revolution was a freak of world history that took place on one small island with very specific social conditions and then spread. Nowhere on Westeros has the combination of security of capital, intellectual freedom, reasonably large and prosperous middle class, and wide trade networks. So there's no cotton coming in from India and America to drive the development of looms and steam engines to power them - they don't happen.
As for some of the answers above "There are plenty of poor people to do the work" - the same was true in C19th England. "Like Guns, Germs And Steel" - Westeros has the domesticate animals and crops that GGA hypothesized were critical, so no.
I have the same conceptual problems with this, as I do with the Thomas Covenant series. Thousands of years go by in which a world that contains its fair share of seemingly intelligent people don't have enough creative thought to improve processes, mechanical, chemical, or otherwise. Seems highly unlikely that nobody would think to even make small improvements that, after thousands of years, would have a massively cumulatively effect on the world. Perfect example is probably the gunpowder thing. Since the Maesters know all about chemistry you'd think that a basic explosive black powder compound would be something that would have been discovered up until now. For a great example of this, read "Riddley Walker" where the goal of re-discovering gunpowder after an apocalyptic event is that world's equivalent of finding the key to splitting the atom.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter. The worlds are as they are because that's how the writers want them.