02/13/07 - literate and nonliterate

In today's excerpt - literate and nonliterate cultures:

"Scholars sometimes speak of 'nonliterate' civilizations—the Inca in South America or such West African states as the Ashanti of the seventeenth century or the Dahomey of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But on close inspection such societies seem always to have some good information technology. They may not be able to record their poems, but they can handle more vital data, such as numbers, just fine.

"The Dahomey, for example, took a census to aid taxation and military mobilization. Their database consisted of a room full of boxes containing pebbles that signified the number of men and women, boys and girls, in each village. Updating was continuous, via the registering of every birth and death (including the cause of death) throughout the land. For similar purposes, the Inca used the quipu, the variously knotted and colored strings that only specialists understood. ...

"That the benefit of ancient writing may have clustered near the top of the social pyramid shouldn't surprise us. ... The fewer the gatekeepers, the more power they had. Ancient Mesopotamia had an estimated literacy rate of less than 1 percent. It's hard to say whether this reflected an attempt by the elites to monopolize the technology, but in any event scribes were a small and esteemed class, complete with an official deity (aptly, the goddess of fertility). Entry to the class—via lengthy instruction at the 'tablet house'—was granted mainly to the privileged. A Sumerian text describes a rich man giving his son's writing teacher food, a robe, and a ring to ensure a passing grade, in spite of his son's indiscipline.

"Many scribes were mere transcribers, and didn't themselves call the shots. Still, they seem to have reveled in the power emanating from their art. Some Egyptian scribes opined that the lower classes, lacking in brains, had to be driven like cattle. Actually, what the lower classes lacked was their own personal scribe."


Robert Wright


NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny


Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright


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