Development levels rather than tech levels (segué into soft-tech robofac factories)

Each planet or moon in my table of inhabited worlds in Flat Black is listed with a “development level”, that indicates how developed its economy is. The scale is the same as the scale of technology levels in ForeSight¹, and the degree of resolution is the same as in ForeSight tech levels (half-integer precision), and the highest number in the table (8.5) is the ForeSight tech level of the most advanced technology in the setting. The reason that I don’t just use tech levels is that ForeSight tech levels are defined by reference to historical periods in the development of technology (and are also used to indicate the availability of gear when FS is used for historical games). That means that they tend to give a misleading impression²: underdeveloped planets in Flat Black lack the industrial capacity to manufacturer sophisticated products, and they tend to be poor, but they do have imports, and legacies of genetically-engineered organisms that their forebears brought from Earth (and which supply high yields of superfoods as well as advanced drugs and high-performance materials), and access to ideas and scientific knowledge that are often easy to apply though they were invented late³. The lowest development level of any planet in the table is 1.5, corresponding to ForeSight tech level 1.5 and GURPS TL 1 (mature). 72 planets have DL’s of 2.5, which corresponds to FS TL2.5 and GURPS TL 2 (advanced). That’s the high mediaeval. But these places aren’t SCA camps. They’re poor, not primitive. Your mental model should be Burundi or Chad in 2013, not England in 1320.

So, in what way do these economies correspond to the historical tech levels indicated? It’s in the sophistication of methods in local production, reflecting the degree of specialisation of labour and capital. At very low development levels there are very few specialist trades or tools and most people’s products are exchanged or supplied only to few users or consumers. At very high development levels there is a fantastical profusion of hyper-specialised workers and tools, each of which performs one very particular operation to a small part of a subcomponent that will go into a component of a subassembly of an assembly in some particular very specialised product, of which there is a fabulous variety, with an incredible number of different workers and pieces of plant taking a tiny role in the production of a staggering number of examples, distributed to a very extensive market. DL 0 is “palaeolithic” because in any such economy (there are none in Flat Black) everyone would be a complete generalist, making his or her own food, clothes, and shelter himself or herself, out of materials he or she had gathered, using tools he or she had made himself or herself. DL 1.5 corresponds to FS TL 1.5 and GURPS TL 1 (mature), which is the late Bronze Age because the scale of productive enterprises and the degree of specialisation of labour and tools within them, and the extent of the markets that they supply — and therefore the productivity of labour in them — is similar to that of village craftsmen’s workshops in late Bronze Age production.

That said, here is the key to the DL values in the tables of colonies:

Development level description GURPS TL GURPS description
0 Palaeolithic generalists TL 0 (early) Stone Age
0.5 Neolithic experts TL 0 (mature) Stone Age
1 Bronze Age village tradesmen TL 1 Bronze Age
1.5 Iron Age municipal craftsmen TL 2 (early) Iron Age
2 Classical urban workshops TL 2 (advanced) Iron Age
2.5 Mediaeval craft guilds TL 3 Medieval
3 Renaissance manual factories TL 4 (early) Age of Sail
3.5 Enlightenment jig-&-machine factories TL 4 (advanced) Age of Sail
4 Industrial Revolution mills TL 5 Industrial Revolution
4.5 Industrial age assembly lines TL 6 Mechanized Age
5 Electronics age circuit printing TL 7 Nuclear Age
5.5 Communications age chip fabs TL 8 Digital Age
6 Early Fusion Age TL 9 (early) Microtech Age
6.5 Late Fusion Age TL 9 (mature) Microtech Age
7 ? TL 9 (advanced) Microtech Age
7.5 ? TL 10 (delayed) Robotic Age
8 Old Earth & modern peers TL 10 (standard) Robotic Age
8.5 The Suite TL 10 (advanced) Robotic Age

Obviously, I have to do a bit of work on that table.

