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Based upon this question here, I am interested in any ideas on how this might come about. Note that I am not asking about how all examples of writing would/could be lost, but how usage of the written word would be lost.

The only cause that I could think of was a widespread disease causing something like profound dyslexia, but I am unsure whether that is either plausible, or would produce the effect that I am interested in - so I am interested in a confirmation that this may be viable, or an alternative to it.

The starting point is a world much like ours with written language well established.

The answer really needs to provide a context for this question to be applicable, although I do not consider the widespread destruction of writing itself to be a necessary component, merely its disuse. The linked question, in brief is: "What would be the consequences of the disappearance of writing?"

EDIT

The fuller context of this question is that this change is a relatively sudden process taking place over no more than one or two generations. In terms of an answer, shorter timeframes are preferable (overnight would be really good). The key is that the written word is lost as a means of communication somehow, not that it is willingly surrendered or given up for something better.

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    $\begingroup$ Cold you bring the criteria into this question instead of having us need to follow a link to get context? $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 18 '17 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ What @sphennings said; please include all relevant information in the question itself. It's okay to link to other questions for extra background, but if it is relevant for answering the question at hand, it should be in the question itself, not elsewhere (even on the site). This can sometimes be difficult when writing a series of questions, where it's natural to link to the previous one as "this builds on that", but if people ask for details in comments, it's a pretty safe bet that it's relevant and should go into the linked-from question. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 18 '17 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ Note that this is the case In the fictional Star Trek universe - Picard mentions a few times that he can barely write, his handwriting is illegible. It makes sense in a future with perfect talking computers, screens etc. Even as we speak in the real workd, almost any human from a first-world country in the 1800s, would consider almost everyone today simply illiterate or barely-literate. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Dec 18 '17 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie, multiple references throughout ST:TNG about having read people's papers. Picard was referring to himself in a deprecating manner, not making a statement about the species. Further, I would like to know what reference you're using for 1800s literacy. More information passes before the average citizen of any first-world country today than the average person in a first-world country in the 1800s experienced in a month, maybe longer. If they considered us illiterate, we'd consider them idiots. $\endgroup$ – JBH Dec 18 '17 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie Star Trek Voyager has multiple episodes where people are shown writing, both by hand and on a computer or PADD. I'm not familiar with the particular episode you're referring to, but there are clearly if nothing else then counterexamples. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 18 '17 at 18:32

12 Answers 12

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This is slightly more plausible than you think

The left parietal lobe is responsible for reading, writing, and arithmetic. In certain strokes these abilities alone can be lost.

So what you would need is a disease or toxin that exclusively targets this region or the brain. This is somewhat hard to achieve as just about everything that affects the brain does so indiscriminately.

Some parasites however have been known to show some discretion in the areas they invade. None currently do this with the human brain but there is one that invades ant brains causing them to obey commands.

Fun read

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    $\begingroup$ That's the kind of thing I was thinking of - I am familiar with the life-cycle of the large blue, although I had not connected that up in my head. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 18 '17 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ great answer, if the OP wants a "medical" sort of immediate fix ! $\endgroup$ – Fattie Dec 18 '17 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of the latest Planet of the Apes movie. A disease takes away human's ability to speak. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 19 '17 at 1:24
  • $\begingroup$ This is actually the plot of Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds" short story. A disease leaves half the population illiterate and the other half mute. Fantastic story. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Dec 20 '17 at 15:44
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There are several established scenarios in science fiction.

  • The one I like most is based on pervasive availability of natural language and skeuomorphic interfaces to computers, leading to the gradual abandonment of writing by humans in the same way that in our current world recent generations no longer learn cursive writing; eventually humans would no longer learn how to read and write, because these tasks would be completely offloaded to machines.

  • Another variant is the development of a post-scarcity economy driven by benevolent computer systems, as depicted for example in the Culture series by Iain Banks, where most characters are sentient starships, and humans have more or less the status of a protected species.

  • And of course there is the option of positing a catastrophic decline in the number of humans. Below a certain population density, economic life is necessarily reduced to small autarkic communities, possibly with complete loss of literacy. This scenario has the advantage that we know that it is possible, because it has happened historically several times; for example, it has happened to the Mycenean civilization after the Bronze Age collapse, leading to the Greek Dark Ages (in this case, writing was reintroduced from abroad after about 2 or 3 centuries of complete illiteracy).

