# What would a modern civilization look like if they aren't allowed to write? [closed]

CASE: There is a sentient life form that is snake-like in appearance, and cannot have the means to write or perform elaborate body gestures due to a lack of fine motor skills. Their only proof of sentience is a means of verbal language and an ability to order obedient domesticated animals to construct their buildings, and in turn they get food and shelter.

How could a civilization's concept of technology, opinions and history be recorded without any form of books, and in particular an alphabet? How can information even be stored without the usage of a book?

How can a civilization that has the ability to write, yet not, further progress (important point #11 down below)

Let's say that they've all the resources that Earth has, and have no motive towards making their domesticated animals to write books as they can only comprehend simple tasks, and amazingly yet are highly skilled in construction after thousands of years of domestication.

Things to know about the Snake Aliens:

1. Photographic memories. Able to pick out the tiniest detail and comprehend complex rules of nature/physics/chemistry naturally.
2. Enhanced communication powers (due to lack of books). Can speak with two peers about different topics at the same time and also speak 100 times faster than us.
3. Matures at a young age, 2-3 years old.
4. At it's current state it is able to produce technology like video and audio signals and formulate audio files from worker animals using chain production.
5. They are not Humans! They have already built a civilization around not using writing! Even though it may have taken longer/shorter for them to do it, they have achieved what our monkey brains have a hard time to comprehend!
6. Their vocal language has different tones mapped to a vastly more in depth detail of the true intention of the speech, therefore they are 15 times more efficient in explaining what they want than us. This is also due to a lack of body language, as they don't have any limbs
7. Average Life span: 150 - 200 years
8. Architecture involves mainly wood/brick. closely resembles Maori architecture, with the exception of using bricks as materials
9. Planet is 90% Ocean, think Scarif from Star Wars
10. Mental Capacity over 200 Zetabytes. They remember everything in their lives.
11. The only form of a written language in their planet is ancient Runes (that they have translated) from an ancient alien race that tell them not to pursue writing, or else they face the same fate as they did (extinction).
12. They co habit with domestic, monkey like creatures that are similar in affection to each other like dogs are to humans. They both rely on each other to survive.
• The Chinese don't use an alphabet, and yet they can write just fine. (Actually this was strictly true until about 60 years ago; today they all learn to write their language with Latin letters in addition of Chinese characters.) The classical civilization did not use codices (what we call "books"), they used scrolls. There is no way to build a modern civilization without writing; there is just too much information to pass along to the next generation. – AlexP Feb 5 '18 at 0:17
• Chinese script is absolutely not alphabetical. It never was. In no way, shape or form. It is a logographic script. (In short: in principle, writing systems can be alphabetical, syllabical, or logographic. Almost always, actual writing systems exhibit a mixture of those pure types. For example, in English we use logographic symbols such as 0, 1, ..., 9, &, %, \$, °, −, +, etc.) Your statement that "they don't coin the term alphabet because they don't have any latin history" shows that, honestly, you just have no idea what you are speaking about. – AlexP Feb 5 '18 at 0:30
• No written language, but could they cheat and use other methods of transmiting informations? – Sasha Feb 5 '18 at 0:48
• You cannot build, say, a simple radio transmitter or receiver without a supply chain and banking, Both are simply impossible without data management using writing. If only one engineer or banker has all the data in their head, then that critical data is permanently lost when they get run over by a streetcar or develop dementia...and temporarily lost when they go home at night. – user535733 Feb 5 '18 at 1:33
• Just for what it worths: what @DiagonalCorgi is referring to as a "Chinese alphabet" appears to be a sinization of the English alphabet (kind of like how Pinyin is a romanization of Chinese characters). AlexP is correct, there is no "Chinese alphabet" and never has been. The modern English alphabet does indeed derive from the Greeks (via the Etruscans and the Romans). But there is a long history of the alphabet in Asia long before. Our alphabet is in origin Phoenician. While debate continues, it is quite possible that several Indian scripts derive from this as well. – elemtilas Feb 5 '18 at 2:37

Songs.

Do you wonder why you, a not particularly musical person, can hum the tune of thousands of different songs you have heard on the radio or in church? Why an average person can remember the lyrics to hundreds of songs? Why is the human brain so thirsty for songs and song lyrics?

Humans are singers. There was a time when songs were how knowledge was passed down. Relics from that time exist: the Vedas is a body of myth and legend that was originally transmitted orally and then written once the Indian civilizations acquired writing.

