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What if we don't need to read anymore? Futurist recommendations...
March 3, 2014 1:19 PM   Subscribe

What fiction, non-fiction, or academic works on a "post-literate" world can you recommend? Has anyone written about a world where the most successful and powerful don't necessarily posses the ability to read or write as we know it?

There's plenty of dystopian literature that deals with illiteracy in post-apocalyptic or hopelessly corrupt worlds. Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" might be an example of the powerful oppressing the masses by promoting illiteracy.

But what about the opposite (in a way)? Who's wrestled with the possibility (rightly or wrongly) that technology could advance to a point that reading and writing as we know it isn't really necessary? Maybe it's not technological advancement that gets us there. Maybe it is ultimately dystopian and objectionable. Could there be a functional world that doesn't require the best and the brightest to have the skill of interpreting visual, written symbols as language?

I'm familiar with some fictional work out there - and want more. I know there's some non-fictional work out there too - and want more. What about academics? Has anyone approached illiteracy in a perhaps grandiose way that entertains a future without reading as we know it?
posted by GPF to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Has anyone written about a world where the most successful and powerful don't necessarily posses the ability to read or write as we know it?

That world existed until quite recently, historically speaking. Are you just looking for books about the future, or would history (fact or fictional) work as well?

For instance:

Most of the powerful people in Nicola Griffith's novel Hild cannot read.

We know very little about the extremely complex society/societies that formed the Chaco Culture, which was a nexus of trade, manufacturing, ceremonial stuff, among others, because they left no evidence of a written record. How did they organize all of that without writing? We don't know, but they did it.
posted by rtha at 2:08 PM on March 3


Not quite sure if this is what you're looking for - not least because I haven't yet finished the book - but in Neil Stephenson's Anathem, reading and writing is mostly restricted to monk-like groups who live in isolation, devoted to the preservation of culture. The world at large has moved past reading and relies on a system of animated symbols to convey meaning; from Stephenson's description, it something like a blend of pictographs and company logos.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:16 PM on March 3


> That world existed until quite recently, historically speaking. Are you just looking for books about the future, or would history (fact or fictional) work as well?

Of course, that's absolutely right. I suppose I'd be interested in historical fact for fiction too. But, I'd be interested too if the group of successful and powerful would include the "scholarly educated" who don't read. Thanks!


> The world at large has moved past reading and relies on a system of[...]

Yes, that's something I'm very interested in. But, alas, the subject headings from worldcat don't jump out with other leads. Thanks!
posted by GPF at 2:51 PM on March 3


It's arguably not futurist (long long time ago etc etc), but Star Wars fits the bill.
posted by flipper at 3:21 PM on March 3


If you're familiar with some fictional work on the idea, you probably already know about Ted Chiang's SF short story from last fall on a theme similar to your idea: The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling. If you haven't read it, it's tough to put it down after the first paragraph:

When my daughter Nicole was an infant, I read an essay suggesting that it might no longer be necessary to teach children how to read or write, because speech recognition and synthesis would soon render those abilities superfluous. My wife and I were horrified by the idea, and we resolved that, no matter how sophisticated technology became, our daughter’s skills would always rest on the bedrock of traditional literacy.
posted by crazy with stars at 3:29 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]


In the moderate-to-far future sections of Kage Baker's Company series, only middle to lower-class people destined to be clerks need to learn to read.
posted by nonane at 5:52 PM on March 3


Beggars in Spain has that for large swathes of populations due to video and oral culture., and the sleepers use an invented language that is not entirely word-based.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:30 PM on March 3


In the YA series Matched the characters exist in a world where reading and writing have been outlawed. There have been 100 government-sanctioned works of art, poems, music, etc. that are studied and memorized, but no other creation is allowed. No one in the "Society," including the elite, are able to write. Some characters raised on the fringes of society have been able to write, and teach other characters in secret.
posted by brynna at 6:42 PM on March 3


In David Zindell's far future Neverness (and connected Requiem for Homo Sapiens series), reading is very much a lost, rare art. Rather, the learned use what are known as "ideoplasts," which Zindell describes as "three-dimensional mental symbols," of which there are said to be 23,000 "basic" ones.

In one scene in The Broken God, one character (a highly educated star pilot) expresses astonishment that another character can read, and admits that he "never learned these barbaric arts." But the ability to read does play an important role for rare individuals, particularly because ancient poetry figures as important at certain points.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:11 PM on March 3


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