¹ ForeSight is an SF RPG (easily generalised) that Tonio Loewald wrote to replace Universe in his SF setting ForeScene. It was the system that I originally wrote Flat Black for, and is in a lot of ways Flat Black’s native game system.

² GURPS tech levels have the same problem. Universe took steps to avoid it by referring to Civilisation levels instead of tech levels.

³ Paul Drye wrote an article for the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society that went into this and made some excellent suggestions, called “Primitive, But Not Stupid”.

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I have reached the point in writing my new Players Guide to the Flat Black Universe at which I have to describe the range of development of the various colonies. I am finding it difficult not to explain what keeps poor countries poor. So far today I have written and deleted four pamphlets on development economics and the how the lesson of Smith’s pin factory applies in high-tech economies.


So write a section on that, but put it after you’ve explained the range of development of the colonies.

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I really ought not to do so, because it’s not SF and it’s not adventure, it’s just me going off my head about the Third World.

I have put a lot of thought and work into the history and economics of Flat Black, and I am disastrously inclined show my working. Which I must not do, especially in the brief and accessible reference for players. Flat Black is not supposed so be Development Aid the RPG, it’s supposed to be about personal adventure in contact with a series of bizarre cultures. I must foccus on the material players need to GM and play their characters.

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Surely to some extent it’s “these people need outsiders to solve their problems”?


One problem is that the book is going to meet a proportion of readers who actually believe that, and who are likely to get hurt, or argue if I tell them why [I believe] they are wrong. Flat Black ought to be acceptable to all three sides of the debate about development economics, and all four sides of politics.

Another is that if I draw the readers’ attention to the fixability of the problems

(1) some will ask “There are plenty of outsiders. Why isn’t this fixed already?” Then I’ll have to explain the dysfunction of aid agencies.

(b) some will feel that the adventures might be about fixing the problems, that their characters ought to drop their objectives and become development aid ninjas.

No, it’s best to draw attention away from these Star Trek distractions.

Which three sides? I haven’t kept up with this field.

Charles Stross did a fairly decent job of writing hard SF about development economics in the Family Trade series, though it was initially marketed as portal fantasy. On the other hand, the third volume was incredibly boring, with the principal character utterly deprived of agency for an entire book. That would be bad in a campaign.

I’ve heard people who were both wrong arguing with each other, so I figure there must be at least three sides.

Here’s a draft that I think might do, only about 10% over the budgeted word-count. It is very different from what I’ve had in previous handouts, and I would very much like feedback.


Level of economic development

Development level 1

On the ten poorest colonies (Dirawong, Rebirth, Surikate, Leviathan, Goodhope, Bohemia, Serengeti, Luoyang, Haudenosaunee, and Oberon) the people might as well be living in the Iron Age. There is no infrastructure to speak of, no permanent settlements larger than a ramparted hill-fort with a few thousand occupants, virtually no workshops larger or more specialised than a mediaeval village smithy. Agriculture is primitive, with few or no high-tech crops—people kill and eat plants and animals that were introduced for terraformation and not for agriculture.

These worlds can’t practically export anything at any price. Their few critical high-tech imports, reserved to the powerful, are brought in by foreign visitors and interstellar aid programs or paid for with their cash.

Development level 2

About 125 worlds, with a combined total of about 73 billion population, use the production methods of the classical empires and of mediaeval times. They have high-biotech crops, either as a legacy from Old Earth or introduced recently. They have enough bridges, roads, and ports, and sufficiently robust institutions, that they can export premium agricultural products and precious minerals—but development aid is still a critical source of foreign exchange. There are no telecommunications networks; satellite broadcast receivers are community assets; satellite communications are reserved to the privileged. Many treasured imports are not truly high-tech, but middling tech from neighbours of middling development, much cheaper because of real exchange rate effects.

Development level 3

About 100 worlds, home to 72 billion people, use pre-industrial production methods like those of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. These worlds usually export enough minerals and high-biotech agricultural products that imported gadgets and equipment are not rarities, though few firms or households can afford to use imports in more than limited key applications. Reticulated sewers, water supplies, power supplies, and communications are confined to wealthy areas.

