Low Culture, High Tech
While you don't need to know how a gun works to know how to use one, the society as a whole must be able to support the thinkers and builders of such a device for it to see widespread and sustained use. Not so when you have Low Culture High Tech; this is a faction, culture, or race that uses technology far in advance of their scientific and cultural knowledge, often for warfare.
Usually this group has pirated the technology from someone else. It may be Lost Technology that they have recovered and use, often very sturdy, self-replicating lost tech that only requires raw materials be input, if even that. Or it could be a Black Box tech that none of their existing machines can do without. There may instead be a group of "thinkers and builders" who use the primitives as shock troops or even as a Slave Race. It's also possible the tables are turned and the primitives have either taken the builders hostage or killed them all and taken all of their goodies (without bothering with the instruction manual). If the original source of the tech is Shrouded in Myth, they may become a Cargo Cult.
Typically, the primitives will only use a fraction of the technology's potential and not know all of its abilities. At best they will be able to maintain the equipment without knowing how to repair it should a major malfunction happens. It's highly possible that the original creators, or a group with sufficiently advanced science (even just curiosity and a working knowledge of the scientific method), can pull the rug out from under these primitives by either confiscating, hacking, or better using their pirated tech against them.
It's worth noting that a civilization doesn't have to be at stone age or Medieval levels of technology for this trope to apply. They just have to routinely use tech far in advance of their ability to comprehend. A story set in 21st century Earth could have this trope apply if the planet were given Imported Alien Phlebotinum. Even space faring peoples can have Low Culture, High Tech if they use stuff they don't understand.
Lastly, we want to draw attention to the following from the first paragraph "far in advance of their scientific and cultural knowledge". It's important to point out that not only are they using things they don't understand technologically, but for which they haven't considered the cultural, social, or ethical ramifications. It's one thing to give a hunter-gatherer society an Energy Bow, but giving them a cloning device? Their society may crumble from the onset of massive Cloning Blues, not to mention the ecological disaster of the massive population growth. It's because of this that many aliens (and future humanity) tend to subscribe to an Alien Non-Interference Clause or a You Are Not Ready attitude.
Related to Insufficiently Advanced Alien, which is about a race that's interstellar, but every other tech they have sucks comparatively, and they probably don't understand it. Contrast Rock Beats Laser. The Noble Savage inverts this trope, being essentially High Culture, Low Tech. See also Bamboo Technology, Aliens Never Invented the Wheel, and Cargo Cult. Not to be confused with "High Tech and Low Life."
- The nations of Dissith and Anatore in Last Exile qualify by virtue of not having anti-gravity technology which they lease from the Guild. The best they've developed is small fighter planes.
- In Zero no Tsukaima there are caches of weapons from Earth scattered over the continent of Halkeginia, which is a Medieval European Fantasy land. It is the result of a spell that is constantly pulling weapons from Earth for quite some time.
- The airships in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind rely on engines that reflect technology from before the Seven Days of Fire. Several times throughout the manga, characters scramble to recover the engines from downed ships as they are the only components that are irreplaceable.
- Done in one issue of Thorgal, where a "sun sword" used by a minor warlord to conquer his neighbours turns out to be a phaser left after the villain of one of the previous arcs.
- Some of the civilisations of Skartaris in The Warlord have access to advanced Atlantean technology, but no understanding of how it actually works.
- The early mini-comics from the original He-man toyline, that were packed in with the toys. The primitive barbarian tribe He-man belonged to, the Eternians, used technology that had been left by their technologically advanced ancestors.
- Twice in Battlefield Earth. Much of the Psychlo's technology was stolen from their rivals, at one point they had a slave race of scientists which they later destroyed. The humans end up this way towards their own and Psychlo technology.
- The original Planet of the Apes film has the apes wield rifles but possess no other tech.
- Yor, the Hunter from the Future has, as Spoony called them "Cavemen with Lasers".
- The barbarian class in Zardoz are given rifles and guns by more evolved humans.
- The aliens from Cowboys and Aliens give off this distinct impression. They have interstellar travel, powerful energy weapons, and all sorts of other advanced technology, but when it comes down to it, Wild West humans come off as more civilized (let that sink in for a second). They seem to prefer brutally ripping their enemies in hand-to-hand combat, and some even eat fallen humans, or at least go for the throat, despite having ubertech guns that can blow up houses. Also, they have a bad case of interstellar Gold Fever.