Transmission of texts in the Vedic period was by oral tradition, preserved with precision with the help of elaborate mnemonic techniques. A literary tradition is traceable in post-Vedic times, after the rise of Buddhism in the Maurya period,[note 3] perhaps earliest in the Kanva recension of the Yajurveda about the 1st century BC; however oral tradition of transmission remained active.

The Norse sagas were transmitted orally before there was writing. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are the culmination of centuries of oral transmission.

The ancient songs like the Vedas which were converted into script intact are the culturally important songs that describe myth cycles and religious events. But you can bet there were songs about just about everything else too. Our alphabet song has made it into the current day - a memory aid for the preliterate young.

So too your aliens. They would have songs which include in their lyrics and tunes the accumulated knowledge of the species. And with their vocal apparatus these aliens have, the songs would be awesome.

• Interesting answer! I like it :) – DiagonalCorgi Feb 5 '18 at 2:19
• Songs together with places! Sites like Stonehenge were used to perform ritual dances and songs in a specific pattern in order to recall and pass on knowledge. “Muscle memory” plus “song memory” together are even stronger. – deceze Feb 5 '18 at 6:58
• This is one of the "non written" method. The early anthropologist were talking about "savages" and later "noble savages" because they didn't had writing. What they didn't notice it that the knowledge is shared in a form of a songs (crude one), dance, embellishment on their fetishes or tattoos. I think that OP, as first anthropologist is biased against things that are not from his culture. – SZCZERZO KŁY Feb 5 '18 at 8:06
• While this can be handwaved by OP's ridiculous abilities of the creatures present, there are some well-accepted limits to how large and complicated a civilization based only on orality can become (I can't find citations but they're definitely out there). Even with the super-abilities mentioned, at some point they will hit a wall, whether it be from "progress", population growth, or both. – errantlinguist Feb 5 '18 at 9:38
• plus bees communicate through dance – icc97 Feb 5 '18 at 10:14

So my first question is how can either the master species or their domesticated animals be highly skilled at engineering and construction without writing? What would the impact of no writing be on the civilisation? It would literally (no pun intended) limit the advancement capability of that civilisation.

Writing is one of the advances that has allowed humans to advance so quickly. Without it, the ability to transfer information between minds is greatly reduced. The novice or trainee can only learn while around their master, and only from their master. They have to listen and watch intently, and the master also has to remember what he or she has told the novice, and what hasn't been communicated yet. Also, the novice has to remember it all. Bottom line is that even if the master has come up with a new advance, it doesn't mean that the novice has the same skill to understand that advance, meaning that there's a high probability that the advance in understanding will be lost.

Writing changes that. Writing is an efficient way of recording information to share with many novices, all through time. You can add to it as you remember new things, and the novices can always refer back if they forget something you've said. Most importantly, because you've written it down, the novice in his time doesn't just re-write what he's learned from you, he writes down the stuff that's new to the practice.

Mathematics for example is the cornerstone of engineering. It's also a cumulative subject. Mathematicians have been building on their knowledge for millennia and it's important to note that while every senior secondary student today who does maths is taught calculus for example, it didn't exist 500 years ago. Leibniz and Newton (depending on who you believe) created it in the 1600s and Principia Mathematica in particular became a treatise for cutting edge mathematics that we now largely take for granted in our lives. The understanding of math at this level (and the perfect transmission of this maths into so many new minds) simply isn't possible without writing.

The reason why the Information Revolution (as our modern times will be known as in history) is so important is because we're dealing with Gutenberg Mark II; where the printing press revolutionised the ability to disseminate written knowledge and spread it among a wider population, the internet is taking that to another level again. It is that very proliferation of knowledge that is driving the proliferation and advancement of key technologies at such a rapid rate. None of it would be possible without the ability to read and write, because before YouTube you have to be able to transmit simple text because of the early bandwidth requirements. Even if that wasn't the case, I defy anyone to tell me that they can truly understand deep scientific concepts through video discussion alone; text is still a crucial element to learning and will continue to be for a long time, if not forever.

Even if that isn't the case, the ability to record an individual speaking about a topic is just a more advanced form of writing in any event. It's still recording knowledge for easy transmission, just in a far less efficient way.

So without writing, your sophisticated building capability doesn't exist. The only thing you can rely on is the memory of the individuals within your species, and their ability to articulately and completely share all their knowledge verbally with others of their species.

Good luck with that.

