When I was a young teenager, one weird fantasy often visited my mind. Worry not, it was a decent fantasy. I imagined how a time machine brings me far back in time. For example, in medieval times. Or in Ancient Rome. I, with all my knowledge picked up in the 20th century, would be able to start a revolution! Antibiotics and other modern means of medicine would remove sickness from the equation, people will live longer. Communication networks will link together cities and countries. Engines will make farmers’ lives easier. I would also give away machine guns and bombs to those who fight for freedom and justice. They would defeat evil people and the whole world will be happy.
Why machine guns and bombs should be given even to the best of us, Arcady and Boris Strugatsky explained me well:
“No,” said Rumata, “I will not give you lightning. It would be a mistake. Try to believe me. I can see further than you.” Arata was listening, his head sunk on his chest. Rumata clenched his hand. “I will only give you one reason. It pales in comparison with the primary reason, but you will actually understand it. You are very good at surviving, worthy Arata, but you too are mortal; and if you die, if the lightning passes into other hands that are not as pure as yours, then I shudder to even think of the consequences.”
However, what about everything else? What would have happened if modern technology was known one thousand years ago? Admittedly, this mental exercise I have not forgotten even in my adulthood. The results kept being grim.
Let’s hope that miraculously I was not burnt as an evil wizard or I escaped execution for being a spy. Some weird medieval king is ready to accept my unique luggage of knowledge. “This man has great ideas like he has seen the future!” noble people around would whisper in awe of me. This is what people say about Elon Musk.
Perhaps, I should start from my own smartphone with an impressive diagonal of 6.8 inch. What can I do with it? Make a picture of my new king and show the results of my 12-mpx camera with autofocus and image stabilizer? The king would look at me scoffing and tell me that that any local artist will make a much better portrait and not on a small box, but on a much larger canvas. Without any Photoshops any king may be rejuvenated and put on the back of a steed. In case you don’t like the artwork, you may punish your artist. On the contrary, waiting for the response from a service center may take a long time.
Felipe IV on Horseback, Diego Velázquez, Museo Nacional del Prado
Ok. Let’s not talk about gadgets. Imagine that I have a unique knowledge about the fact that sickness occurs due to microorganisms and not weird demons residing inside of a human host. I can closely recall, how Alexander Fleming invented the very first antibiotic – Penicillin. How a medicine was produced from fungi? Howard Walter Flori and Ernst Boris Chain, who both received the Noble Prize alongside Fleming, spent over 15 years to produce usable penicillin. Unfortunately, the recipe is unknown to me. Even if I knew the recipe, the chances of me creating penicillin in medieval times would be slimmer than a needle. I simply do not know how. Maybe, I could create internal combustion engine? I roughly remember its principal features. However, I doubt that I would be able to make a comprehensive schematic let alone a working prototype. How do I make mechanical bearings? What is the best material for pistons? How can I make fuel? It is not easy to find solution to problems that were solved by people long before modern times. Maybe, if my king would throw all of this resources at my project… But why would he want to do it? Horses handle plowing and transporting, why one would need innovations that would leave thousands of farmers and coachmen unemployed?
I suspect that my limited knowledge would not be enough to build power plants, invent a gramophone, and anything else that looks simple and obvious today. Each of our modern technologies is based on a huge pile of accumulated knowledge and starting it from scratch would be impossible.
We are wrong to thing that a human being living in 21st century became a more advanced representative of a new species. In essence, we are still savage barbarians that became very good at using the merits of civilization that were accumulated by our ancestors to this moment. If I would end up in the medieval period, all my skills would be limited to great storytelling.