- The Prawns from District 9 are pretty animalistic, but only because the ones we see are part of a rather unintelligent worker caste that don't know how to do anything unless they're told. All the more intelligent leaders died before their ship arrived at Earth. Well, most of them did.
- Well, that's one interpretation, anyway. The other possibility is that spending at least one generation on the wrong end of Fantastic Apartheid, penned up in a filthy shanty-town, would have that effect on anyone. Make what you will of the fact that most scenes in the eponymous District were shot in a 100% authentic Johannesburg slum...
- In The Fifth Element, Arms Dealer Zorg agrees to sell crates of ultra-cutting-edge assault rifles to Omnicidal Maniac Warrior Race the Mangalores in return for their finding him the MacGuffin.
- In the Predator franchise, the Predators are an ancient alien race that have advanced technology like plasmacasters, cloaking devices and advanced metallurgy for melee weapons. However, their society seems to be extremely primitive, almost tribal in nature, with no visible culture beyond hunting and warfare. According to Expanded Universe and Word of God, this is because their species scavenged technology from failed alien invaders and they neither develop their own technology or have any understanding of how the advanced stuff works. So, as a species, they're stuck.
- Known Space has the Kzin, tribals bootstrapped by an alien race as mercenaries turned galactic conquerors. Had no idea reaction drives could be used as weapons. Their culture also is heavily influenced by what happens when Bronze age cultures get genetic engineering and try to engineer their men into Heroes, and make their women become less naggy. They make their women effectively non sentient, and their men into buff warriors with few skills but leaping and yelling.
- Robert Sawyer wrote three novels (the Hominid Parallax Trilogy) where Neanderthals devised advanced tech, despite a low-population, hunter-gatherer-based society (which was also atheistic as well) on an alternate Earth.
- The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad, features "The Steel Commander", a metal truncheon that has an apparent weight and mass of tonnes and yet can be effortlessly wielded by a person of sufficient genetic "purity". It was created by an enclave of scientists who'd survived "The Fire" (a global nuclear war) for Heldon, the father of a fascist movement to preserve a core of unmutated humans (and who slew them for their trouble).
- In Old Man's War one alien faction was gifted a device by a more advanced species that allowed them to predict exactly when and where ships would be arriving via FTL. This immediately grants them a massive advantage in their war against the humans, who have to come up with an exceedingly risky plan to counteract it.
- In Worldwar the British, unable to build a lightweight radar unit to install in their planes, cannibalize surviving radar units from the Lizards' planes that they've managed to shoot down, citing this premise in doing so. Similarly, the Nazis develop armor-piercing, discarding-sabot shells based upon shells they've captured from the Lizards.
- In Uplift every single extant alien race was uplifted by another and got their technology from "the Library", several species uplifted as warriors seem downright barbaric to humans who had to develop a near-utopian society through trial and error.
- The ruling class in Book of the New Sun have access to anti-gravity, energy weapons and genetic engineering. But since they get all these things by trading with aliens, they don't actually understand how any of these technologies work. The actual technological level of the society is more primitive than ours, though it's not clear how much of that is lost knowledge and how much is simply that their desperate material poverty makes it impossible to maintain a technological society.
- In David Drake's Northworld trilogy, "Smiths" used their link with ... something referred to as the Matrix ... to create ultra-tech Power Armor—in an otherwise medieval culture. Hero Nils Hansen, who came from a star-traveling civilization, got into one of these suits of armor and reasoned that it had to include an Artificial Intelligence capable of, for instance, giving him advanced sensor displays. The warriors he was partnered with, who had years more experience with the suits than he did, were stunned to discover what their visuals could show once they spoke the commands Hansen told them to speak. IFF, night vision, targeting, maps, communication (including video) at greater than shouting distance ... apparently no one, until Hansen showed up, was using these capabilities.
- Doctor Who has a variation of this: A Sontaran gives rifles to a 17th century English warlord. Another episode has the boss of a mining rig hire an arms dealer to sell defective weapons to the natives of a moon that orbits his planet. This is to justify removing said natives because his company wants that moon.
- The alien invaders in one Saturday Night Live sketch apparently had this problem. After landing and threatening the people of Earth with destruction, they overplay their hand, as the Earthlings do not, in fact, tremble before the power of their mighty flintlock muskets. It seems all their technology other than starships was woefully behind that of 1990s Earth.
