In honor of May the Fourth, also known as Star Wars Day, I wanted to write about something Star Wars-related. I’ve previously expressed my relative lack of interest in critiquing the scientific accuracy of any specific element like lightsabers or thermal exhaust ports, so I didn’t want to do that. I considered writing about the Hero’s Journey archetype that fits so many of our most enduring stories, but that seemed a little too mainstream.
Instead, let’s talk about a theory/observation that was laid out in this Tor article by Ryan Britt, among other places. The main point is summed up by the title of his subsequent book exploring some interesting and less-considered aspects of geekdom: Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths.
I’m assuming this little tidbit was chosen as the title because it seemed like one of the most attention-grabbing phrases in the book, and for good reason. The fact that you’re reading this blog indicates that you’re literate yourself, and you may take for granted that the people around you are too. For most of us, the restriction of literacy to the lucky few is a relic of the past, so at first glance, the prospect of widespread illiteracy jars with the technological marvels of the Republic and Empire.
The online discussion of this theory brings up all kinds of evidence on both sides, with rebuttals for a lot of the pro-illiteracy points. (There’s no sign of news media, let alone written communication about the trouble on Naboo—but there’s a blockade in place! There are almost no signs with words—but Luke and Anakin both communicate with R2-D2 via text on a screen! Leia remarks on the rarity of handwriting in Bloodline—but she has seen it before!) I love seeing how many details people have considered, but I think we shouldn’t overlook a few broader points of the argument.
The first point is that we’re not talking about total illiteracy, but post-literacy—not a galactic civilization that developed without the written word, but one that considers itself to have outgrown the need for reading and writing in most applications. Communication happens by way of holographic projections or other speech- and video-based methods, which presumably replaced other media at some point, whether because of their convenience or because some marketing-savvy corporations sold them as the wave of the future. What little entertainment media we see is likewise image-based. (Of course, nobody watches a ground-breaking scifi-effects extravaganza to watch people reading books, or reading out loud to themselves while they type emails or texts or telegrams or whatever. This isn’t You’ve Got Mail.)
In any case, there’s a whole spectrum between universal reading fluency and universal illiteracy. I’d imagine a lot of people can still read (even if almost nobody writes), and most people can at least recognize whatever symbols and words they need to do their jobs. It’s totally believable that your average pilot or moisture farmer works mostly with symbols or video manuals that tell them everything they need to know about their systems, with actual written words only rarely necessary. In fact, this is well documented in certain professions like truck driving, where there are stories of more drivers than you would think getting by with memorizing just the shapes of words and names they need to know.
That brings me to the second point, which is that even though there’s not a ton of hard evidence in the Star Wars canon, the post-literate galaxy seems pretty plausible. Heck, our own rapidly-changing technological landscape has a lot of people talking about post-literacy as a thing already in progress, not a future possibility (or one from a long time ago, as the case may be).
The biggest argument for us already being on the way to post-literacy is how technology has changed our communications and entertainment. Bemoaning how the youth don’t read anymore is nothing new, but we certainly do spend a lot of time with screens, much of which involves reading shorter and less complex text. Just a few weeks ago, my Android phone started suggesting emoji to replace some of my words in texts, reminding me of this comparison of emoji and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then there are the non-screen areas of life where symbols are already replacing words, like the washing instructions on clothing labels.
The question I have trouble approaching with any detachment is not just whether post-literacy is happening, but whether it would be such an awful thing. This essay, for example, argues that post-literacy is the logical next step as technology moves beyond reading and writing as necessary skills. My opinion is that the written word is a joy, an art form, and a very effective means of communication, and I recognize that some people disagree (though at least one study shows that people are choosing to spend more time reading longer articles on their phones, so I know I’m not alone). I also recognize that image- and video-based media can do a lot that words alone can’t, and vice versa, which is one reason why book-movie adaptations in either direction are so hard to do well.
Still, I think there’s something special about reading. For one thing, there’s the efficiency—most people who are able to read silently get through text much faster than if they listen to the same content read aloud. This is why I find it so infuriating when I click on an interesting link and find a five-minute video in place of the quick article I expected. When time matters, most information simply isn’t important enough to take up five minutes instead of two, and well-written text is a lot faster to digest and even reread if necessary.
This is important, but a lot of our most significant reading is done not for efficiency, but for beauty. Unlike reading for speed, here reading aloud or listening is just as good as reading silently, if not better. The key thing for me is the difference between words and image-based media. As I said, video and text have different strengths—each cinematographer has a unique style, but it doesn’t reproduce the specific words a writer uses to describe a scene, or convey the complexity of internal narration or monologue. (This is especially true for English, which is rich in synonyms from different languages and has an incredible breadth of options for conveying tone and perspective.) I also cherish the imaginative work that comes from reading or listening to descriptions without images, which lets us form our own mental pictures. We managed to do this perfectly well before widespread literacy with strong oral traditions, but I can’t imagine a way to achieve it with image-based media.
My hope for the future of this galaxy, whoever lives here and however it’s run, is that our technological advances will enrich the best and most beautiful of what we have already, not replace it. We have room for words, pictures, and whatever else comes along, and all of them will be great. Most of all, I hope that whatever upheavals and problems come our way, we won’t forget to make and enjoy lovely and fun things. I’m only sorry I won’t be able to see the science fiction of the future!
[I’m not here to be alarmist or to ramble, so I haven’t discussed a lot of the educational resources that express concern about growing rates of reading difficulty among students. The effects of the Internet and ubiquitous screens are too new for us to really understand how they affect the social pressures and trends that were already present before their invention, and there’s a lot of disagreement on whether our reading and viewing habits actually pose a threat to literacy. In any case, nobody’s claiming that a post-literate culture would be less intelligent, just very different.
For more discussions on post-literacy and whether we’re on the way to it, check out resources like Beyond Literacy, which approaches post-literacy as inevitable, and articles like this commentary from a college professor. (Yes, it comes across as somewhat “get off my lawn,” but I tend to get that way about reading myself.) For a very depressing near-future post-literate society, try something like Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, or start by reading this interview with him.]