Seriously though, writing is the cornerstone of civilisation because it's a low energy, highly effective manner for capturing information and spreading it to others so they can use it and build upon it in their turn. Without that capability you need another way of doing that (like telepathy) which allows everyone the ability to know what you know about a specific topic, otherwise you'll lose information with every generation, like a leaky long range pipe. Some of what you need to know will eventually get there, but what will you lose along the way?

Sure, it can be argued that writing was necessary to us as a species because of otherwise limited communication abilities and less than perfect memories. With that in mind, a more perfect species capable of disseminating and retaining information more efficiently than a human mind might have less requirement for writing.

Even for such a species however, writing would still make things easier. Albert Einstein was once asked how many inches were in a yard, and his answer was 'I don't know. If I ever do need to know, I'll look it up in a book. Why clutter my mind with stuff I don't need to know when I can use my mind to come up with new ideas?' (quotes probably not required here, this is from an anecdote so I can't verify the accuracy of the words, only the intent)

The point being, that even since Gutenberg human memories have become less adept, but our reasoning skills and analytical capabilities have significantly improved. While this also ties in with the ideas of specialisation in the OP edits, writing is a low energy way of storing data that allows anyone to access it if they're curious. So even with perfect memories, it's a great way to preserve knowledge from (say) natural disasters, plagues, or some other form of destruction that could remove minds with key knowledge from the population. If nothing else, it's a backup solution.

• For us, maybe. But the Aliens that I'm thinking of have extremely enhanced memories, able to understand and store information so well through their evolution. In fact, it's the only reason why they even have roofs over their heads. To put it into perspective, they can speak 100 times faster than us, and understand multiple conversations at once and converse with two other people in different conversations at the same time. They have the ability of photographic memory and have managed to create technology (through chain production) that have enabled them to make audio files. – DiagonalCorgi Feb 5 '18 at 0:48
• It is a lack in their physical strength and ability which has created their mind to become a key stone for their own survival. They depend on their mind to survive. – DiagonalCorgi Feb 5 '18 at 0:49
• Again, good points. BUT, I'd also respectfully point out that there wasn't much progress during the turn of the previous millennium. It wasn't until the Renaissance that our social and technological development really started to take off again (after the period of the Greeks and Romans) and that was largely due to the proliferation of writing and the Gutenberg printing press. I should point out that I'm not suggesting that your species would find progress impossible, I'm just saying that they've made their lives a lot harder without resorting to writing at some point. – Tim B II Feb 5 '18 at 1:21
• Understood. I really hope you find him or her; I'm a bit too pedestrian in my thinking sometimes, where the written word is concerned. I'll just have to be someone else's genius. :) – Tim B II Feb 5 '18 at 1:34
• The point about the master getting hit by a bus is really important. Think also of banking: if the snake that memorized customer accounts H-K got run over by a bus driven by a monkey, then all that money is gone. You just can't have a functioning high level society that way. – RonJohn Feb 5 '18 at 9:23

Writing solves a few issues endemic to civilization that you'd need to get around.

1. Distribution: written information can be read by thousands of people, and each of those people will read the same thing. This scales up even more when you have printing presses.
2. Durability: as many other people have said, what happens if Joe the Accounting Snake gets hit by a bus? Does the company lose all of their accounting data?
3. Accountability: your aliens have perfect memories, but what happens when Joe the Accounting Snake decides to start taking a bit more for himself? Who's going to say he's wrong? An external auditor can't trace through his accounts.

Fortunately out in our real world we have something kinda similar to snakes who can communicate with multiple other people at the same time, can listen in on any number of conversations without engaging directly, remember everything that's ever happened to them, and might get hit by a bus at any time: distributed computers.

How do distributed computers handle similar issues? We've got various different ways, like gossip protocols to distribute and find information, transaction logs to keep track of what's happened and consensus protocols to figure out what reality is.

How would you map those concepts to a biological system?

• Make your aliens highly social - have them feel weird and alone if they can't hear at least three other snakes (and preferably lots more).
• Have every snake talk constantly, even if they're not talking to anyone; when they're not engaged in a real conversation with someone else, they're using both their voices to narrate their day and the important stuff that's happened to them.
• Have every snake work in at least triads on any knowledge-based task, with every snake cross-checking every other snake.
• Have snakes enjoy finding new and interesting people to talk to, in order to exchange full life stories.
• Have snakes get sick of talking to the same people for more than a few hours, which makes them go and find someone else to talk to for a bit (this includes work triads - they'll go take a smoke break or something and chat with other people, and this aversion generally means that they'll leave work at different times)
• Make it so that in snake culture, keeping any sort of secret is viewed as being deviant and wrong. They'll talk to anyone and everyone about literally anything and everything, including data other snakes have told them.

