The Elder Scrolls

Tamriel is not technologically stagnant. Rather, it’s a dystopia where a class of technocrats and the extremely wealthy have excluded the common people from all of the fruits of progress because they have nothing to materially offer them.

So! At first glance, Tamriel is a pretty textbook early modern setting with a technology level roughly around the 1600s, with some aesthetics drawing from earlier periods… But this impression is only skin deep. If you look past the superficial, what starts to unfold is a world that, among its elite, enjoys both a quality of life and a level of academic understanding of the universe far closer to our own contemporary era, and in some cases even surpassing it.

The stolen goods you can find in ESO paint a picture of an economy based on advanced luxury goods for the urban elite – there are trinkets for things like long-range communication, automatic house cleaning, voice recording, music, even vanity items like a mirror that shows you at different ages – all of which is only scratching the surface. As for modern-equivalent services, based on almost all of the games, long-range teleportation offers instant travel between cities, and we all know about the often-referenced space stations and dreamsleeve internet… You get the picture.

Likewise, in the various academic works we find in game, we not only see that Tamrielic scholars have a concept of the scientific method – writing theses which are then challenged critically by their peers – they also obviously deeply understand their world on a physical level, routinely discussing natural law and phenomena in a way that seems basically correct, rather than being medieval-style four humors bunk. A lot of them even use very modern language, talking about "particles" and so forth. In this regard, we are also witness quantifiable progress in all of the games except arguably Skyrim (which barely has any scholars), with brand new discoveries taking place.

But if all of this is the case, why hasn't this translated into a more modern society? Why haven't people thought about ways to spread these luxuries to the wider populace, with society transforming culturally in the way in the way it did in our reality? Why are peasants tilling the fields instead of hanging out in cities lunching in cafes?

Well, it's simple. Because there's no incentive for the ruling class of aristocrats and mages to pursue that change or include them in the progress they've made, either through mass-production or social reform.

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In the real world, the rise of industrialization and the subsequent modernization of education, healthcare, and consumerism, happened because it was the most logical path to economic development, which was desired by the ruling classes to increase their military power and the diversity of luxuries available to them. To make more goods, you need factory workers and urbanization. To run factories and infrastructure in general, you need educated workers, who in turn need to be incentivized to become educated by the promise of a greater reward. And those educated workers then have their own desire for wealth and power, which leads to them seeking out unfulfilled niches, the development of more complex luxuries, more specialization and education to meet those niches, etc etc.

This quickly leaves the realm of what's possible to be made by individual artisans – nobody, even the most skilled, could make a computer or probably even something like a radio completely from scratch. You need people to procure the raw materials, workers to refine them multiple times into usable components, and only then can you make it.

But in Tamriel, this isn't the case. Mages don't need normal people to produce complex luxuries at all, just magicka and knowledge. They can (and, when we see them in closed societies like Artaeum, we witness this directly) even use atronachs and golems to replace manual labor for their basic needs like food and housing outright. If you want to make something like a phone on Earth, it requires this massive chain of thousands of people… But if you want to make it on Nirn, then it requires one person, some soul gems, and the books of theory telling them how to do it. If you buy a luxury item from a mage, the only parties directly involved are you and them.

Think about it this way; in our world, what would happen if everyone who wasn't either a scientist, an engineer, or a member of the ruling class, died? Obviously, society would fall apart instantly. Almost all goods would stop being produced from a lack of labor and the administration surrounding that labor, with what automation exists unable to fill the gaps. Ultimately, the survivors would probably have to accept going back to fairly simple subsistence economy, tilling the fields to feed themselves until the population had recovered.

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But on the other hand, what would happen in the TES world if everyone but the aristocracy and mages died? It probably wouldn't impact their quality of life much at all. Mages could continue to manage food, transport, and produce sophisticated goods to sell to the nobles, with only the loss of some specialized infrastructure like plumbing causing issues. Actually, we can probably cut the nobles out of the equation entirely – their power and money only has value insofar as it frees mages from worrying about food and protection, even though they can ultimately handle those things themselves if they're willing to tolerate the inconvenience.

But there's still that other element I mentioned earlier: Military power. Modernization allows for better professional soldiers with more advanced equipment, which makes nations more competitive. So surely leaders would be incentivized to pursue that… Right?

Not exactly, in this universe. After all, the Dwemer industrialized, and they still lost the War of First Council to the Dunmer because the latter had better and more mages. So if you're a ruler and pursuing military supremacy, it doesn't really make sense to reform your economy to build things like guns (or, as the case may be, flamethrowing-toting golems) when the superior choice would obviously be to just train more mages.

(Incidentally, this is probably why literacy in Tamriel is so ridiculously high for the apparent era – having the ability to easily learn magic, or things adjacent to magic like enchanting, is the one aspect of modernization it does make sense to pursue.)

So with all of that said, the only real reason Tamriel would have to industrialize/modernize would be out of benevolent intent for the common people. To spread the luxuries that the elite already enjoy to them purely in the pursuit of utopianism. And there have been some attempts at this, particularly by the Altmer (at least, for their own people) and the Empire, along with the Mage's Guild.

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But at a fundamental level, there's zero pragmatic reason for it, because in a way the world is already an advanced, high-automation society in which the common man has no special skills to offer those who control this society other than his own dignity as a human being. And the result is that, in times of strife, the drawbridge gets metaphorically pulled up. People always ask when Tamriel might industrialize in the future, but I'd turn that premise around: the only time Tamriel had the potential to industrialize at all was in the past, in the Merethic and 1st Eras, before magical techniques had become so sophisticated. (Which, incidentally, is when the Dwemer rose to power.) Before Vanus Galerion broke the taboo on spreading magic to the masses.

But if you take the elements of the setting to their logical conclusion, then it's obvious that, by this point, that ship has sailed. In terms of techno-social development, Tamriel isn't a fictionalized vision of our past, but rather a grim potential future.


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