Memory, Law, and Recording
January 3, 2016 6:46 AM   Subscribe

 
This experiment was done; it was called the Roman Empire. While they had writing, they didn't use it for unimportant drivel like engineering, and that's why all their technology was lost when the empire fell. They had some fairly advanced techniques which were obviously passed by word of mouth from experts to younger apprentices, because we don't have a single written word from anybody who built an aqueduct or road.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:09 AM on January 3, 2016 [12 favorites]


The first thing it made me think of were the Houyhnhnms from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The Houyhnhnms have no system of writing:
“The Houyhnhnms have no letters, and consequently their knowledge is all traditional. But there happening few events of any moment among a people so well united, naturally disposed to every virtue, wholly governed by reason, and cut off from all commerce with other nations, the historical part is easily preserved without burdening their memories.” ~ Chapter 9, Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver describes them as having a "defectiveness of language". And yet Swift creates an entire fictional culture and way of living: they live in buildings and houses, they have commerce, a system of government based on reason, no religion, a form of art derived from nature.

Just interesting to think about how this very idea has been represented in fiction.
posted by Fizz at 7:11 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Can you draw pictures, or is all abstract representation prohibited? For example, would Ptolomy's visual geometric proofs be permitted?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:11 AM on January 3, 2016


If no writing, then what need for reading? If no reading......
posted by Postroad at 7:13 AM on January 3, 2016


This made me think of the Pali Canon, because it's an example of a complex "text" of ideas that originated as an oral tradition, but was committed to a written language about 450 years after its origination.

This of course has a huge influence on the style and structure of its components; there is a large amount of repetition both in each individual sutta and in the works as a whole, certainly for the purpose of aiding memorization. Here's a random example. Note the elision used in the modern translation so that you don't read the same words again and again. And the need to keep the ideas in living memory had an impact on the monastic structure itself, with the duty to preserve integrated into the idea of meditation and study. This is interesting to compare to manuscript culture.

(also, the Sutta Tipitaka is organized not by subject, but by sutta length, which is both novel and fairly infuriating to modern readers)
posted by selfnoise at 7:15 AM on January 3, 2016 [16 favorites]


This experiment was done; it was called the Roman Empire. While they had writing, they didn't use it for unimportant drivel like engineering...

But they did use it for accounting, an important part of running an empire.
posted by Pendragon at 7:18 AM on January 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


If no writing, then what need for reading? If no reading......

....then the oral story telling tradition.
posted by Fizz at 7:18 AM on January 3, 2016


I guess what I'm saying is the line between what constitutes 'writing' is probably a lot more fluid than you'd initially think. What are we actually trying to exclude? Is it all methods for recording thoughts in a persistent medium using a visual shorthand?

Because then you've also excluded most all visual art. Can these people also not decorate their temples? Are the limited to non-representational art? Because visual art is so essential to the human experience that it's difficult to imagine one without it.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:20 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


This of course has a huge influence on the style and structure of its components; there is a large amount of repetition both in each individual sutta and in the works as a whole, certainly for the purpose of aiding memorization.

The same is true with Homer's epics, as I understand it. There's a reason the sea's always 'wine dark'.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:21 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think he's overselling Medieval monks-- all of the problems he mentions with the oral transmission (errors in transmission, time, cost of feeding the book reciters) are also present with scribes. The error thing is prevalent enough that, ultimately, you know how you can make family trees of species based on changes? Darwin got the tree metaphor from linguists, who were doing it for languages, who got the idea from people who studies old texts: you can build similar "trees" of manuscripts (this Monk made error X, which was passed down through this branch, and in this subbranch error Y was copied...)

Also, if you want an example of sophisticated science (possibly) without writing, there are the works of Panini; Wiki Page here, which are sophisticated grammars of Sanskrit (which ultimately helped kick start modern linguistic analysis). He may or may not have had some aid in composition (it's not entirely clear), but the work itself was transmitted orally.
posted by damayanti at 7:23 AM on January 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


Wayfinding is a pretty good example of an impressive and complicated amount of knowledge being passed without the aid of writing.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:24 AM on January 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate

Of course, like the Romans, they have a large slave class to keep things running and do all the reading and stuff.
posted by Artw at 7:25 AM on January 3, 2016 [11 favorites]


Darwin got the tree metaphor from linguists, who were doing it for languages, who got the idea from people who studies old texts: you can build similar "trees" of manuscripts (this Monk made error X, which was passed down through this branch, and in this subbranch error Y was copied...)