Development level 4

About 100 primary colonies, home to 88 billion people, are partly industrialised. They use production methods of the Industrial Revolution to apply manual processes, mostly assembly, at low cost. Some factories process agricultural and mineral products for domestic consumption and as value-added exports. Others assemble imported subassemblies from multiple specialised sources for sale and re-export as high-tech products. These economies also produce moulded and stamped parts, such as casings.

Cities here have reticulated water supplies, energy grids, and sewers. Cellular communications are spotty. There may be a global information network, but not universal access. Ordinary people use a makeshift-looking combination of high tech imports and local basics, such as an electric impeller on a wooden boat, or an autodoc in an adobe clinic.

Over 200 new worlds in the fringe (home to a total of 37 billion) are at a roughly similar level of development, though their economies are oriented to clearing land to establish plantations. Immigrants and investors supply most of their foreign exchange.

Development level 5

About 330 primary colonies, home to 65 billion people, use large-scale assembly-line methods to apply sequences of manual and machine processes to complex products and subassemblies. Many combine materials from lower-tech worlds and components from higher-tech ones to produce typical consumer products and traded subassemblies of the interstellar economy. These economies also produce mechanical and electrical components.

About 110 new worlds in the fringe, home to 44 billion people, have reached a comparable level of development. They are industrialising, and starting to replace sources in the Core and Periphery as suppliers of consumer products to the Core. They are also starting to attract a lot of the migrants less inclined to rural pioneering.

Development level 6

About 120 primary colonies and forty new worlds, home to 180 billion people, use methods based on printing (such as photolithography) to mass-produce such things as microchips and printed microcircuits. They are the primary source of electronic components in the interstellar economy. These worlds have ubiquitous wireless broadband, power supplies, etc.

Development level six is the median by population. Colonies more developed than this are seen as rich, those less so than this, as poor. The full range of consumer products is in ordinary use, but poor and frugal people do prefer some cheaper mid-tech alternatives.

Economies relying on traditional modes of production often stagnate here, as information technology depresses the equilibrium wage rate for brain-work at DL 7.

Development level 7

Fifty-odd primary colonies and the five most successful new colonies use industrial methods based on sophisticated microscale extrusion (“3D printing”, “tissue printing”), etching and so forth to produce photonic devices and microstructured materials, including tissues and organs.

The involvement of human workers in such economies is abstruse, as IT replaces much cognitive work and the specialisation of capital rather than that of skilled labour becomes critical. Most products of human labour—technically services—seem abstract and frivolous to the materially deprived denizens of less developed economies. Suitable modes of production are needed to prevent stagnation .

Development level 8

Fewer than twenty worlds—none of them in the Fringe, perhaps three in the Periphery—use industrial processes in exotic conditions, atomic epitaxy etc. to make such things as optical phased array emitters, quantum computers, long fullerene strands, small aneutronic fusion reactors…. These worlds export the critical components of high-tech devices for the wider economy, and import mid-tech and lower-tech products and components for consumption.

Development level eight—well, DL 8.0—is what Earth achieved before its destruction. Six worlds in the Core (Aeneas, Iter, Seeonee, Simanta, Tau Ceti, and Todos Santos) have taken advantage of interstellar trade to exploit economies of scale and specialisation that were never available on Earth, and are producing commercially products that were previously seen only as experimental demonstrations, if at all. Pundits call this group “the Suite”, and analyse its members as sectors of a single more highly-developed economy. Some analyse the Empire as the transport sector of the Suite.

Is there an economist in the house? @frank.hampshire? @RogerBW? @Phil_Masters?

Writing that was a slog. I’m going to close down Pages and listen to a podcast. Perhaps drink a glass of whisky. Bottoms up!

Does comparative advantage apply? For example, are DL8 worlds importing photonic computer hardware from DL7, even though they could make it themselves at lower cost, because they can make fusion reactors at hugely lower cost?