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    $\begingroup$ Im not sure we could ever completely offload reading to machines. In some cases reading is faster than a verbal interface. Particularly in searches. This may just be a lack of imagination but I cant see us ever intentionally losing the ability to read. $\endgroup$ – anon Dec 19 '17 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ From another SE site: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/24302/… $\endgroup$ – Nico Dec 19 '17 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ @anon Who said verbal interface? $\endgroup$ – Bergi Dec 19 '17 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ The last scenario may fit the bill (the first two are set in an uncertain future and the starting point should be a world much like ours). I am uncertain that the periods before the historical dark ages necessarily contained widespread literacy (or that the dark ages were necessarily so dark). If they did it is difficult to understand it being lost, although the collapse of the Roman Empire and consequential influx of illiterate war-minded Germanic peoples could easily contribute to this. That scenario does not seem so likely today. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 20 '17 at 7:47
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Learning foreign languages was so difficult, even learning your native language well required far too many years of dedicated studying. Thankfully we don't have to do that anymore, with the newest version of our advanced language software, custom designed nano-bots injected within your brain will alter your brain structures allowing you to read, write or speak any language fluently within days.

Initial testing and use proved so successful, that soon the entire population was injected, why struggle with the old fashioned learning of language taking years. Everyone was enjoying their new found abilities, we could talk to anyone in the world, read works of literature in their native tongues, the communication possibilities seemed endless.

Few ever mentioned security, or the inherent potential for software to contain bugs, if not intentional backdoors. We're not sure if it was an attack or an accident, all we know is that something went wrong. We can all still speak and understand verbal speech, although were not sure what language everyone is using now. The written word, however, is completely lost to us. Something in the process removed our ability to translate from pictograms to language, that part of our brains is not just broken, but it is blocked from reforming connections. Some of our researchers have attempted to understand the process, but progress is slow, we can't use notes, or spread information in any means other than direct speech. Recordings or phones don't even work. The shining lights of our computers and the symbols on our machinery seem to mock us. We can remember the glorious things they did, but even the simple pictograms or icons don't translate into any meaning for us anymore. Our world is broken, everything is falling apart, we are doomed.

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    $\begingroup$ A modern equivalent of the tower of Babel? I'm not convinced, but it is a kind of neat idea. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 18 '17 at 19:27
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The loss of written word can be intentional and self-inflicted by a cultural revolution. A new ideology tries to erase the old culture in two steps:

  1. Destroy all written history and forbid use of the old writing system.
  2. Impose a new writing system.

If the process succeeds at #1, but collapses during step #2 you may end up with situation where the old writing system is lost, and the new one is rebelliously rejected.

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    $\begingroup$ Horribly plausible especially in the light of recent history including that of the 20th century. Plus one. $\endgroup$ – a4android Dec 19 '17 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ It's possible that there'd be a revolution against "anti intellectualism", that is, after a generation of 'dumbing down', the intelligentsia revolt and overthrow the luddities. In so doing, they outlaw the old writing style and enforce a far, far more complex one (the reverse has happened in human history in a couple of cases). The far more complex system obviously means the majority either can't or won't bother to learn it. The intelligentsia then need to fade into insignificance and their writings get lost (perhaps because they thought they were invincible they wrote on something volatile). $\endgroup$ – Ralph Bolton Dec 19 '17 at 11:08
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Ray Bradbury's book Fahrenheit 451 already gives some explanation of what such a world will look like, and why it would occur. I'm pretty sure the other question is now on hold otherwise I'd post a detailed answer to it, but for the sake of this question I'll focus on the causes behind the dystopia in Bradbury's story.

Fundamentally, it was a jihad against knowledge. It was decided that it was scientists, philosophers et al that had created the mess of the world and that the best way to sort society out was to make the knowledge of scientists and philosophers extinct. By banning writing, you also stop people from reading stories for fun that contain potentially dangerous ideas; I'm assuming like Animal Farm or 1984 by George Orwell.