Isn't that technically philology rather than linguistics?
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:37 AM on January 3, 2016


We have one, they're called chimps and bonobos. For that matter it appears that bottlenose dolphins have both technology and culture as well.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:38 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think the hypothetical society could do much better than trying to reproduce books by memorising long texts. You could store far more information in some kind of practical skills-based guild/university system.

Suppose that the society has a strong tradition of valuing listening and learning, and also a tradition of knowledge-sharing and collaboration between universities in different locations - suppose that it's considered a duty both to learn all you can, and then to pass on that learning in your later years.

If you imagine that these folks have a much more fertile planet than ours, such that the majority of people in the society are effectively wealthy enough to get educated, to afford a horse and to be able to go travelling for long periods on that horse - you could build up a pretty solid and resilient knowledge base. It would take a very long time, I'm pretty sure, and I guess their well connected society would be more vulnerable to plagues with all that travelling.
posted by emilyw at 7:40 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Isn't that technically philology rather than linguistics?

Building language trees? I mean, you can call it "Proto-linguistics" if you'd like, but the Grimms et al. were doing early historical linguistic analysis, yes. The people studying old books though, yes, they were philologists.
posted by damayanti at 7:40 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh come on, this is humanity. We'd just breed a "lower" class of humans to have great memories, pay them nothing, feed them as little as possible and beat them when mistakes are made.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:53 AM on January 3, 2016 [7 favorites]


Oh come on, this is humanity. We'd just breed a "lower" class of humans to have great memories, pay them nothing, feed them as little as possible and beat them when mistakes are made.

There's a horrible dystopic Fantasy/Science Fiction novel waiting to be written inside of this comment.

It would be called: "The Memorykeeper's Lament".
posted by Fizz at 7:58 AM on January 3, 2016 [12 favorites]


They managed to make plan the construction of medieval cathedrals by scratching a few lines on the floor/slab of rock (though I can't remember how much notation went into that)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:59 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Spoiler: Betteridge's law of headlines applies - and probably for the reason you expect, memory capacity.

However, I'd go further than this in a couple of ways..

First, I'd claim that any creature able to develop technology would have to develop *some* form of information storage very early into the process - that simply having the sort of brain that allows technology to be conceived forces you to want a writing system (or some generalization thereof). [SPOILER: later on I decide that this isn't true...]

It took a very long time for hominins to go from "extremely primitive tools" to "slightly less primitive tools" - at least hundreds of thousands of years. This is long enough for such small progress that it's quite conceivable that that progress came about Darwinianly - accidental variations in the designs of tools turned out to be useful and were kept. So in the early stages of technology, it's perfectly possible for "progress" to happen without any sort of systematic investigations.

But "slightly better hand axes" isn't what we normally mean by "a technological society". It doesn't have to be flying cars, but there's a list of "basic technologies": fire, the wheel, agriculture, clothing, pottery, brewing, house-building and probably a few more: and if you never got to most of these, you couldn't really be a technological society (though there were fairly advanced societies without one or two e.g. the wheelless Aztecs).

These technologies are sufficiently advanced that it is impossible for you to make progress accidentally at any reasonable speed - you need to create a theory of the field.

As an analogy, suppose you wanted to master playing games "accidentally" or Darwinianly - without creating any theory of the game but by playing random moves against other people until I identified some winning games.

Given quite a bit of time, you could manage to learn to play tic-tac-toe that way. But the whole length of the universe isn't enough to even get you to the level of "bad" in chess or go.

[crash!]

I was enjoying this argument - but at the next stage I was about to argue, "Intelligent creatures must have properties X, Y, Z that humans have." That's BS!

So my initial claim is wrong. Instead I present a counterexample.