- The Pakleds in Star Trek: The Next Generation are bright enough to steal whatever technology they can get their hands on (as well as abduct Engineer Geordi LaForge), but express themselves in infantile terms (they want LaForge to "make [their ship] go" so that they can be "strong") and are fooled into surrendering by a harmless, if Techno Babble-laden, pyrotechnic display.
- Another Star Trek example has the episode "A Private Little War" from Star Trek: The Original Series. Kirk and McCoy discover that the Klingons gave flintlock weapons to the natives who didn't have them before. To restore the balance of power, Kirk provides another group (a bunch of cavemen) with them. McCoy compares their situation to the "Brush Wars" of the mid 20th Century.
- This is also the origin of Klingons themselves. They were originally a slave race who overthrew their masters and stole their tech.
- The Kazon from '"Star Trek: Voyager don't exactly inspire confidence with their technical abilities. However, they only gained FTL abilities recently, having stolen them from the Trabe, who in turn had been enslaving them.
- Stargate SG-1:
- It has this apply to humans and the slaves of the Goa'uld. SG1 gets a lot of tech they only barely understand, and later on the Asgard gift humanity with a database and replicator for all of their advanced tech. The Goa'uld purposely make their (also pirated) tech user friendly for the Jaffa to use.
- The Tollan deliberately invoke this with "primitive" societies that haven't reached their technological level. They once gifted their technology to another species to help them, and as a result said species wiped itself out in a single day. Since then they have been extremely leery about sharing tech with anyone else, even Earth.
- One episode in particular has SGC retrofit a Goa'uld fighter with Earth-tech modifications and show it off to other members of the military. On a test run they accidently triggered a homing program that tried to return it to its point of origin across the galaxy at sublight speeds. Given that SGC didn't have anything nearly fast enough to retrieve the ship and crew they had to call for help from the Tok'ra, who berates them for slapping an Air Force label on a ship they didn't understand. Later episodes showed they learned enough about the technology to build comparable fighters from scratch and eventually made their own battleships.
- Interestingly it is often pointed out that the Goa'uld aren't all that different. They are just as 'unready' for certain Ancient technologies and this seems to be one of the things that causes the large amount of infighting that allowed human and Jaffa to overthrow them. Despite the Goa'uld having stolen the capacity for interstellar flight thousands of years ago, the Ancients and Asgard are still sufficeiently far beyond them. Both of those races had reached intergalactic flight technology (with at least the Ancients even having travelled to galaxies outside their original local cluster long before their technological peak).
- A sketch on Dave Allen At Large shows Allen as a native American chief who a British explorer is negotiating with; he is offered trinkets for various tracts of land. He wants the "stick that goes boom" (a rifle) but is refused. Finally he offers all the land they're trying to acquire for the "stick that goes boom," and the Brit, seeing this as a huge bargain, agrees. Brit gives Chief the rifle. Chief shoots Brit, and then he & his tribe members take the chest full of trinkets.
- Played for laughs in Bill and Teds Excellent Adventure when Beethoven gets access to modern synthesisers.
- The Pylons from Land of the Lost are remnants of a past civilization yet are more advanced than anything the Sleestaks could create.
- The Library of Skulls.
- On Earth 2, the Terrians (underground-dwelling humanoids who share a symbiotic relationship with their homeworld) appear to be tribes of Hunter-Gatherers, but due to the green rock-like properties of their planet, wield staffs that shoot lightning bolts. It's implied several times in the series that the Terrians used to be much more like humans, and may even have had more conventional, industrial technology, before they evolved into a species of benevolent symbiotes.
- Warhammer 40,000:
- This is pretty much the hat that the orks wear. Some of their tech is either extremely basic, looted, or only works because they think it's supposed to. Other technological knowledge is carried genetically in Meks.
- The Imperium from the same setting has completely lost the scientific method, the closest it has to scientists and engineers are a priest class that does almost everything by rote and individuals horde knowledge which is then lost when they die. A common feature of their technology is that you have to be advanced to design it, but not to build it (for instance the Lasgun laser weapons require less manufacturing ability than a modern assault rifle and is more reliable to boot). As a result their technology has been in decline for thousands of years, and they don't know how to build their best ships and weapons anymore.
