Tech Levels are a convenient abstract used to categorize technology according to relative complexity and sophistication. They are based on the idea that looking back, history can be divided into distinct technological eras (stone age, bronze age, iron age, middle ages, renaissance, etc.) Each era can be considered rungs on a ladder, or a distinct level, that must be reached before the next one becomes possible.
On this site, we take that basic concept and project it into the future, anticipating distinct technological eras that have yet to come based on the cumulative best guesses of scientists, engineers, and various writers. Technological innovations are put on this numeric scale that represents when they first enter widespread use (ie, out of the experimental and testing phases.) The number represents a historical era, past or future, and its accompanying overall level of development.
The tech level scale used on this site ranges from 1 to 25+, where 1 through 10 represents real historical eras and 11+ represents future ages. Categorizing innovations by tech levels is NOT a precision science and represents only best guesses as to when an innovation will come on-line.
Also, this scale is by no means a smooth curve. Tech Level 2 represents a period of roughly 4500 years, while tech level 9 represents barely 1/100th that. Tech level 11 represents a mere 10 years, and the higher numbers (20+) represent leaps of many millennia. Each level represents a broad number of various innovations, and the scale only shoots up to the next level when a large number of breakthroughs significantly changes both society and the technological landscape as a whole.
For most innovations, especially near-future ones (Tech Levels 11 through 15), I try to be as conservative as reasonable in guessing when they may emerge, factoring both prevailing cultural and economic factors as well as technological ones. For example, even though it may be possible that someone will discover the means for an FTL drive within the next ten years, it will much more likely be many centuries (if ever) before we beat a beam of light to another star. Thus FTL travel has a tech level of 16+, an indication of many centuries of advancement, as opposed to the ten-plus years in the furture tech level 11 represents.
A brief breakdown of Tech Levels by group and what they mean:
Tech Level 0
This represents no technology.
Tech Level 1
This represents the slow climb of technology in Prehistory, from the time our pre-homo-sapiens ancestors first picked up a stick to dig for grubs until advancements in agriculture allowed for the formation of cities and recorded history.
Tech Levels 2-9
These represent actual historical eras (see chart)
Tech Level 10
This represents modern day Earth, today.
Tech Levels 11-15
These levels represent the near future, from tomorrow until about 100 years from now. Usual estimates for this period include steady refinements in electronic and computer technology, ever-increasing global connectiveness and travel, the advent of "base" cybernetics and genetic engineering, and a slow but steadily increasing human presence in space.
Tech Levels 16-20
This is the "far" future, representing up to 1000 or more years beyond Tech Level 15. These are the tech levels of most mainstream science fiction stories and tropes, such as starships, interstellar colonies, intelligent robots, death rays, alien contact, etc, etc.
Tech Levels 21-25
These levels represent the frontiers of the easily imaginable future, a great many thousands of years beyond today. Humankind opens up the secrets of the universe and creates ultra-sophisticated technology whose feats would seem to border on the magical to us today. Wormholes may connect distant parts of the galaxy. Black holes may be tapped for energy. Involuntary death may be unknown.
Tech Levels 26 and Beyond
Levels beyond 25 represent god-like technologies in power and reach. Cosmos-spanning networks, reality-altering machines, pocket universes, and more mind-boggling concepts inhabit these levels.
FURTHER NOTES ON TECH LEVELS
TECH LEVELS OF SCIENCE FICTION GROUPS AND CULTURES
MORE TECH LEVELS OF SCIENCE FICTION GROUPS AND CULTURES