The Paradox of an Advanced Civilization

Earth Carved in Sandstone

by Frasier MacKenzie

There was an interesting article a few years ago in Wired magazine about an enigma regarding the Inca civilization. According to most researchers’ conventional wisdom, the people who built Machu Picchu and developed a system of high-altitude roadways and messenger service spreading across a 3,000 mile empire somehow never developed a written language. However, Harvard anthropologist Gary Urton thought otherwise, and began exploring the possibility that they may have simply had a very different system of recording things – one involving bundles of knotted strings called khipu.

The article is intriguing because it turns upside down the ideas we have about how communication via the written word takes place. Even though fewer and fewer people write things on paper today, preferring to send themselves a text reminder or make a note on the computer, we still think of writing on paper when we think of written communication. If it goes back very many years, it might take the form of scrolls or papyri or cave paintings, but these are just variations on the theme. But once I began thinking on the concept of other media to convey written language, it made me start to wonder: why should we assume that an advanced civilization would necessarily need to write?

The development of writing may not be a hallmark of a civilized culture so much as one that’s grown mentally lazy or simply overloaded with information.

Think about it. Why do we write in the first place? To communicate, to keep a record. As far as communication of ideas goes, we don’t tend to write if it’s something that can be passed on verbally – unless, of course, a written record is necessary for reference. You can’t just call up the tax service and give them a verbal report of how much money you made last year, along with an “OK” authorizing them to pull your share of the taxes out of your bank. They want it in writing, and so does the bank and nearly every other official sort of agency, although more and more are catching up and accepting computer records as a fact of life.

Many civilizations have had traditions of oral history, not because they could not write but because people trained in oral traditions simply carried that information in their memories. For them, writing it down would be as redundant as copying passages from an encyclopedia by longhand. Modern day people who haven’t been trained in this type of tradition can’t do that, of course; think of the game “Password” where the fun comes from seeing how distorted the message gets from the time it’s first whispered until the time it’s made full circle.

Consider the second reason, the necessity of keeping records. I’ve known individuals with eidetic memories, who can recite names and numbers from the telephone directory, or chapter and verse from a book they once read. These aren’t people who need to jot down notes to remind themselves of what to get at the grocery store. No one, however, considers it to be a sign of lesser development that they don’t write things down. The assumption is that their minds are advanced enough not to need to do so.

My point is this: the development of writing may not be a hallmark of a civilized culture so much as one that’s grown mentally lazy or simply overloaded with information. We no longer think there’s any need to commit things to memory because we can always write ourselves a quick note or look up what we need to know. If we still had to chisel out our words on a stone tablet and carry that to the grocery store, would memory improve drastically? You bet. But we’re accustomed to the convenience of scribbling a note, whether by pen or phone, and we feel no real need to memorize the information. Yet everyone’s had the experience of knowing you wrote down someone’s new phone number – if only you could recall where you put the note. And anyone who’s experienced the frustration of trying to reassemble a contacts list after losing a phone can attest that backing up data may be the smartest thing we never did.

Consider states of mind such as lucid dreaming. It’s been documented by many researchers that subjects find it amazingly easy to grasp complex new ideas and abstract concepts when presented with them in certain altered states of consciousness. However, subjects also find it incredibly difficult to read or write in those same states; the letters blur or twist into strange shapes, or it seems to take forever to get through a simple sentence. I suspect that this may be because writing is a shortcut we’ve learned to utilize here in our “normal” waking consciousness – one that doesn’t translate well to other realities where mind is the primary means of communication, and where direct comprehension makes the tasks of reading and writing an unnecessary encumbrance. As some dreamers might have experienced, it’s a little like having the ability to walk through walls but forcing yourself to go around and use conventional doorways instead because those are the rules you learned in your waking reality.

Most of us have been taught how to read and write from before the time we entered school. We may have had to memorize a few passages now and then for special occasions, but for the most part, we’ve never been shown how to utilize the real power of the mind to comprehend directly, without either written or verbal cues. After relying on the written word all this time, it’s possible that the ability of direct comprehension may have been bred out of the human race in favor of other capabilities that evolution deemed more important to survival. Learning to read and write may have given us a shortcut that allowed parts of the brain to become restructured over the centuries and designated for other purposes. I’m hypothesizing here; I’m not a neurologist or an anthropologist, so I’m just thinking of possibilities. (And even the ability to think of possibilities is becoming less and less common, as our schools train students to think in an increasingly linear fashion, to eliminate possibilities for the purpose of arriving at the “right answer” rather than generating more possibilities in the hope that one might turn out to be better than a simple “right answer.”)

Intelligence is always a tricky thing to measure. Measuring sticks are rarely designed impartially; they tend to favor the ones doing the measuring instead of the ones being measured.

When our own civilization is long past, and future equivalents of anthropologists study our ways of doing things, they may be perplexed by why we continued to write for so long when our forests were being depleted and virtual storage and memory was so readily available. They may wonder what took us so long to come up with alternative energy solutions, or why we held onto a monetary system that stopped working for most people shortly after the industrial revolution. They might wonder how a civilization capable of understanding the science necessary for nuclear fission or working on a cure for cancer could instead choose to develop video games and medications for erectile dysfunction.

Then again, maybe we shouldn’t even assume that future generations will still be studying history. Thousands of years down the road, they may discover that there’s no value in continually digging up the past for analysis and reappraisal, that we never learned enough from such study to justify the time, effort and cost involved in exploring such questions.

But I like to think they might be smarter than we are.

© Copyright 2007 by Frasier MacKenzie. Republished 2011; updated and republished 2014.

For background and further research:

“Untangling the Mystery of the Inca” by Gareth Cook, Wired 15.01, 2007.

Khipu Database Project, research by Dr. Gary Urton and team.

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