How Literacy Created Civilisation, Part II: A Digital Dark Age?
Medieval scholars held that legere ante intellegere: reading precedes intellect. At every stage in the development of civilisation, higher rates of literacy facilitated greater economic and cultural sophistication. The first urban societies could never have risen above tribal units without a system of record-keeping that did not rely on personal trust and human memory. During the Industrial Revolution, the West escaped the surly bonds of agrarianism only through the work of a large class of managers, clerks, engineers, lawyers, and indeed even workers who had to read to do complex jobs effectively.
Accordingly, as other civilisations scrambled to catch up, the cornerstone of every modernisation programme was mass education. Japan and later China radically simplified their written languages. Korea ditched Chinese characters entirely in favour of Hangul, the most intuitive writing system in the world. Hangul had actually been developed centuries earlier, but was suppressed by Sinophilic mandarins and then Japanese occupiers until 1945. Within a generation, South Korea had grown from one of the poorest countries on earth to one of the richest.
(For thousands of years in East Asia, all nations wrote primarily in Classical Chinese, equivalent to Latin in Europe. Writing in a dead language that is fundamentally different to the tongue you speak sounds bizarre to us today, but it was actually the norm around the world until recent times. Indeed, a similar situation exists in present-day Africa, where people speak local languages but mainly read European ones.)
Vietnam, Turkey, and others jettisoned their traditional scripts entirely in favour of the Latin alphabet. Turkish revolutionaries transformed their whole language, purging the Arabic and Persian loanwords that peppered Ottoman vocabulary and replacing them with etymologically Turkish equivalents. (Just a few generations earlier, the Ottoman intelligentsia had done theological gymnastics to discourage popular literacy, reinterpreting the well-known hadith that “the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr” as a prohibition of the printing press.)
In 1950, half of all people around the world could not read. Over the past few decades, that number has plummeted to just 14%. It is a stupendous triumph for humanity, and has paid dividends in making people around the world richer and freer than ever before.
However, if you let your eyes adjust to the bright future we now inhabit, you can see some stark shadows. On one hand, the Digital Revolution that has reshaped how the world runs creates an even greater premium on literacy than the Industrial Revolution did. On the other hand, it is far more possible today than it was twenty years ago to get through life without doing any difficult reading. Tech’s inexorable drive to make things easier for users is particularly insidious for the poorest people, who are able to scrape by in menial work without learning the skills they would need to move up.
A few years ago, China was scandalised by a report that most undergraduates at Peking University were so reliant on the prevailing system of typing in Latin letters then selecting the right character from a list of suggestions that few could write the character for “sneeze.” Alumni of China’s Harvard do okay in life, but illiteracy is a serious issue for hundreds of millions of undereducated, mainly rural Chinese who have been left behind by their country’s economic transformation. One of the fundamental barriers to China’s further development is that the most basic requirement for any modern job entails memorising at least 3,000 characters that are as intricate as they are arbitrary.
In countries like India and Brazil, text-to-speech interfaces make it easier than ever for people to scrape by without any of the hard work needed to develop their reading skills. Voice directions are fine for delivery driving, but they will not get you far in high-paying modern jobs.
Across a broad swath of the world, and even among large communities in the West, Islamic fundamentalism offers a blunter threat. Clerics and thugs from Kabul to Saint-Denis flatly discourage reading anything (except maybe the Quran, under their guidance), especially for girls. The 14% of people who cannot read today are concentrated in regions of the world where regressive values like these are prevalent; thanks to their fecund birthrates, the illiterate population is actually growing. Unless something changes, they will only fall farther behind.
Perhaps most alarming is the decline of literacy in the most developed countries in the world, where it is most necessary and has long been taken for granted. People learn to read both through formal education, and simply through osmosis, picking it up through reading in their daily lives. Today, both these pillars are being eroded.
The United Nations estimates that educational disruptions wrought by school closures since 2020 have wiped out twenty years of advances in literacy. The hundred million extra kids who now cannot read at age-appropriate levels are distributed throughout the developed and developing worlds, but virtually all are on the wrong end of yawning inequality.
It is likely that many of them will never make this ground up, in part because of developments outside school. Two generations ago, people could access most entertainment and news only through reading full-length articles or books. In the age of Instagram, why bother?
On the higher end, the new digital economy has created a premium on a new, more technical sort of writing: computer coding. Of course, today’s surgeons and lawyers and private equity analysts can do just fine without being literate in Python, but virtually all top-tier jobs today do require a high level of technical proficiency, usually at least involving Microsoft Excel. The enjoinder to “learn to code!” has become a bit of a caricature, and it echoes well-to-do Victorians mocking proles of their day for not knowing how to read. The hoi polloi did learn their ABCs, but tensions between those who got out ahead of the new industrial economy and those left behind provoked generations of unrest and political strife.
We have focused until now on the driving role literacy has played in economic and cultural development. It enabled people to organise into the first urban societies, to build flourishing Classical cities, to change the world with the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and now the digital one. But as literacy spread, it also transformed politics.
Democracy cannot thrive without mass literacy. This is true at a very basic level: to vote, you have to know which box to tick. But it is a broader principle that if people are not well-informed on the issues, democracies fall easy prey to demagogues and dictators. In the 1st Century B.C., millions of Roman farmers who lacked the skills and capital to compete in a globalising empire were willing to throw all their rights out the window in exchange for grand promises from a fast-talking man with an impressive laurel crown. Caesar never would have been Caesar without them.
The importance of a well-educated populace has only risen in an ever more complex world. But are we keeping up? In the 20th Century, polling organisations closely tracked the share of Americans who read literature. It rose steadily generation over generation, but in the 2000s, it started to fall precipitously. This is an imperfect metric, but it is a good proxy for gauging how comfortable people are with high-level reading. More pointed studies have found that as many as a fifth of American adults are functionally illiterate, falling short of the abilities expected of a fifth grader.
Literacy is a spectrum, and one can poke holes in any given study. But none of us would expect a political culture in which any issue must be addressed in 160 characters to be a healthy one. As we saw in Part I with the decline of Rome, the same symbiosis between literacy and civilisational sophistication that drove humanity’s greatest achievements can cycle in reverse.
Today’s trends are not running toward societal collapse, but neither is it a recipe for success to have a small number of people with the skills to get ahead while everybody else has nothing to look forward to except TikTok trends and cheap sloganeering. Reading and writing have enabled us to advance our civilisation so far that many people can live as if those things are no longer necessary. But we should read our history and remember not to take anything for granted.