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Indeed, I think in this model comparative advantage is the main driver of interstellar trade. If you can export agricultural products and minerals, clearly the shipping costs aren’t crippling.

What stops a DL8 world from making say DL4-5-ish technologies - practically free to build - and giving them to DL1 worlds? In general, why don’t DL1 worlds have the cheap castoff technology that poor countries today have – for example, the cellphone network may be spotty and running off solar chargers, but you’ll find one pretty much anywhere, even in places that never had the money to build landlines.

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Well, the agricultural products are not ordinary produce, not the seeds, fruits, and stem fibres of domesticated plants. They are grown on designer organisms that were ontogenically engineered to use sunlight to photosynthesise drugs, hormones, antibodies, flavours, high-end chemical feedstocks. The plantations are really tech level 8 (GURPS Biotech TL10) automatic solar-powered nanotech molecule factories. It’s just that nanotech is biotech.

The DL8 worlds of course have vast plantations of their own. It’s just that their populations are so large and their consumption so great that they cannot synthesis enough molecules with their own soil, water, and sunlight. They have to specialise and exchange to open out their consumption possibilities set: grow the crops they need in someone else’s fields. Naturally, they minimise transport costs by growing bulky products such as food and structural fibres locally, and paying to transport the high value-to-weight types. Farmers on poor worlds are growing vaccines in hundred-tonne lots and getting paid a subsistence for it, because of transport costs.

That said: you’re right. My fundamental model is that interstellar shipping is slow but not expensive, so that unimportant PCs can be rare visitors. If it were expensive, only important people would travel. If it were fast, tourists would.

Well, the cheapest way for a DL8 world to make TL4 products is to make TL8 products and sell them to a DL4 world and use the money to buy TL4 products. And the most efficient way for a DL8 world to help a DL1 or DL2 one that needs TL4 stuff would be to make a bunch of TL8 stuff, sell it to a DL4 world, and then give the money to the DL1 or DL2 world. That’s the “development aid” that I kept mentioning.

As for what keeps the DL1–DL3 places so poor, despite having received floods of aid for fifty years, it’s the usual answer:

  • war and feuding
  • kleptocracy and brigandage
  • embezzlement and extortion
  • dysfunction and non-existence of commercial courts or alternative means of getting people to actually do the things they are supposed to
  • stupid taxes, rules, inspection regimes, legal monopolies, and licence-raj pettifoggery
  • lack of the skilled workers to maintain this stuff once you’ve installed it, tools for them to use, vehicles and transport infrastructure for them to get to it
  • official hostility
  • bizarre taboos and prejudices
  • memetic interference by rival interstellar political blocs that are using aid projects to influence the government’s appointment of Imperial senators
  • lack of political and charitable will to make sufficient contributions and efforts — most people don’t really believe in people on other worlds, not deep down
  • actually, we’ve been doing it for fifty years and a lot of places are now much better. You’re getting a biased sample by looking only at the failures. Seventy years ago things were even worse.

Absolutely! I’m just resisting the temptation to make the text too didactic, a besetting sin.

Perhaps I ought to get a portrait of David Ricardo for my wall.

I’m not arguing with that at all; it’s more a question of what the poverty looks like. And I think you’ve been in broad agreement with me on this before, for example why you have DLs rather than TLs. Right now, in most places on the Least Developed Countries list, there’ll be a cellphone network at least in the cities; the urban middle classes, not just the élites, will often have a featurephone with Internet access; if there are soldiers on the streets they’ll have guns which are significantly better than local manufacture can manage; there will be a more-or-less-working postal service, if not a good one; there will be paved urban roads which even if they aren’t maintained are better than mud; there will be cars, if not many… you get the idea. And that seems to be true all the way to the bottom of the scale.

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Some more detailed comments:

DL1: I would strike out “medieval” before “village smithy” and “kill and” before “eat plants and animals.”

