Last week we had a wide-ranging conversation about Literacy and Technology. I was joined by Reggie Lutz, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Christian Stiehl.
To start off, I wanted to establish basic broad definitions for literacy and technology. Literacy we talked about as reading and writing, of course, but also as a special skill set that marks people considered "educated." This isn't necessarily restricted to reading and writing. Technology, similarly, is a broader category than just computers and electronics as we often think of it; it also includes things like forks and pencils - tools for literacy.
Glenda mentioned how historically we have lost technologies at different time periods. Christian said that we can be inspired by looking at Roman ruins, but it's interesting to think about how at a certain point, people didn't remember how to do the things that the Romans had once accomplished. I spoke about the book How the Irish Saved Civilization. This book talks (among other things) about how many critical works of scholarship were copied and preserved by Irish monks while the rest of Europe suffered such plague and upheaval that most of this work was lost.
We asked what kind of special literacies have been possessed by the poor, or by farmers - people we wouldn't necessarily associate with literacy in the classical sense of reading and writing.
Writing systems in Sumer were originally used to do things like track shipments of food and other commodities, giving merchants the ability to surpass human memory. The Inca used knot-tying for the same purpose. Christian mentioned that knot-tying (in hair) was used as a language by Patrick Rothfuss in his books, so the opportunities for worldbuilding are certainly rich! Christian noted that the Etruscans sent their letter forms up to the Norse, but the fact that the Norse used wood to carve letters on instead of paper or clay changed the forms of the letters. Paper and wood are technologies that have critical influence on letter forms and how writing is accomplished.
The invention of the printing press is often cited as a major transition between the literacy of the few to the literacy of the many. This is a critical change in societies, and it is worth asking whether it has happened in your fictional world (and if so, when!).
Reggie talked about cultural literacy in her dragon shape-shifter novel. There is a form of human cultural literacy (including reading and writing) which is possessed by the dragons who can change into humans, but not by the older dragons. Since the dragons' long lives mean these different types coexist, it gives rise to interesting conflicts.
We also talked about post-apocalyptic scenarios. Often you can find instances where literacy is considered archaic - not a survival tool but valuable to preserve past knowledge. This got us onto the topic of "oral literacy" - specifically, the use of conceptual tools like rhyme and meter to help people preserve their memory of literary works. We asked "What happens when people have been reading and have lost their oral skills?"
Glenda noted there is an economy of being taught to read. If children work, when do they have time to learn reading? Would they learn instead by song? Are children apprenticed as scribes? What do you do without a printing press to preserve your written heritage?
Christian spoke a little about scribal notation in Latin - basically, written shorthand to speed up the process of writing, such as using a special symbol to denote the character sequence "prae." This kind of shorthand allowed scribes to save on valuable parchment.
I spoke briefly about literacy in my Varin world. This is a place where tree fiber is not available in sufficient quantity to create paper, so paper is generally made of fibers similar to cotton or hemp, and is therefore very expensive. Reading has a different significance for the undercaste who are not taught in schools. It is a self-defense skill for people who often are manipulated by bureaucrats with hard-to-understand papers that must be signed, and individuals can earn money by reading for their friends who are unable to read. For an individual on the verge of starvation reading can mean the difference between life and death.
Back in the real world, druids apparently had beliefs about writing things down, saying "books can lie." There was a belief that books could not be held accountable for their veracity in the way that people could. In this time period, oaths were of extreme importance.
We all thought it would be an interesting challenge to write a story set in an all-oral culture. There would probably be storytellers, and messages would be memorized. Story mechanics so often rely on messages being carried on paper that it's interesting to think about how one might avoid such things!
I mentioned how performance changes a language. Similarly, recopying changes a manuscript. Writing can slow the process of language change somewhat, but not entirely, as we see in English spelling! At one time it was common to spell English words in multiple ways (even perhaps admired!). Sometimes things were capitalized in unusual ways as well. Was this intended to provide emphasis? Was it an influence from German (where nouns are capitalized)? In science fiction and fantasy, capitalization often indicates that something has a larger cultural significance. Glenda said she reads capitalized words as proper nouns within the story world.
We spoke for a few minutes about literacy tools in story writing and what they can allow you to do. For example, I talked about italicization of words in a story. Sometimes this is used for emphasis. Sometimes it's used to indicate internalized thought. Other times it can be used to indicate that a word is foreign. The style in which it's used is not uniform. In "Cold Words," I wrote the story as if every person in it were speaking the Aurrel language, and the English narrative was a translation. Therefore I used italics only for English words that were *not* translated into Aurrel, such as friend and spaceport.
Reggie mentioned how we talk about people as being "literate" but also "computer-literate." We wondered whether on a farm one could conceivably talk about being "plow-literate." What is your form of literacy? How are people marked as accomplished?
Christian talked about how Charlemagne instituted policies and spent lots of money to spread the skills of literacy - quite late in his life, in his 50's and 60's, he started trying to learn to read and write himself. His efforts led to the invention of lower-case (minuscule) characters.
We talked about writing by hand. The value of handwriting in our society is in decline - but writers often feel that they can write more effectively on paper. Typing skill has to some degree replaced handwriting in importance. Will there be a time when cursive is used only for signatures? I mentioned how word processing had changed the use of kanji characters in Japanese, because the computer will bring up a number of kanji options as you type, and you only have to choose which one is correct. This has led to a decrease in the productive knowledge of kanji, even though receptive knowledge remains high.
Our tools change the way we use our brains.
Thanks to everyone who participated in this fascinating chat! And here's the video... This image makes me laugh because I have my eyes closed. I hope you enjoy it!
Please feel free to join us at 11am PDT today to talk about Matching Culture with Character Motives.