---

BUGLETS

Suppose we have a hive civilization, with some sort of "direct" communication between each individual and the "hive mind". There's no reason evolution shouldn't produce one of these - we know communication is extremely useful because so many creatures use it, so if some species ("buglets") picked up the trick of "improved communication and coordination" it might well score a big win in its ecosystem, and the "hive mind" would appear over millennia or even ages as groups of buglets that coordinated better survived longer.

Given that each buglet has some limited memory, why couldn't the hivemind evolve a long-term storage mechanism involving distributing information over multiple buglets to "replace" writing?

I don't consider this a cheat, because it really is "in memory" - but why couldn't a colony of buglets have a "permanent" memory stored over a prolonged period in a shifting subset of the colony?

Strategies like geographic replication that we use in computer engineering today to ensure longevity of data would naturally evolve over geological time periods - if solving technology problems were selected for, if this feature improves the fitness of the individual.

And self-awareness might appear quite early - which would lead to better memory access and replication strategies than could be achieved by purely "random walk" methods (see the tic-tac-toe argument above).

So being a buglet, you have all the advantages of being on the bugletnet when you're in the hive, and you can download the software you need to operate when you go off and do whatever a good buglet does.

And no representation system needed - just memories, offloaded into the buglet-cloud, no writing.

---

Bonus alternate solution: THE AKASHIC RECORD.

Granite and other natural materials contain quartz crystals, which are piezoelectric and have other electrical properties. It is claimed by some that this allows the electromagnetic storage of human feelings and experiences, particularly ones associated with extreme emotions - for example, this would explain the phenomenon of "ghosts" as "recordings of someone's extreme emotions at their deaths in the Akashic records".

To me, the physics seems implausible (if nothing else, the inverse square law would seem to restrict it to people who actually died with their heads actually touching such a stone) but suppose it worked readily "once you got the knack". Then you could create a "library" simply by sitting somewhere with a lot of granite and thinking really coherently for long periods.

Copying is possible - if you had a big piece of stone, you could lie on it and encode a lot of books into it, and then send it traveling. Lots of comedy possibilities there - e.g. having to move a great huge stone a vast distance and discovering at the end it's all pornography.

Eventually, we develop technology and have "pocket akashics" and automatic copying devices, allowing the sad SF story of the last human "perfect" akashic record copier whose memory is failing... "at the end, we loved you for the imperfections more than anything else."

Is this cheating? No. Writing implies a notation system - a visible representation system! But we aren't writing on anything - we're "directly" transferring our thoughts through the medium of the Akashic record. (Yes, I registered my objections to the science above, but if you aren't going to balk at telepathy, you really don't have much grounds (hah!) to object to this either...)

Perhaps eventually we'd learn to encode "sequences of thoughts" in a sufficiently formalized fashion that at that point it would have become equivalent in power to a "writing" system, but even in that case there's still no visible representation, so it isn't writing.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:02 AM on January 3, 2016 [10 favorites]


I'm at least happy that this writing free universe is incapable of developing video - a society based on the wax cylinder equivalent of podcasts would be tolerable, one based on YouTube would be awful.
posted by Artw at 8:03 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


They managed to make plan the construction of medieval cathedrals by scratching a few lines on the floor/slab of rock (though I can't remember how much notation went into that)

Massive over instruction to compensate would be the "solution" there.

Of course, that does mean that stuff tends to hang around in a picturesque manner for a long, long time, which is nice.
posted by Artw at 8:05 AM on January 3, 2016


I'm at least happy that this writing free universe is incapable of developing video

Sadly they also can't likely develop science. The scientific method doesn't work very well if you can't record the results of experiments and share them easily with peers.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:09 AM on January 3, 2016


I'm at least happy that this writing free universe is incapable of developing video - a society based on the wax cylinder equivalent of podcasts would be tolerable, one based on YouTube would be awful.

You could totally have youtube with this ungodly thing.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:09 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


It would be called: "The Memorykeeper's Lament".

I call dibs on "The Mnesomenst's Daughter" franchise
posted by thelonius at 8:10 AM on January 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


There's a horrible dystopic Fantasy/Science Fiction novel waiting to be written inside of this comment.

It would be called: "The Memorykeeper's Lament".