So, let's run through a scenario. Joe, Jack and Jane, the triad in Accounting, just happen to accidentally get run over by the same monkey bus one day. Just from gossip, the rest of the company remembers most of the accounting data. They come together, check what they remember of the life-narratives, and discover that they're missing about 10% of the data. The company hires Aaron, Aron and Arron, a premier data recovery firm, to get the rest of it back.

Thanks to living in the general vicinity of the company, AAA remember about 2% of the remaining accounting data anyway - although none of them knew any of JJJ directly, they'd picked up a certain amount of data just from gossip.

The other 8% can be quickly recovered by talking to the grieving nest-mates of JJJ, who obviously have full dumps of the accounting data. Since this is the most common means of recovering data, AAA have experience diplomatically handling distraught family members while getting full data dumps out of them (hence why they charge a premium for their service).

• That could actually work. They couldn't have computers as that requires a language code of some kind but up to early 20th century could be possible. It would be hell for humans to be near them for long with the constant babble, but that's not a problem. Good work! – Dan Clarke Feb 5 '18 at 18:22

I would recomend you give a read about aboriginal Australian oral tradition, they had elaborated methods of crosschecking to assure their knowledge wouldn't be corrupted from one generation to the next.

• I'm not saying it was perfect, but when you can't write it's at least something. – Sasha Feb 5 '18 at 1:45
• @Sasha Thanks for the recommendation! Sounds interesting! I'll take a look into it :) – DiagonalCorgi Feb 5 '18 at 1:46
• And they're greatest engineering achievement -- in 50,000 years was... the boomerang. No thanks; I'll take writing any day. – RonJohn Feb 5 '18 at 9:28
• @AlexP Could you provide sources for that statement? Just curious. – Oxy Feb 5 '18 at 11:30
• "Technology used by indigenous Australian societies before European contact included weapons, tools, shelters, watercraft, and the message stick. Weapons included boomerangs, spears (sometimes thrown with a woomera) with stone or fishbone tips, clubs, and (less commonly) axes. The stone age tools available included knives with ground edges, grinding devices, and eating containers." (Wikipedia) Notably no ceramics, no bows, and only rarely axes. But to be honest, it may be the case that they never had and didn't invent them. – AlexP Feb 5 '18 at 13:07

If all they're doing is herding animals and making structures, they don't need a written language, non-literate people have done the same and more for millenia. You would see them having highly skilled members who memorize important details and events, most likely some kind of religious or teaching caste. Elaborate stories and songs will be the norm for passing on and sharing knowledge.

Depending on their domestic animals abilities, megalithic structures are possible. The Incas built a civilization with no recognized writing, although its debated if Quipu, knot language, was a language or a memory aid. The Aztec and Mayans had a logorams and syllabic glyph language, but all surviving copies seem to be for religious purposes rather than architectural or science based.

We can see similar things in Europe, North Africa and Asia, where large cities and temples were built pre-literacy or just as literacy was becoming known but before it was used for technical details. Cuneiform one of the earliest writing systems in Mesopotamia was first used to keep track of goods and religious events. So when it came to building structures everything was communicated verbally, and writing was used to track supplies, i.e. "Town A sent 5 large stones, 16 workers, 10 mules, etc"

The problem for this civilization would be advancing beyond this. It doesn't matter how good their memory is, if they can only pass on knowledge face to face, they're stuck. It will be like the secret societies of mages and alchemists during in Europe from the late Roman era to the 1600's, they didn't want to risk writing down information that could be stolen or used against them, so they used hard to crack codes and memory. Now all we have of their 'discoveries' are impossible stories and fragments of papers that we can't decipher. That will be what happens to the snakes society after a generation or two has passed. The masters will be remembered but their work will be garbled and lost.

Edit:

"At it's current state it is able to produce technology like video and audio signals and formulate audio files from worker animals using chain production."

This is not possible without some kind of written language. You need something for the sending and receiving device to decipher. Basic telephones, radios and even TV's are possible without a written language, but once you get to digital you can't get away from a written language or code.

• Sorry I've just edited the question, in response of confusion of how these Aliens are different than us Humans. – DiagonalCorgi Feb 5 '18 at 1:09
• @DiagonalCorgi Yeah I saw that. My point still stands, without a writing system they're not going to advance much past the bronze or iron age. Too much information will be lost each generation to allow a scientific revolution. – Dan Clarke Feb 5 '18 at 1:11

What counts as "writing"?

