Imagine a world where every form of written form - alphabet, books, documents, epigraphs - is gone. I'm thinking about a today-like world, like 21st century western society.

The reason of this happening is not important. I plan to write a post-apocalyptic story with all the cliches (wastelands, tribes, dog-eat-dog mentality, etc.) with this specific added feature. The cause of catastrophe is not important: it's something external to society, so an incident and not a choice. It's also metaphysical, so nothing physical such as reduced mental capabilities, memory erasing, diseases, etc. Let's say that in 30 years after the "apocalypse" ALL people progressively lose any capability to write and understand written language. People cannot read and write anymore. Books have been destroyed, marble writings destroyed, nobody knows any alphabet anymore and the few documents left are unreadable, like hieroglyphs.

My question:

How would people adapt? Oral culture will be dominant, of course, but what else could happen? In a sort of post-apocalyptic scenario, where the fabric of society and economy is destroyed, would this be a meaningful problem, or will it be just a minor consequence?

NOTE: this is not a question about how to write a similar story and which language to use. It's just about the perspective of the survivors.


closed as too broad by Separatrix, Mołot, AlexP, sphennings, Green Dec 18 '17 at 13:26

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    $\begingroup$ In what way is this different from asking how society was before writing was established? Also, please note that since our species exists, documentation in some shape or form existed as well, be it paintings, figurines or whatever. I think it is still a popular theory that writing has evolved from that. So where do you stop? You also say "like hieroglyphs", but we understand the Egyptian ones quite well. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Dec 18 '17 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ This is basically the plotline of a book, it's far too broad for us to be able to answer within a character limit. This is true of almost any question that revolves around the worlds "how would society adapt" $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Dec 18 '17 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ I think before we can answer the social consequences of losing writing, we need to understand better the reason for it being lost. It will only get lost if people simply stop using it, so why should that happen? The process of losing the written word is where the social changes you ask about start, not after it has been lost. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 18 '17 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ No writing implies the loss of any kind of technology more advanced than let's say early iron age; we don't have any historical example of a society with no writing and a more advanced technological level -- the technologically highest illiterate society were the Celts which reached early iron age technology. Given that famous novels were written about life in prehistory, for example, Jean M. Auel 's Clan of the Cave Bear, I would definitely say that "describe an illiterate society" is a rather ample task. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 18 '17 at 12:25
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    $\begingroup$ Humans are naturally curious; constantly looking for new ranges and food sources kept our ancestors alive in a hard, hard world. To become incurious enough to completely lose writing also may imply descending a step or two down the predation pyramid $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 18 '17 at 12:58

Society would Collapse permanently hard and fast

Writing is the foundational technology that has made civilization possible. Without writing you don't have laws or accounting. Basically we would devolve to mere tribalism.

In a tribe a chief can tell someone verbally what to do.

In a government a leader cant verbally communicate with separate localities simultaneously. Its not possible.

Even the ancient Sumerians wrote trade information on clay tablets.

with all the warnings on everything now days it would be akin to releasing a caveman into a modern setting minus the small amount of buffer knowledge the initial generation of people had going into this.


Society would regress back into the dark ages. There is a vast amount of human knowledge and a lot of it is hierarchical relying on a pyramid of other knowledge. Without a permanent record, with much of the advanced knowledge in just a small group of people and with a worldwide collapse of civilization at hand, the knowledge pyramid would collapse and be permanently lost.

Assuming the effect was sudden modern life might continue for a few days. But there would be chaos from the start. Anyone with a desk job involving any book keeping, reading or computer based skills would suddenly find they were out of work and the vital jobs they did would not get done. Some industries might continue for a few days until something broke or needed a specialist or something being looked up in a manual and then it would grind to a halt.

All of these broken processes would have a knock on cumulative effect that would rapidly and exponentially destroy the foundations of modern civilization. The lights would go out, cars would stop working due to lack of fuel and people would starve due to lack of food as there would be no more food deliveries. Fighting would breakout over whatever food was left and within a few years 90% of the human population would be dead.

Eventually the survivors would adapt to the new way of life in rural areas and would revert to a post-apocalyptic world making use of all the discarded paraphernalia of modern life to sustain themselves (tools, scrap metal and utensils etc) eventually these would become scarce and people would be reduced to ancient “technology”.

The big problem is the jolt that this causes to society. Nobody is prepared and few people have the required skills to survive. As an example take your average New Yorker or Londoner and see how many could catch a wild animal, know what plants were edible or even light a fire without technology (some would, but many would die).


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