There's a variation on this at the end of Seveneves with Sonar Taxlaw, whose job it was to memorize a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:14 AM on January 3, 2016 [5 favorites]


With a lack of writing, do you not have maps either? The Romans managed to establish an empire in a pre-cartographic era, but for oceanic navigation in large boats, maps and calculations are, while not completely needed, really handy, especially if you want to actually colonize another continent which already has people living there/transport large amounts of slaves to your plantations, etc. I think you could have Roman style slavery, but I don't think that chattel slavery on the scale that was practiced between Africa and the Americas is possible. That means that you don't have a Europe getting rich off of the exploitation of others, no matter how good your memory tradition is, even with the transmission of sound. I leave it as an exercise for the better informed as to how much the technological development of Europe and North America is dependent on the colonization, exploitation and slavery that was practiced in the 17th-20th centuries.
posted by Hactar at 8:28 AM on January 3, 2016


The Romans had loads of books on engineering. Virtually none survived to the present day, but you better believe Vitruvius was not working in a vacuum.

Oral tradition was enough for some fairly decent metallurgy to survive through the ages. There's surely a line beyond which it's very difficult to transmit engineering without text, but you can actually get a tremendous amount of engineering knowledge from models. Today you can still go to technical museums and find detailed models of old mechanisms that are sufficient to recreate the old technologies. Having a physical machine in front of you is often a better way to learn about how it works than a textual description. Reading a book about gears is maddening; seeing a working example makes everything clear in a flash.

For that matter, try learning about, say, machining on a lathe by reading a written text. You'll get nowhere. Now go on YouTube and watch a grizzled machinist explain what he's doing.

Text is important, but it's not even the best way to transmit engineering knowledge.
posted by phooky at 8:48 AM on January 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


There's surely a line beyond which it's very difficult to transmit engineering without text, but you can actually get a tremendous amount of engineering knowledge from models.

Indeed. The Romans reverse-engineered quality shipbuilding techniques from a shipwrecked Carthaginian vessel, for instance.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:50 AM on January 3, 2016


I think it is possible to work up to a technological technology without writing, for two reasons. Mind, the question is just if it's possible, nothing about how long it'd take, or even likelihood. I think it would take longer in some ways... but then, the dark ages did a number of the human race as far as advancement goes, so who knows really?

Reason 1: Economics. If you have a need, people will be rewarded for meeting that need. If the need is great, so will people who need it met increase the magnitude of the reward, until someone can meet it. I consider this to work like an evening factor in these kinds of thought experiments, making up for (to their perspective) obvious lacks in a culture.

Even if you consider money to be part of writing (possibly necessary in some way to avoid counterfeiting) and thus forbid it, bartering can fulfill the same role.

If you have professional rememberers, they will develop skills and technologies for remembering, probably above what we have now, because we do have writing and so haven't needed to do it. Because information would be much more valuable in such a society it would be protected more, and remembered data wouldn't be trusted to a single person but stored redundantly by many people. That's a lot of people, but if the economic incentives are high enough people would do it, so long as free choice to pursue that value exists at some level. Difficulties in retaining the data can be made up for with mnemonics and what amounts to error-correcting codes. Difficulties in using the data, such as for complex math, could be gotten around with greater manpower, splitting difficult problems down into simpler forms, until the individual parts fit in the brains of each calculating individual.

Reason 2: You can't really stamp out writing entirely.
When you invent something, you have produced, there, a 1:1 scale, 3D diagram of your invention. To someone of the right mind, that may be all you need to reproduce it. Maybe you could instill in your sandbox world a religious taboo against reverse engineering, but that seems to me to be a non-obvious step to take starting from the question.

Once you become able to create calculating machines, which doesn't even require electricity, you have what amounts to writing within its working memory. But that's just another version of having a professional remember, isn't it? I think eventually such a society would end up creating writing in some form, and just not recognize it as such, and so wouldn't consider it to be against their taboo.

How long would this all take? Maybe an extra thousand years or so? Well, that's how I think of it. I think sound recording is getting around the spirit of the question; if it were allowed though, it would certainly have been invented centuries earlier due to its very indispensability.

Here's a counter question for you. Are we living in a universe thought up by a higher-order culture as a thought experiment designed around the absence of drebnar, being a technology that we aren't capable of even comprehending? Does the absence of this drebnar prevent us from attaining the heights of that culture?
posted by JHarris at 8:56 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh come on, this is humanity. We'd just breed a "lower" class of humans to have great memories, pay them nothing, feed them as little as possible and beat them when mistakes are made.