- A few socieities in Exalted are in this boat, most notably Lookshy of the Scavenger Lands.
- The Covenant of Halo bases most of their technology on Forerunner tech and consider it blasphemy to try and improve it or even change the settings to do things it's already capable of. Part of this is that they explicitly never developed a high enough level of mathematics to understand the base principles.
- In Mass Effect 2, Professor Mordin Solus refers to the "uplifting" of the Krogan as this.
"Like giving nuclear weapons to cavemen."
- Every game is like this, with only a few of the most advanced factions (Brotherhood of Steel, Enclave) actually understanding any technology more complicated than basic firearms and explosives, although other factions do utilise them, thanks to it being a Scavenger World.
- Taken to new heights in the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Honest Hearts." The entire reason the plot is in motion is because the White Legs tribe were given automatic weapons by Ulysses, as well as a huge store of ammunition and the knowledge of how to clean them. The White Legs are otherwise a stone age civilization, yet their "storm-drummers" have tommy guns.
- The Skedar from Perfect Dark, who have spaceships and cloning technology but no culture to speak of besides warfare and violence.
- Somewhat the case involving the Pieces of Eden in Assassin's Creed, although by the time of Revelations (the fourth main game) the Abstergo Industries articles given to Abstergo Industries' secret insiders reveal that they knew a lot more about the Pieces than was let on in the first game.
- Shown in passing in Mortal Kombat 9, with Kano supplying modern weaponry to the Tarkata.
- Used in, and part of the plot of Might and Magic 6. The game starts as a standard mideval fantasy game. Only later on you learn that a crached alien super computer from a looong time ago caused the trouble. At this point you get access to what the people call 'ancient weapons', which are actually alien laser rifles.
- In Jix the Ambis acquired much of their advanced tech from another species who tried to invade their homeworld.
- The age of European exploration and trade:
- Numerous native groups fought their wars with European-made muskets that were either scavenged, stolen, or - more often - traded for. The need to buy muskets and shot to fight wars against each other is part of the reason the kingdoms and tribes of (coastal) central-west Africa were so eager to enslave each other and sell said slaves to the Europeans. This was quite profitable for said (very well-armed) tribes and kingdoms in the short term (essentially the seventeenth century) but it kind of screwed the region over in the long term socially and economically.
- Many contemporary authors lampshaded the irony of European slave-traders being forced to accept the terms of trade dictated to them by African slave-traders; the latter were just as well if not better-armed (not to mention vastly more numerous) than the former, so they largely had to accept what the latter had to offer. There are also many instances of European would-be settlers being repelled by natives armed with European weapons. The Great Plains of central north America - the heartland of the modern USA - was one such region, with Argentina and New Zealand being others. The way things worked out, the Europeans who sold them the weapons and the Europeans who tried to settle their lands were often countrymen. This all changed in the 19th Century with the advent of the repeating rifle, of course.
- Averted in Japan. Portuguese traders brought firearms to Japan, thinking that the Japanese would need them to keep supplying the technology. Within a few years, Japanese smiths had taken them apart and were building even better ones. It's been argued that if the Tokugawa Shoguns (working through the Emperor) hadn't deliberately suppressed firearms manufacture, Japan would have been one of the world's best armed countries up until the nineteenth century and the advent of sophisticated, largely machine-produced repeating rifles &c. - all things which require an industrial base, something which we have no reason to suppose the permission of firearms would result in, as the trends of general economic development in Japan were not conducive to the economic aberration which is industrialisation.
- During the Cold War, both superpowers would give (Eastern Block) or sell (the West) weapon systems to third world countries, with the intention they were to be used in support of or against communism respectively. USSR's official policy was generally selling arms on credit of for concessions, but no one realistically expected them to be paid out. US on their part often gave such discounts and lease terms to their clients that they basically meant giving tech out for free.
- In Mexico, the Spanish settlers thought it would be safe to sell horses to the Indians as long as they didn't sell them guns. Likewise in (what would later become) USA, British settlers thought it would be safe to sell guns to the Indians as long as they didn't sell horses.
- In William Kamkwamba's autobiography The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, it is mentioned repeatedly that many people in the African nation of Malawi often don't have electricity or running water, but nonetheless own cell phones. Of course, they have to go into town to charge them.
- (King) Harold Dead, (Duke) William probably King by Christmas. Home soon!