“Iron Age” may not be the best characterization. Uruk had an estimated 50,000 people and it was barely Bronze Age. “Late Neolithic” might be a bit closer.

DL2: What counts as a “precious mineral”? Are these metals that can be identified and refined with low-tech mining and metallurgy, for example? Or is this a case of more advanced tech being brought in whole to extract and refine rare earths or something? Or are we looking at things like gemstones that are sold as luxury goods?

The phrase “because of real exchange rate effects” may not convey any meaning to the average reader. I have to confess that I read it and think, “Who’s he when he’s at home?”

DL3: At this point you’re going to have a fair bit of crafts production, aren’t you? That allows sophisticated fibers and ceramics and cabinetry to be made with (comparatively cheap) skilled labor and perhaps largely exported. Or has import of cheap factory or fabricated clothing and household goods stifled the development of such industries?

DL5: I would change “a lot of the migrants” to just “a lot of migrants.” It saves a word, and I don’t think a definite article quite fits the meaning.

I also think that “to apply sequences of manual and machine processes” is needlessly wordy and implicit in “large-scale assembly-line methods.” Probably most of your readers can picture an auto factor. I would cut and rephrase.

DL6: What exactly does “power supplies” mean? Is this a parallel construction implying that power supplies are also wireless? If not, in what sense can a “power supply” be ubiquitous? Do you envision high-voltage transmission lines, or microwaves and rectennas, or small fusion generators, or high-density batteries shipped cheaply?

The reference to “equilibrium wage rate” seems like unnecessary economic jargon. How about just “wages”?

I’m not sure, actually, why lower wages for intellectual labor at DL7 would have an effect on worlds at DL6. Or why they would have that effect; if DL7 tech is available, why not import it and have the benefit of a much greater intellectual work output than the human population can provide?

DL7: It seems to me that the phenomenon you describe already exists on Earth right now. A fair number of people make money as bloggers or Web designers. But it seems to me that at least the US is DL6, more or less (or is importing DL6 tech from China, at any rate).

DL8: A purely copy editing note: The journals I edit insist on “under exotic conditions.” It’s IN circumstances but UNDER conditions.

The note “well, DL 8.0” seems pointless, as this document doesn’t define what the number after the decimal point signifies. It seems as if you might be saying that before its destruction, Earth was “at the threshold of” DL8, which has been fully attained in the Suite.

A more general question: You seem to envision a lot of organic matter being shipped between worlds. Is this in sufficient quantity for net exporters to suffer carbon depletion, and net importers carbon augmentation? Or do all worlds more or less feed themselves, with shipping for luxury products, as with Van Rijn’s “Solar Spice and Liquors”?

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Incidentally, for what things look like in worlds that are moving up the DL scale, Samuel Delaney’s story “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line” might be relevant. It’s an interesting piece for Delaney; it’s more or less a Heinlein juvenile in New Wave prose. . . .

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Fair enough. I’ll revise the text to reflect your comments. Don’t be surprised when it turns out that DL1 is really, really poor and very sparsely settled, presenting infrastructural challenges more like rural Mongolia than urban Mogadishu. About half of my state (New South Wales) is out of the mobile phone coverage area; lots of places even around here you can’t get Vodaphone connections.

Also: I have interstellar cargo shipping that is cheap compared with air freight, but not as cheap as containerised shipping. And the “sudden drop at the end” is pricey, too. As a TL7+ product, it has to be paid for at a swingeing exchange rate. So imports are going to be somewhat pricier and rarer than in coastal Zimbabwe.

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Thank you, this is extremely useful.

I want to imply that killing your crop plants at harvest is a low-tech thing to do, and that at higher DL they have TL8 perennial crop plants that are “plant once, harvest many times”. How can I do that?

Righto, I’ll change it.

