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A world-building puzzler

7 January 2016

From author Charles Stross:

I get mail. And sometimes I want to share it with you. Especially when it’s email like this one, from Jacques Mattheij:

Question for you: One HN thread caused me to wonder about this: What would a technological society look like that somehow managed to side-step the written word? Would such a thing even be possible? If not why not?

Just to keep you awake at night 🙂

This question caught my attention like a snagged fingernail, and it’s still pulling at me: here’s my first cut at an answer. I’m taking the no-writing parameter seriously as a limiting condition: what level of technological society can emerge in conditions which preclude writing—for example, if it’s forbidden for religious reasons? I’m going to treat this as holy writ for purposes of this thought-experiment: rules-lawyering around the no-writing rule in the comments will be treated as Derailing and deleted, with one special sort-of-exception which I’ll explain near the end because it opens up a bunch of interesting consequences.

My rule of thumb answer is: it wouldn’t be possible for human beings to develop a technological civilization—at least anything beyond roughly 17th century levels of energy utilization and mid-19th century levels of agriculture—without some form of record-keeping technology. And without writing they might never get that.

The reason is memory capacity. Yes, we can memorize lengthy texts when assisted by verse metrics as a form of mnemonic—the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Koran—but the format is error-prone, transcription is at least as time consuming as copying a mediaeval illuminated manuscript, and the “books” are high maintenance (they need food, clothing, and shelter). I don’t know how many books one human being can memorize, but even if the number runs as high as two digits (which I think would require a very rare level of memory) you’re then faced with the problem of what to do if one of your books gets cancer or dies of old age. So not only is copying more expensive than in a mediaeval monastery’s scriptorum, but the substrate onto which “books” can be copied is extremely expensive (because we’re coming at this from a pre-industrial situation where agriculture is labour-intensive because there’s no copious supply of cheap energy). To put it in perspective, if one “book” can memorize five texts, then those five texts represent an entire productive human lifespan’s worth of opportunity costs.

. . . .

And then we run into mathematics. Assuming they figure out binary, integer arithmetic on fingers and toes gets you a long way for basic counting, multiplication, and optionally subtraction and division. But I’m not sure how they’d explore reals, let alone algebra or calculus, in a notation-free environment. I imagine tally sticks might work if our sophonts have opposable thumbs, but then we’re cheating and getting into writing systems by the back door.

. . . .

Law and arbitration is going to be problematic. The Mediaeval Icelandic parliament is said to have started each session with a recitation of the legal code; any law that no sitting legislator could remember was deemed to have passed beyond the sunset. This is thus shown to work, after a fashion, for non-literate societies up to a mediaeval level. However, reliance on memory means that a case-law system simply can’t develop, except in the sketchiest of ways.

Link to the rest at Charlie’s Diary

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17 Comments to “A world-building puzzler”

  1. How do you have trade of any sort without record keeping? Some of the earliest writing was in fact for trade and merchant record keeping. Memorizing long texts which this seems to concentrate on (I got bored and stopped reading the full article, I admit) is the least of the problems. No, such a society could not develop.

    • @ J.R.

      Yes. Absolutely. Without writing, there would be no way to collect, archive, and disseminate information, especially from one generation to the next. Technology (and advanced civilizations) are built on what went before.

      Specialization, division of labor, and attendant apprenticships are another requirement for advanced civilizations. And, as you noted, record keeping is also a necessity.

      There have been cultures that don’t have writing and depend on oral tradition and vast memorization to pass on information, but they are all at the hunter-gatherer and early horticultural (pre-agriculture) levels.

      (BTW, my major was Anthropology, so this is something I do know about; it’s not just personal opinion.)

  2. Heh, a ‘hive mind’ or where there is no individual mind or thought is the only type I can think of that wouldn’t need a way to communicate with others — because there are no ‘others’, there’s just the many of the one.

    • @ Allen F

      LOL. I don’t think ants and bees will be developing any sort of technology very soon! 🙂

      And bees do communicate with other bees by “dancing.” But it’s all instinctual, not intellectual in any way.

  3. Stross needs to think outside the box a bit. Either that or he’s never heard of Quipu. Doubtless far from the most efficient record system ever devised, but it apparently was used for both record keeping and the recording of history.

  4. The question asked was “written word,” not writing, which I don’t think the Incan knot system was at all.

    But I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that without written words you’re NOT writing. Perhaps I’m wrong, taking too narrow a view of the topic, etc?

  5. “…reliance on memory means that a case-law system simply can’t develop…”
    Is that a bad thing? 🙂

    Also, either Asimov or Clarke (Not sure about my memory, should have written it down) wrote about a future where the ability to read and write was considered a rare and eccentric ability.

    I agree that records are essential to trade (I’m another anthropology major), but those records need not be kept in human readable form. Our machine masters are likely to be the custodians of such things as invoices and shipping manifests – Not an activity suitable for humans.

  6. I can imagine trade being managed by a distributed system with humans serving as the processing nodes and travel as the message passing mechanism. This hypothetical society would have to discover Brewer’s CAP theorem pretty early on. I would expect availability to suffer because consistency and partition tolerance would be crucial.

  7. I don’t think any human society could advance past the beginning of the industrial age without writing.

    For alien societies there’s a number of ways it could work.
    – High level telepathy plus near perfect memory that can copy/share information quickly or any similar high bandwidth/perfect memory method
    – Genetic memories
    – Extremely long life spans
    – Colony type bodies where one ‘brain’ can operate a number of bodies to do different tasks

  8. If a society can get to early industrial without writing they can get to audio recording.

    The real question is whether the goal is “no writing” or “no record keeping” because writing is not the only form of record keeping that can transmit knowledge across generations.

    It is not impossible that a Hero of Alexandria type genius might develop Edison’s wax cylinder recorder. Now, the greeks had writing but they didn’t even get to early industrial. It was all hand-crafted. But they created some pretty sophisticated mechanical devices, like the Antikythera computer around 200BCE, so the only thing that kept them from building a recorder was conceptual.

    A society without writing would sooner or later realize the need for a way to record speech so the concept would be there and the recorder would come. That in turn would drive the need for precision manufacturing and mass production.

    Not sure how far they could get but I suspect they could get to early 20th tech. Not sure how they might get to computers, but I wouldn’t bet against it. They might go analog computers instead of digital…

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