Let us connect you

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bensen-daniel's avatar
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My wife told me a great anecdote about her high school history teacher who described the spread of Christianity in Europe this way:

You're squatting in the filth in your little pagan kingdom, smacking a cat against the wall or whatever it is you illiterate savages do, when along comes a missionary. "We are your mobile service provider," he says, "let us connect you." What if this scenario were literally true?

Some time in the early bronze age (let's say between 5 and 6 thousand years ago), Mesopotamian wizards discovered how to make crystal balls. Made of glass or more durable polished quartz, a crystal ball can be entangled with another ball at the time of manufacture, showing whatever surrounds its partner, and, if you touch it, broadcasting sound as well. Relatively easy to make, crystal balls spread through Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt, allowing priests, wizards, scholars, officials, and even merchants to communicate instantly across long distances. And...

What changes when we give the ancient world the equivalent of the ansible? I predict that, while the boundaries of military empires won't be all that different (horses can only run so fast), cultural spheres of influence will become enormous, and more important. You'll get big areas of relatively homogenous language and culture, but with central military authority distributed among different political centers. Not just the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, but the Eastern, Western, Northern, African, Near Eastern, and Steppe Empires (assuming the Romans' ideas and language are most attractive. Otherwise we'll get the Roman government center of the Delightful Indian Empire).

Ideas will be the most valuable coin in this globalizing ancient world. Exciting ideas like writing, agriculture, and philosophy will spread with traders between the European and Asian civilizations, giving Europe Wheelbarrows, gunpowder, and better plows. Monotheism, an exiting new idea, will spread rapidly, but without a central church, actual practice (as opposed to doctrine) will differ wildly between the different "Abrahamist schools". The population boom associated with better farming will happen sooner, and the technological leap from swords to gunpowder might take place as early as 0AD. Since explorers will carry crystal balls with them, Sub-Saharan Africa, and even the Americas and Australia might be contacted long before any colonists show up.

Of course, the connected world might not be so happy and shiny. Since all the big centers of civilization are already connected via crystal ball, there might be less incentive to explore. Also, just because everyone CAN talk to everyone else doesn't mean they WILL. A Ptolemy might simply have nothing to say to a Satavahanan. We might get cultural blocs (probably long east-west-running strips). Rampaging hordes like the Mongols will know exactly where to go to get the best loot. Under the barrage of useless cultural garbage spewing through the crystal balls, some societies might find advantage in being xenophobic, or at least highly suspicious of the outside (if you live in Scandinavia, it won't be very helpful to learn how the Romans grow wheat, for example).

What do you think?
© 2012 - 2022 bensen-daniel
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nemo-ramjet's avatar
Great idea - information revolution without an industrial one...
The programming would likely be very different, since there are no mass-produced items to mass-market to anyone, ergo no advertising as we know it... As you mentioned, religious propaganda and news would be the primary uses of the crystal balls. On the religious front, crystal-ball televangelism might lead to the formation of syncretic religions, or brand-new "made for tv" ones.

Of course, crystal spheres might also be weaponized by using them as instant observation / communication devices. Imagine how devilishly efficient Mongol hordes would have been if each army (and their spies in hostile countries,) had them.