Like Orwell's Newspeak, the concept of banning the written word has as its intent the ability to control what information can be shared, essentially to control what can be thought.

I might add here that this is not a practical (or even useful) solution to the management of population and even in the book it ultimately fails. Still, conceptually, many distopias in literature have regressed in some form for the simple reason that a society that has an industry of ideas fundamentally cannot be controlled very well. To contain and manage the population, you must first contain and manage the ideas.

As a final thought, I'd add that this expunging of knowledge through expunging of the written word is very different to the jihad against thinking machines in Frank Herbert's Dune books. In that case, the jihad was against a specific branch of technology and was used as a device to introduce human specialisations like Mentats (Human computers) and the Spacing Guild (ultra-humans capable of interstellar navigation when folding space). Herbert's world was permissive (everything's allowed except that which is explicitly prohibited) whereas Bradbury's (and Orwell's) dystopia was restrictive (everything's prohibited except what's explicitly allowed). In such a world, wiping out writing seems like a good idea (it ultimately isn't, but we're only dealing with cause here).

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    $\begingroup$ Even in Fahrenheit 451 there was still reading and writing: Montag, the main character, has no problem reading the illicit book he steals, and it's not stated he's somehow remarkable for being literate. His wife, who's addicted to video, is able to read, and it's explicitly stated some forms of approved "low class" literature like comic books and sex magazines are still around. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 18 '17 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ True. I've always suspected this is because Bradbury (like Orwell) found that you couldn't dispense with writing completely and get a technological world to function. But in that it seems quite inconsistent to me; why teach people to read only to restrict them doing it? Where Orwell attempts to restrict via language, Bradbury attempts it via writing and in a few generations (if you're doing it correctly) people would no longer be able to read at all, which would solve your problem far better than 'firemen'. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Dec 19 '17 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ I think a key point to losing writing/reading completely would be a cult mentality. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 19 '17 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz; absolutely. In point of fact, that explains how most dystopias would form at all. Would any of us be so willing to sacrifice our freedom for the greater good unless we believed that the rest of our group felt exactly as we did and that conditioning our children to believe as we do is justified? That sounds like a cult to me, and I'd go further by saying that most dystopias in literature are just really large cults in some form. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Dec 19 '17 at 1:33
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In the future everything has been transcribed electronically. Books are obsolete, due to the progressive limit of exhausted natural resources, so these computers are the lifeblood of knowledge. Then all the computers are lost. Gone, like the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria

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  • $\begingroup$ But, if the population can still read and write, the written word as a form of communication will still survive. The loss of knowledge and especially our IT infrastructure will, paradoxically, will create an even greater need for the written word to be used. What I see here is a consequential resurgence. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 19 '17 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ @LeeLeon This depends entirely on how we get access to the material. We may have a direct feed into our minds or it may only, practically, be heard, not read. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Dec 19 '17 at 9:18
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Historically, text was basically the only practical medium available to record and transmit.

But in the real world to today, that's no longer true; audio is becoming increasingly available for this purpose. And there is a culture readily embracing this; I'm honestly mystified by how often it seems that peoples' first choice for delivering a sequence of words is via a video of someone reciting them rather than written text.

Audio is also becoming increasingly available as an input medium as well; e.g. verbally asking your google assistant to perform a search, rather than typing things into a text box.

So, a possible path towards a loss of the written word is to exaggerate these phenomena:

  • The internet is fully pervasive, so it is always available as an option for transmitting content.
  • Audio and video has become the preferred way to deliver and consume content
  • Technology provides new and interesting ways to provide information that traditionally had to be in written.

Eventually, speech and pictures edge out text as a way to communicate. Kids don't see the point of learning how to read and write so it becomes lost art over a few generations. Eventually, written word dies out completely.