So rather than hunter-gatherers, they'd be trapper-keepers
posted by oulipian at 9:01 AM on January 3, 2016 [3 favorites]


Don't forget that once somebody DID get writing to take hold, the memory-class would be derided as useless luddites and beaten down even further!
posted by Navelgazer at 9:03 AM on January 3, 2016


There's a horrible dystopic Fantasy/Science Fiction novel waiting to be written inside of this comment.

Fahrenheit 451
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:04 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


You wouldn't need writing if you have video cameras.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by blue_beetle at 9:17 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm an optimist. I think a society without writing could do okay.

Record keeping and accounting has been done without writing before - see here for an example. Not as good as writing, but it may be enough to get the job done for many tasks. There are techniques that would be good enough for the scientific method. It's actually better than writing for visual representation of data (as long as you don't need complex mathematics).

Communication of ideas is hard without writing, but that would just add extra emphasis to the need to get great thinkers together. A university is more than just books. Get people talking, exchanging ideas, and give them a workshop to try stuff out. Again, not as good as writing, but it'll do for a lot of stuff.

It's less about remembering every little detail, and more about being able to create the chains of thought from scratch more efficiently than before. Don't memorise mountains of facts, memorise how to best find out those facts. Slow, but it could be done.

I agree that things like high-pressure steam engines are going to be a struggle, but that just means that it'll take longer to get there. There will be a death rate associated with the research, but sometimes people will guess right, or get lucky, and figure out a combination that works. If they can communicate that to others, or leave working examples, technology can move forward. Slowly.

This is a trial and error world. I can't see a way to get complex mathematics, but any technology that you can get from experimentation, guess work, or blind luck should be achievable.

Going through technologies:
Fire? Easy. Wheels? Yup. Masonry / building? Can be taught by craftsmen.

The accountancy needed to run a large community / country / empire? Use agents. Lose the illusion of central control, and just set up a system where each person performs a small part of the operation. Less efficient, but it'd work.

Steam engines - sure, given enough generations of tinkerers.

Rule of Law? It'd have to be simple, as discussed in the OP, but it's possible.

Computers? That's the limit, to my mind.
posted by YAMWAK at 9:22 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


If anyone's writing fiction based on this, I think deaf people should have a secret underground based on the superpower of drawing sketches/writing based on their sign language.

I think how complicated the technology would be depends on the time frame. If there are hundreds of thousands of years, I think trial and error could improve the technology to almost indefinite levels even without the calculations that cstross mentions. I think writing probably affects the rate of progress more than the ultimate level of progress.

I find it hard to believe that accounting systems or sign language or pictographic warnings don't develop into writing though. Surely someone's going to scratch an olive or fish on an amphora of olive or fish oil and things will develop from there. I'd find it easier to believe in a society without writing if there's some kind of easily-made or natural YouTube Crystal that makes video an alternative from the start.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:41 AM on January 3, 2016


> I find it hard to believe that accounting systems or sign language or pictographic warnings don't develop into writing though.

Those three are basically writing already. To satisfy the conditions without cheating, you can't have any of that. You pretty well have to be storing "thoughts" somehow, as in my two examples above...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:43 AM on January 3, 2016


leotrotsky: "the line [around] what constitutes 'writing' is probably a lot more fluid than you'd initially think."
Exactly the subject of The Ethnography of Rhythm, forthcoming in a couple of months. Enjoy!
posted by homerica at 9:47 AM on January 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


a society based on the wax cylinder equivalent of podcasts would be tolerable, one based on YouTube would be awful.

Imagine an oral tradition.based on YouTube video speech patterns.where Ze Frank.is the modern equivalent.of writers like.Chaucer.Dante.Pushkin.Shakespeare.omg how annoying!
posted by infinitewindow at 9:56 AM on January 3, 2016


Fahrenheit 451

Come to think of it, The Handmaid's Tale.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:57 AM on January 3, 2016


we don't have a single written word from anybody who built an aqueduct or road

Sextus Julius Frontinus begs to differ. He'd also like to remind you that there's more to aqueducts than engineering; you also need some way of regulating the water rights, which isn't so easy without a system of written law and written records.

