It hardly needs prefaced the impact of literacy in our culture; the relevance of written communication in most (if not all) functions of society.
Does progressively easier access of information and continually more effective communication only serve us for the better? Are there any adverse effects?
In considering people groups that function without literacy, present or historically, it may not be as much a question of better or worse as it is an apples-to-oranges kind of comparison. It is easy for us to see the indispensable perks of life as we know it – many thanks to writing and reading. Void of these methods, however, while life would be altogether different, we may be ignorant to assume that it would be worse.
Words have power, and large-scale communication can result in catastrophe. With the more intimate social structure that springs from depending on in-person dialogue, the tragedies could, arguably, be more finite or contained. Problems, still, perhaps – just different ones (again, apples to oranges).
Some may say that our access to the writings of people from many different backgrounds would give us more perspective. However, while this could contribute to a kind of “global perspective” or unified worldview, it also comes with wide variations from person to person since we all take in different information (books, websites, etc.), contrasting experiences and influences. Conversely, in an inter-reliant people group would be more likely to have a shared perspective, rooted in reality as it applies to them.
For a people group such as that, there would be an insignificant risk of information overload. Distinctions of people’s roles in society would be more clear. In one sense, that could be viewed as restrictive; however, in societies like ours, many people struggle to find their niche with such an expanse of possibilities. The open potential and constant stream of (usually) inapplicable information could be hindering in its own way.
For many of us, the importance of reading is instilled to us throughout childhood, whether through school, our parents, or even from community incentives such as the libraries’ summer reading programs. Reading is a cornerstone to learning, fundamental to acquiring knowledge. While this may be true, it is not to say that reading itself actually makes us more intelligent. In fact, Plato once said this: “they will cease to exercise memory because they will rely on that which is written…And it is no true wisdom…but only its semblance.” (Ironically, that quote has been preserved through writing.) It is interesting to consider the ways that our mental acuteness may be affected through societal advancements; progress that simultaneously shows the capacity of and lifts burdens from our minds.
For more insight about literate and nonliterate cultures, refer to The Consequences of Literacy by J. Goody.