As for examples on what I mean by the last bullet point, consider various forms of written word you encounter while driving:

  • Speed limit signs? No need; your car marks the speed limit on your speedometer.
  • Street signs? No need, you have a minimap and directions in your HUD.
  • Stop signs? You just need the red octogon; who actually reads the word? A pictograph is enough.
  • Wait, why are humans still doing the driving?
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  • $\begingroup$ You have a point, but I am not sure that the written word could be eliminated so easily. Pronunciation can vary considerably, to the extent that some dialects and accents are difficult to understand - at least some common representation is required, surely? And what about situations where detail and accuracy is important, like medical prescriptions, for example? How does video and audio fare in the absence of electrical power. Admittedly, electricity may become cheaper and more efficient, but will that compensate for the increasing requirements for it? $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 18 '17 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ Use audio only to teach someone, say, the Lorentz equations used in relativity without any visual component (ie, writing). Have an engineer work with an architect and a contractor to build a structure with only verbal communication. Have anyone demonstrate they can sort through a mass of data through pure audio as fast as they can while reading. Once you can show that, I'll start believing in the disappearance of writing. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 18 '17 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @LeeLeon: Dialects and accents would normalize as most people speech to communicate globally, rather than most people mostly only speaking to the few dozen people they interact with face to face. There wouldn't be medical prescriptions anymore; doctors would interface with pharmacies directly rather than by using the patient as an intermediary. In the absence to electrical power, even in today's world I lose access to most written text. $\endgroup$ – Hurkyl Dec 18 '17 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @LeeLeon: ... and if doctors did still use patients as an intermediary, the prescription would be recorded verbally not textually. E.g. having it stored on one of the smart devices that people always carry/wear, or a physical token that stores an audio recording rather than written text. $\endgroup$ – Hurkyl Dec 18 '17 at 21:47
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Any kind of apocalyptic situation could destroy the written word. Unlike speech, writing isn't instinctive: if we don't explicitly teach successive generations to write, they won't learn. If people are too busy just trying to survive, it's likely their children won't have time to become literate, either.

But you don't have to go as far as a full-blown apocalypse for people to stop writing. There are catastrophes which make writing impractical, without necessarily destroying society at the same time.

For example, suppose a fungus or insect began wiping out the trees we used to produce paper. Without paper, what do we write on? We could go back to animal hides or stone slates, but that's a lot of work and expense. Paper was cheap, plentiful and effective. If animal hides become the main form of record keeping, now writing becomes far too expensive for most people to benefit. Writing wouldn't disappear entirely, but it would become a skill exclusively for the elite.

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  • $\begingroup$ Most of writing is digital these days... $\endgroup$ – Emilio M Bumachar Dec 19 '17 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ Also, they wrote on stone before there was paper. Not as much, but they did. $\endgroup$ – Emilio M Bumachar Dec 19 '17 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ Paper made from things other than trees? Paper didn't primarily come from trees until after wood pulping was developed in Canada (Nova Scotia) and Germany in the 1840s. You'll note this is well after the development of the printing press and widespread literacy, let alone paper. Prior to that it was made from grasses, brush bark, cloth, bamboo, straw, cotton, etc etc. In order to eliminate the production of paper, you'd need to postulate an environmental catastrophe so large there's likely no one around to need writing. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 19 '17 at 15:55
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Searchable, shareable recording technology for everyone

Writing has always been a method for individuals to record facts and events to use yourself and to share with others. With always-on recording technology, a good way of indexing recordings, and a good way to share selected recordings with others, it is no longer necessary to go through the process of transcribing. Simply sharing the recordings is enough.

Sure, writing is also used for fiction. Reading isn't as popular today as it was 100 years ago, because TV has substantially displaced its role in mass-market entertainment. And many people today consume books through audio-books too, which removes the need for them to read. This is a trend which could continue.

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Telepathy

Why write words down when you can instantly communicate your thoughts mentally. In theory, telepathy, could instantly communicate your ideas without the need for words. As long as we develop a neural interface for our technology the world continues on. Things that would take minutes or hours to physically write and/or read would be communicated in the blink of an eye, so to speak.

A drug or possibly a disease or cure for one accidentally/(on purpose) unlocks our dormant telepathic abilities.

Simple recorders like on our cell phone can record verbal contracts will would be stored on record. This until the computers can have a senors added to detected and record telepathic brain waves.