The crucial question is not 'could you get to a technological society without the use of writing?' but 'could you get to a bureaucratic society without the use of writing?' I don't think you could. And without a bureaucracy based on written records (and all that follows from that in terms of law, land tenure, etc), history from at least the medieval period onwards would be unimaginably different.
posted by verstegan at 10:04 AM on January 3, 2016 [9 favorites]


a society based on podcasts

In the first couplet, Homer invokes the traditional easy-to-use web hosting provider, but only several stanzas later does he name the offer code AKHILLEUS; prior to this, he is only called "the discountful Myrmidon."
posted by infinitewindow at 10:07 AM on January 3, 2016 [8 favorites]


Darwin got the tree metaphor from linguists, who were doing it for languages, who got the idea from people who studies old texts

Robert J. O' Hara has written a fair bit about this (e.g.) His general contention is, if I recall right, that each discipline independently adopted the tree metaphor. Maybe something bigger was in the air that each took the idea from, or else a tree metaphor is just a compellingly neat structure for the two-dimensional representation of historical relationships, already in use for e.g. representations of human kinship.

I love this site on the history of tree diagrams.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 10:42 AM on January 3, 2016


What if the species/society has perfect recall? You'd probably have less people with multiple talents or skill sets, less autodidacts and polymaths, but one person with perfect recall might be able to hold quite a lot of information. That information would thus be very important -- jobs might stay within families; That guy over there is Steve, and he has thirty three generations of engineering in his head -- someone with multiple bodies of knowledge in their head would be extremely wealthy/powerful.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 10:50 AM on January 3, 2016


In the writing-free universe, MetaFilter consists of nothing BUT img tags.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:56 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


One possibility is that the society gets so good at design that its tools and everyday objects intuitively convey information. As the society grows, the objects become increasingly specialized and their interaction with other objects conveys additional information. All of that information is then overlaid with sophisticated social conventions that convey further information about the relationships of people and objects. For example, consider an Edwardian formal dinner. Each piece of silverware and glass has a specific use. Their design and arrangement tells the dinner something about the meal and how to consume it (how many courses, what dishes will be served, and in what order). On top of that, the size and shape of the table tells one where to sit and one's social relationship to the host and other diners. On top of that, how each guest is dressed tell one something about the occasion, the diner's wealth, the diner's social standing, and possibly the diner's profession. Now apply that level of signalling (or greater) to every interaction on all levels. The objects, people, and the relationships between them replace writing. Just like words, one doesn't have to memorize all existing permutations, one just needs to know how to interpret the meaning of the relationships.
posted by chrisulonic at 11:05 AM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:08 AM on January 3, 2016 [5 favorites]


Cool post and follow up.

I'm more optimistic but cstross' post was good and I admit not sure how much further I'm convinced we could go*. For most of history we actually got feats of massive and/or very clever engineering by illiterates who learned their trade by training. In many historical cases writing is actually fairly disconnected from reality, because the class of people who wrote things down weren't the class who did things. (E,g., in the medieval era apparently accounts of naval battles talked about ships ramming each other, because that's how you wrote about naval battles since ancient times--even though ships were not designed that way anymore.) Writing is how we know about old tech I think it's historical importance can be overrated.

Even today anyone who's done a tech transfer, or tried a literature procedure, will tell you how important the unwritten parts are in accomplishing anything. With massive specialization I think you can have an awful lot of information transmission over generations.

Working out theories (especially math) without symbolic notation seems way harder. When do you absolutely need "theory" to do an invention? It wasn't really until late 19th century that this was heavily applied to practical items, and I think we could've gotten further if we needed to. I don't see why you couldn't have an automobile.

So how much further can you go? Could you make a case for numerical solutions to hard math problems, absent calculus, through an (initially) mechanical computing machine? But then this would probably count as writing?

*Note I'm inclined to allow something like an abacus or counting tokens as non-writing. And certainly you can communicate a lot with drawings and diagrams.
posted by mark k at 11:51 AM on January 3, 2016


I'm on the team that a lot of technical knowledge would be passed down through apprenticeships and guilds, and the first bottleneck would end up being administrative tasks.