If you're just looking at how to, e.g., replace books for the preservation and transmission of knowledge, that's relatively easy. Plenty of ancient philosophers thought writing was a terrible idea because it would lead to the degradation of memory and the loss of oral tradition. Which is absolutely true. And strictly oral transmission of knowledge could plausibly get you to the point of building very simple audio recording devices (assuming that they somehow are able to instruct their domesticated beasts in how to do that kind of fine work). Once you can record audio and make copies of the recordings--bam, you've got the equivalent of books for preserving knowledge, and transmitting it to far more people, over far longer time, than could've been done by a single person with their unaided voice. Large parts of our culture could then be copied over nearly wholesale, merely substituting every instance of "reading" with "popping a recording into the audio player". They just go straight to audiobooks, skipping the regular paper books stage.

But we use writing for so much more than that. The tricky bits would be all of the tiny samples of writing that would be missing. Labels on buttons. "Push" vs. "pull" signs on doors. Street signs. Traffic signals. Replacing all of those affordances with audio signals would be... impractical, at best.

So, are they permitted to have iconography, as long as it isn't a code for their spoken language? If so, a modern civilization without writing could look pretty much like any of our modern civilizations, just with all of the books replaced by audiobooks and signs populated solely with well-known icons, and no actual words. Are they prohibited from having any sort of written communication at all? Then I doubt any such civilization could actually exist.

• Nitpick, Donald Norman points out that push and pull signs on a door are a poor implementation, a pull handle one side and a flat push plate the other indicate the intention without need for labels. – icc97 Feb 5 '18 at 10:09

A lot of posters here are getting hung up on the concept that it is only TECHNOLOGICAL advancement that is relevant. We have been so brainwashed by materialism that we consider the only measure of intelligence and superior intellect is based on an ability to make increasingly complicated and complex stuff.

We modern humans have become so hung up on making bigger and better technology, that we have forgotten many of the really important things that make humans great.

Music, for instance, as has been pointed out. If this race had an excellent ability to perceive pitch and to memorize music just by hearing it once, they don't need to transcribe it. A civilization can be founded on musical greatness, as opposed to building stuff. Bigger and better musical compositions as a sigh of advancing intellect.

Story telling can be done through oratory. Shakespeare's audience could neither read nor write, but they still enjoyed the play. It was written down only because of the limitations of our memory, but I am sure many of the actors were as illiterate as the audience.

Philosophy does not need a written record, as long as the beings have perfect memory. A great deal of our modern science originated from the musings of philosophers. Plato and Socrates developed and taught their ideas by speaking and listening. Philosophical debate is done much more effectively orally than when written.

You would, of course, have to give them the ability of 'idiot savants', that is, the ability to do complex arithmetic in their heads. I doubt if it would be base ten, but a really good mind could process arithmetic faster and more accurately in binary than in decimal. All arithmetic operations can be done in binary, for instance, just by doubling and halving. Most logic can be reduced to truth tables, and these can be memorized. There is no reason an advanced mind could not visualize an entire truth table at once, yet communicate it line by line, entry by entry. Same with a logic diagram. A mind that is good at visualization could build up a very complex system of gates, one gate and one connection at a time. People really good at logic gates and logic diagrams can go between visualizing gates and the Boolean expression at will. Once the Boolean equation is memorized, and visualized, there is no reason to believe there could not be a particular mental structure that could process it. Computers are, after all, nothing but logic gates and logic expressions.

Stephen Hawking, because of his physical limitations, has developed mathematical mental symbolism that he can manipulate in his mind.

Humans generally are, in fact, hamstrung by our dependency on written language. We have an absolutely vast ability to imagine and manipulate very complex patterns in our minds, yet we do not use it. It is the limitations of written speech and its requirements on structure that limit our ability to communicate these patterns. But poets and artists have the ability to speak in holistic images and paint mental pictures rather than sequential thoughts.

In fact, spoken English is a completely separate language from written English. You can SAY 'There are three ways to spell the English word two' and retain its meaning, but as I just proved, there is no way to write it down accurately. If you read a transcription of a conversation, the meaning can be completely lost. Tone, intonation, pauses, emphasis, are all important in spoken communication but simply lost in written communication.

TL:DR

With a society of beings that had a mind capable of advanced visualization using complex mental structures, and an oral language sufficiently developed to translate and communicate these visualizations, there is no real impediment to them developing a very advanced body of scientific knowledge. They just wouldn't be able to BUILD it, or design practical experiments and apparatus to prove it.