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  • $\begingroup$ The dead cannot communicate telepathically. Also, for legal purposes, how would you document any agreement between two parties for posterity and future recourse? I can see that telepathy could form part of an answer, but it does not address all uses of the written word. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 20 '17 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ @LeeLeon The computers would have sensors to record the telepathic contract. Why are we bring in the dead? They can not communicate verbally, non verbally, written, or by any means. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Dec 20 '17 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ I think telepathic computers is a bit far-fetched. With respect to communication from beyond the grave, just look in any library. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 20 '17 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @LeeLeon I searched both questions and could not find any references to talking with or dealing with dead people. What question did you read, and why do you keep bring up dead people and beyond the grave? $\endgroup$ – cybernard Dec 20 '17 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ I have never mentioned talking with dead people. Do you not know what a book is? How would telepathy actually work, in practice - even without telepathic machines? You are making a lot of assumptions. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 22 '17 at 0:25
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How about a disease that causes blindness? Surely, that would make the written word meaningless. Perhaps a ruthless virus could be the cause.

The American Foundation for the Blind lists a variety of causes for blindness. Including bacterial causes. A scientifically sound cause for mass blindness might lurk in there:

http://www.afb.org/section.aspx?SectionID=63&DocumentID=2139&rewrite=0

To end with a famous quote credited to "Desiderius Erasmus": "in regione caecorum rex est luscus", in the land of the blind, one eye is king.

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    $\begingroup$ The link goes to a long list of conditions, most of them definitely not fitting the criteria. A more specific answer (picking some candidates from the list) would improve the answer. $\endgroup$ – jknappen Dec 18 '17 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ Widespread blindness might fit the bill, but it seems overly drastic to me and the follow on question "What would be the consequences of the loss of writing" relatively trivial compared to the consequences of loss of sight en masse. It reminds me of 'The Day of The Triffids'. Now some significant impairment of vision, but not outright blindness might have some potential. $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 18 '17 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ Blindness per se does not lead to the loss of writing. Blind people use Braille, which is a tactile form of writing. $\endgroup$ – Olga Dec 18 '17 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Olga I'm unsure whether braille counts as the 'written word'. Sure you can read it if you know how to, but can you easily write it without assistant technology? Could braille exist in isolation without the surrounding context of visual notations? $\endgroup$ – Lee Leon Dec 19 '17 at 8:17
  • $\begingroup$ @LeeLeon, Braille is the written word. The only difference is encoding method: Tactile as opposed to visual. Slates and stylus are used to write Braille. These are purely mechanical and very simple to use tools. No additional assistance is required. There is no need for visual notations for Braille to exist. Braille literacy is especially high among people who are blind from birth and has acquired reading skills at an early age. $\endgroup$ – Olga Dec 19 '17 at 9:13
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Look back to the Dark/Middle Ages, and expand it world wide. Since we're so dependent on trade and technology, any collapse is going to be hard and fast, with only small pockets with retained knowledge. Since only a handful of people still know how to make paper and vellum (and even that takes technology), once existing stocks of paper run out, there just won't be anything to write on...

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  • $\begingroup$ A reason for the down vote would be much appreciated. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Dec 19 '17 at 5:02
  • $\begingroup$ I suspect the down-vote is because there was no technologically decline in the "Dark ages". There was no collapse at all and there was actually a great deal of technological advancements; mostly related to warfare though. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Dec 19 '17 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Clearer if there was no technological decline in Western Europe, then was literacy lost in all but a few isolated monasteries, and sanitation, competent road building and running water disappear for more than a millennium? Two renaissances (the short-lived Carolingian and finally Italian) were required to jump start the West again. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Dec 19 '17 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ Loosing skills in the general population is not the same as having a decline in technology. Reading and writing was still available, even if the majority of the population wasn't able to. The renaissances where named as such as a throwback to the Roman era, which where considered more civilized -- not that it really was. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Dec 20 '17 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn: Cement wasn't forgotten (it could hardly be, with examples around), the specific volcanic ash used by the Romans wasn't available and it took a while before an adequate substitute was developed. The decline in road building and things like aqueducts was due to the fact that people weren't willing to invest in them on a large scale, not that they were impossible for them to do, and the lack of a centralized government willing to fund and build them. After all, if you wanted to see how to build a Roman road all you had to do was dig a ditch across one to get a cross-section. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 20 '17 at 16:04

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