But on those administrative tasks, the use of money is a really hard loophole to patch. If I can give someone a "persistent token representing so many sheaves of wheat or ewes or whatever" and can decide the token represents an arbitrary quantity of wheat or ewes, then that's a physical representation of a quantity, which is treading pretty close to the idea of writing. And what if instead of giving you the tokens, I put them in a box that represents the idea that it's your property?

But from the bit about "working human calculators" those can only be necessary if counting tokens are not permitted. I think to be consistent with that restriction, money would have to be precious metals, or salt or whatever resource, and its value based only on that material value.

And Chrisulonic got me thinking how many symbolic communications exist that weren't strictly writing but blur the lines. Is a coat-of-arms or a tartan or a family crest writing? What if I label my boxes of salt with these to indicate who the box represents? What about the symbol that a shop might hang on a shingle to indicate its trade, barber poles, that sort of thing?

If I roll with the ideas about steam engines, maybe there are no locomotive steam engines, but the thick walls of the boiler require they remain still, like a steam donkey. Then maybe you could still have some short-distance transportation operating like cable cars.
posted by RobotHero at 1:35 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


maybe there are no locomotive steam engines, but the thick walls of the boiler require they remain still, like a steam donkey. Then maybe you could still have some short-distance transportation operating like cable cars.

The boiler for the Stanley Steamer was engineered pretty seat-of-the-pants and was very safe, with its piano wire sheathing. So you could have had longer distance steam transportation without detailed analysis.
posted by Bringer Tom at 1:47 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


I feel like I've read a story like this, where a space faring society was based on highly specialised clans that passed on their knowledge through practical experience. They had clans like The Engine Builders and The Atmosphere Makers. I might have imagined it though.

If you're allowed models and machines, very refined ones along with guilds seem like they'd be able to at least maintain an existing advanced technological civilisation if it was known in advance that writing would be lost. Developing mathematics is difficult without writing, but you can build a machine that gives you the answers once you know how. I like the image of almost religious building and maintaining of venerated technical demonstrations, like cathedrals of engineering.
posted by lucidium at 4:03 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


But "slightly better hand axes" isn't what we normally mean by "a technological society".

If by "we" we mean people woefully ignorant of even the basics of any of the anthropological disciplines that could actually do more than masturbate on this question.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:31 PM on January 3, 2016


That is most of this discussion involves ironically rules-lawyering the definition of technology to be equivalent to some form of modernity. And sure, I'll grant that modern socio-economic systems depend on writing, broadly defined. But non-literate apprenticeship systems are deeply technological as well.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:41 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Muscle memory! To know how to do something you have to put your entire body into it. It might create a culture that's more tactile, more physical.
posted by divabat at 6:42 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


"Granite and other natural materials contain quartz crystals, which are piezoelectric and have other electrical properties. It is claimed by some that this allows the electromagnetic storage of human feelings and experiences, particularly ones associated with extreme emotions - for example, this would explain the phenomenon of "ghosts" as "recordings of someone's extreme emotions at their deaths in the Akashic records".
To me, the physics seems implausible (if nothing else, the inverse square law would seem to restrict it to people who actually died with their heads actually touching such a stone) but suppose it worked readily "once you got the knack". Then you could create a "library" simply by sitting somewhere with a lot of granite and thinking really coherently for long periods."


I think there's something pretty similar to this in Doris Egan's Ivory trilogy, actually.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:50 PM on January 3, 2016


Hmm. Could you actually prove the Pythagorean Theorem without using images?
posted by happyroach at 12:31 AM on January 4, 2016


Sorry mefites, but what this discussion mostly proves is that very few of you have been within a sniff of an oral society.
sorry, its the 'no beaurocracy' comment that tipped me over the edge.
posted by glasseyes at 1:33 AM on January 4, 2016 [2 favorites]


In the first couplet, Homer invokes the traditional easy-to-use web hosting provider, but only several stanzas later does he name the offer code AKHILLEUS; prior to this, he is only called "the discountful Myrmidon."

"Prythee lyke ynd ſubscrybe"
posted by rifflesby at 5:40 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


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