All of those. DL2 covers a bit of ground and a range of physically different planets. The crystalline gemstones probably struggle to compete with synthetics in interstellar trade because synthetic sapphires and diamonds are actually better than the natural ones. But opal and pearls probably trade well. Some DL2 planets export native gold and platinums, and perhaps copper, tin etc. extracted by manual methods. There are some mines where enterprising locals use imported bulldozers &c. And there are doubtless some worlds where ruthless foreign corporations attempt to construct vast industrial mines and refineries, with a licence from corrupt and out-of-touch local rulers.

Okay. I’ll see what I can do.

You’re going to get both things happening in different industries, I expect. Should I discuss it more explicitly here?

Idiom, possibly. I’ll change it.

Always happy to cut something if the readers are smarter and less nitpicky than I was afraid they would be!

You can get power anywhere you go. There are no homes, workplaces, or third places where you can’t plug in. You don’t have to carry extra batteries for the car to drive across the Nullabor. There is no chance of getting stranded with a flat battery on the Snowy Mountains highway because it turned out there was no charging station atPaddy’s River.

A transmission grid distributing fusion power or solar/battery where that makes sense. Buildings roofed with PV panels and a battery/rectifier in the basement where that makes sense.

I’m afraid of an argument about wage subsidies and wage floors breaking out on one side, and about exploitation of labour by monopoly capital on the other. I should relax, shouldn’t I?

The economies tend to stagnate at DL6 because further development causes the wage rate to plummet. They stagnate at 6 because they can’t get to 7 without changing their mode of production.

Yep. This was sci-fi nonsense thirty years ago; now it is coming to be the world that the younger generation live in.

Yep. At least parts of the USA are developing into DL6 now, and importing from China &c. tech that China &c. could not afford to make without the USA to supply critical components and consume the output.

Thank you. I’ll change it.

I did think that ought to be understandable now, as a compact implication that the development scale is actually continuous and not discrete, that Earth only ever reached the lower part of that range of degrees of development which rounds to 8, and some worlds may be more highly developed than Earth ever was without being a whole DL ahead. But if that isn’t clear I shall have to write it somehow else.

DL is a continuous variable in my (hidden) modelling, but it is first rounded to the nearest half integer and then e.g. DL 8.0 and DL 8.5 are lumped together for the counts quoted in this section. That means that a world with DL 7.76 would be include in the DL 8 count in this section, and appear as DL 8.0 in the tables.

As you see at the beginning of this thread, I did at one stage try to characterise DLs with half-integer precision. I have given it up as more work than is justifiable for both writer and reader. This section will have done its job if the reader has an idea of what worlds are like to live on that his or her character might have come from, has enough landmarks to make sense of what’s going on when price lists tell him how the price of items depends on teh TL of the item and the DL of the world he’s on.

I see interstellar shipping as confined by price to carrying commodities with a high ratio of value to mass and volume, mostly in containers — no bulk carriers full of wheat or iron ore. But my vision varies from Anderson’s in including microchips more prominently than cinnamon among my ideas of a commodity of high value-density, and economies of specialisation and scale more prominently than climate and terroir among the underlying causes. Perhaps that’s a scar from my professional training.

My model uses ForeSight rules to give each world a “starport size”. By ForeSight starport sizes indicate the volume of trade by a truncated log base ten of the tonnes handled per day. DL 8 worlds nearly all have size 5 starports handling 100,000–999,999 tons of cargo per day. DL 2 and DL3 worlds nearly all have no formal spaceport; DL 2 worlds receive and despatch 1–10 tonnes per day (indicating a small liner calling perhaps once per month to once per year). That is all tiny compared to planetary stocks of water and carbon.

But that’s all just 1980s game writing by a mathematics undergrad, and I don’t stand by it. Now that I have locations, populations, and degrees of development for the new worlds I will put some work into estimating pairwise trade volumes and re-do the spaceport sizes and classes. (Spaceport classes might have to be done iteratively….)

Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll try to get it on my Kindle.

@whswhs, would it be better if I used the term “degree of development” or “development rating” instead of "development level? That might not so strongly imply discrete stepping.