They just wouldn't have the great quantity of materialistic stuff we 'advanced' humans have.

• Technological advancement is relevant because if you develop mathematics, music and philosophy, while the tribe in the next valley over develops agriculture, ironworking and logistics, your culture ceases to exist when their population grows to the point where they start looking for more lebensraum. You can't be smart if you're dead. – Yurgen Feb 5 '18 at 18:08
• @Yurgen In this scenario there IS no tribe in the next valley. And violence, conflict, and competition are particularly human constructs. There is absolutely NO reason to impart them to other alien cultures or minds. – Justin Thyme Feb 5 '18 at 18:55
• I think you'll find that predation is over half a billion years old. We didn't invent violence and competition. Territorial animals also predate humanity, and are likely to have evolved several times independently. There's all the reason to assume that on a world with Earth-like resources, we'll see competition for those resources long before anything like an intelligent species evolves. – Yurgen Feb 5 '18 at 19:19
• @ Yurgen They are snake-like. Not the typical image of being alpha predator animal. Your ideas on predation just do not apply to this world. Absolutely no valid reason except a 'universe created in my image' presumption to expect all worlds evolve the way we have evolved on earth. Nature is NOT violent, competitive, nor conflicted. These are human constructs. Nature just does what it does, without attribution to constructs. – Justin Thyme Feb 5 '18 at 19:46
• There are 114,000 google results for "violent earthquake" and 110,000 for "violent tornado". What you think words mean is irrelevant if everyone else disagrees. I see I've inadvertently entered into a discussion with someone willing to redefine words mid-discussion. Experience suggests further discourse is pointless, as I can't trust anything you say. – Yurgen Feb 5 '18 at 20:28

The question seems a bit ramshackle.

On the one hand it asks what would a society be like without writing..and on the other.. how would it write.

On the one hand, pictographs, nor any form of writing actually has fine motor control as a basic requirement. It's not like they'd be judging each other for neatness, their standards would be entirely different.

On the other, dictation between humans and from humans to machines is a well established mechanism for turning words into visual aids. A species that can train animals to build structures for them can teach animals to translate verbal commands into physical actions ('painting by proxy,' i believe it's possible to teach elephants to paint using torture.)

We can also consider more fantastical means. Phenomenal pheromones..whatevz!

I wonder what modern means, in the question, also.

Humanities approach to the use of abstract visual informational exchange aids has and continues to change, as does the verbal. One would assume a species for whom the act of writing/painting or any kind of visual communication is awkward at best, would be encouraged to develop far more precise, logical and capable verbal languages to aid in both shorthand and precision...

• what would a society be like without writing..and on the other.. how would it write. The whole idea is for them not to have a written language. That's what makes the question purposefully challenging to comprehend in the first place. Also on the idea of fine motor skills, they don't even have hands in the first place, and their tails are on the ground for stability purposes so they can't use that. And they have co habitation with the domestic animals. They aren't forcing them to do anything, much like how we never forced wolves to hunt with us, rather they knew the pros of hunting with us. – DiagonalCorgi Feb 5 '18 at 2:08
• "How could a civilization's concept of technology, opinions and history be written without any form of books, and in particular an alphabet? How can information even be stored without the usage of a book?" - Purposefully challenging? Dick. Don't need hands to make marks. Don't need a pencil to write. – Jotun Feb 5 '18 at 2:19
• "How could a civilization's concept of technology, opinions and history be recorded without any form of books". Made edits to clear up the confusion. That "written" part was meant to be hypothetical, so it's now "recorded" – DiagonalCorgi Feb 5 '18 at 2:22

They don't have hands, but that's not a showstopper.
There are humans who don't have hands, but still create art just fine:

If the snake people have prehensile tongues or mobile lips for instance, then they could use them to hold a pen/brush/stylus, as well as other tools, or just used to make imprints directly on a soft surface. Likewise, the tip of their tail could be used as a writing instrument in clay tablets given a bit of fine muscle control, and could have tools designed to fit it if you need more force than a tongue can provide.

Another option, if the language allows for it, it rhyme.
To quote the Daniel Suarez book Freedom(tm):
They were the ones who invented rhyme and meter—the programming language for human memory in preliterary civilizations. It was a cultural checksum—a mnemonic device. You couldn't f with the code or the rhymes didn't work; and if the rhymes didn't work, people noticed. And so the knowledge of a people was passed down intact. It was a shamanic code. If you f'ed with the code, then society lost its collective mind.