Memory in Oral and Literate Cultures

In 1963, Jack Goody and Ian Watt described a high-level overview of humanity’s move from predominantly oral cultures to predominantly literate ones, focusing on the consequences of literacy. One of these consequences was a shift in how we remember.

Oral cultures were almost entirely rote memory-based. The next time you feel discouraged about memorizing the contents of your next closed-book exam, take heart in this knowledge of the human ability for recall: for a very long time, the entirety of a culture was held firmly in someone’s skull. Often these societies made use of mnemonic devices and rituals, and also employed professional remember-ers to maintain their store of knowledge.

Dory from the film Finding Nemo on an ocean background. Text above and below the image reads,

When I first thought about these professional remember-ers, I was immediately launched back to one of my middle school reading classes, The Giver by Lois Lowry nestled in my hands. But the more I thought, the more I started to think about our more contemporary versions of remember-ers: librarians, archivists, and museum curators.

As holders of our cultural heritage, the memory institutions that are libraries, archives, and museums are in a constant state of flux. While from the outside they seem to be the static, foreboding backbone of the academic enterprise, under the hood their workers are abuzz trying to find ways to best preserve, organize, and make accessible the stuff of our humanity. For example, a 2009 study examined how European Union research projects in archives, libraries, and museums communicated memory and provided recommendations for how information workers can balance their technology and information-centric responsibilities with their role as memory communicators.

These institutions also often carry the burden of ensuring diverse representation in their collections and preserving the history of underrepresented and minoritized groups—groups whose memories have often been intentionally targeted for destruction. The book Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Preserving Our Language, Memory, and Lifeways describes how memory institutions are working to maintain Indigenous knowledge, tradition, and languages. This requires examining the authority by which certain hierarchies of epistemology are established so that Native voices are prioritized over others when representing their history (a topic also explored in our course by Ellen Cushman’s examination of the Cherokee syllabary).

Oral and literate cultures are very different in the technical processes they employ in remembering, but both employ(ed) professional memory keepers to preserve their cultures. While in oral societies these were people tasked with keeping the glut of culture lodged between their ears, in literate societies they are people with the equally daunting task of collecting, labeling, and organizing the rapidly increasing holdings of our heritage and creating relationships between objects and the mind such that when we engage with these collections, we are not only reading and learning, but also remembering.

Writing as a System for Memory

Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato warned against the dangers of writing. While many around him saw the system as an exciting method of spreading art and knowledge, Plato viewed things differently. His critique was that reading and writing will lead to less education in society, not more. This is due to the convenience writing creates, whereby you don’t have to memorize information. Instead you can keep it written down somewhere, outside your mind. Writing is a system “not for memory, but for reminder,” he said, offering only the semblance of wisdom.

Picture of Plato

Many rightfully dismiss Plato’s doomsday predictions. Contrary to what he expected, education has increased over time, and literacy has only ever helped, not hindered, that development. That’s not to say reading and writing are necessary for proper education, as Goody and Watt demonstrated by showing that oral cultures were just as intelligent as literate ones. Still, I don’t think anyone would say reading and writing have been categorically harmful. Many people’s education has benefited from books and other written methods of communication.

All that said, I think Plato’s main argument against writing—that it disincentivizes people to truly know and remember information—is an interesting one. It’s an empirical question, and looking at the data to see how well people in highly literature societies commit the things they read to memory should shed light on Plato’s claims. And it seems there is something to what he said. People don’t often remember very detailed information from what they read. Now in the Internet age, people rely even more on external methods to store information.

Puzzle in the shape of a brain

But this does not justify Plato’s ultimate dismissal of writing. Like all human actions, writing comes with tradeoffs. When you choose to do one thing, that necessarily means you willingly give up the time you could have spent on something else. This applies to writing, just on a much larger scale. When a society chooses to use writing as its primary method of education, it chooses to embrace both the positives and negatives associated with literacy, and forego the positives and negatives associated with oral societies. The problem Plato laid out then is much more complex than he seems to realize.

Picture of a brain with a USB cord extending from it

There are methods readers can use to better remember the material they read, such as writing down notes (which helps you remember the information in the process) and reflecting deeply on the material after reading. There’s also a possible rebuttal to Plato’s idea of the mind and what counts as knowledge from modern philosophy. The Extended Mind Thesis (EMT), famously argued by analytic philosopher David Chalmers, states that the human mind is not limited to the brain, but is also part of things external from a person, like a notebook or a computer. Thus, writing might have widened the human mind rather than diminished it. EMT is a highly debated concept, but is none-the-less a potentially interesting counter-point to Plato.

Implications of Writing


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.

Ted Chiang and Fictional Examples of Concepts Considered in English 4574

So far in English 4574, my classmates and I have read about all sorts of science-fiction-sounding concepts. Wood’s ideas about the incorporation of artificially intelligent virtual assistants into our daily lives (think Siri, Alexa). The idea that picto-, ideo-, and logograms are all unique ways humans communicate, as discussed by Schmandt-Besserat. Young people’s increasing reliance on “smart” or assistive technology like word processors as showcased by Grabhill et all.

If you’re anything like me, then you might feel that although these concepts are intriguing to consider, they’re sometimes difficult to imagine happening. Either that, or their consequences have yet to fully play out in our world. We as a society are still in the throes of dozens of issues like the ones above. Issues of privacy, memory, self-expression, and communication all tied up in the realms of English composition, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and probably more to come. We’re living through history. The issues discussed by the academics we read are ours to tackle.

But, again, if you’re anything like me, you don’t exactly know where to start. Or, you think the issues themselves are interesting–entertaining, even–and want to read more about them. Allow me to introduce you to the works of Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang is an American author famous for his thought-provoking science fiction short stories and novellas. Arrival 11x17 Inch Movie POSTER: Posters & PrintsYou might be familiar with the movie version one of his more famous works: Arrival. The movie is based on Chiang’s short story titled “The Story of Your Life.” The plot centers around a linguistics professor named Louise Banks who is tasked with deciphering the complex language of aliens who have just arrived in Earth’s orbit. The story delves into ideas about cultural anthropology, the three “-grams”, and the paradigms of memory.

But wait! There’s more! Chiang has written two collections worth of short stories over the course of his career, and language/communication seems to be a favorite topic of his. His story “Seventy-Two Letters” dives into archaic ideas of names having intrinsic power. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a twist on our usual artificial intelligence story: instead of Siri or Alexa, scientists create semi-sentient digital “pets” called Digients. The story examines how humans interact with and treat these Digients, and what that says about us.

My favorite of Chiang’s language-related stories is probably “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction”. This story harkens back to Plato’s ideas about memory and writing, but brings these concepts into a fictionalized version of our not-so-distant future. Characters in the story use a technology called Remem as a sort of constant life log. Every moment of their lives is recorded and sorted into categories, essentially externalizing human memory; exactly what Plato feared.

TLDR: Chiang’s stories provide excellent examples of the sorts of concepts we’ve been considering in class. Chiang’s prose is characteristically moving and lyrical while simultaneously drawing upon real scientific theories. If you haven’t read any of his work before, I highly recommend you do.