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Writing and Reading as Technology (1): Transforming Fire; Slow Burn

We often think of writing (and reading) as primarily a matter of culture and education, which obscures its position as one of humanity’s most transformative technologies. Paying attention to literacy-as-tech and the technological factors at play in its spread sheds can help us to see possibilities for further improving access to literacy.

Wherever humans have gone in the world, they have carried with them two things, language and fire.

As they traveled through tropical forests they hoarded the precious embers of old fires and sheltered them from downpours. When they settled the barren Arctic, they took with them the memory of fire, and recreated it in stoneware vessels filled with animal fat.

Darwin himself considered these the two most significant achievements of humanity. It is, of course, impossible to imagine a human society that does not have language, but—given the right climate and an adequacy of raw wild food—could there be a primitive tribe that survives without cooking?

In fact, no such people have ever been found….

Jerry Alder – Why Fire Makes Us Human in Smithsonian Magazine

The technologies of language and fire – and shelter making, weaponry and clothing – are ubiquitous. They’ve proven so indispensable to life – even to our becoming human – that you don’t get people without them. Where there are people, these things exist.*

Other, newer technologies have spread with amazing speed: roughly two-hundred years after Faraday discovered the principles of electricity generation, electrification has reached some 87% of the world’s population, and since 1990 the percentage of people worldwide who have access to the internet has risen from 0.05% to more than 55%.

And yet use of the written word – which is probably the technology most central to the story of (modern) humanity – has taken roughly 5,200 years to reach 86% of people, with most of that progress made in the last hundred years. It’s worth also noting that for the majority of that 86% as mesaured by various agencies, “literacy” means something like “Can understand a simple sentence,” “Claims to be able to read,” or the more traditional “Can write their own name,” rather than representing any deeper level of skill.

What’s taking so long?

Installation Costs and Infrastructure

There are a combination of factors at play. Before going further it’s worth bearing in mind that new technologies spread far more quickly today than they have done for most of history – and indeed, writing itself has played a critical role in that accelleration. But for most of the history of writing and reading, technological diffusion was very slow.

Beyond that, I think the key factor is that learning to read and write is relatively hard – and has historically been very expensive. Literacy education is hard to scale. An electricity user need only plug an appliance into a wire that someone else has provided and flick a switch. In contrast, the software of literacy must be installed person-to-person in the minds of each generation. It’s time and labour intensive: the internet suggests it takes anywhere between 30 and 600 hours for an adult to learn the basic techniques of reading – assuming that they have a skilled teacher and access to books.

Because of this, for teaching people to read and write remained a boutique activity for millenia: each teacher would teach relatively few students, at a very high cost. Literacy was an elite, 1% kind of thing. Attempts to develop mass literacy are relatively new – the UK started in earnest in the 1870s – and it seems to me that in the English-speaking world the full-stack of techniques and infrastructure for teaching reading effectively at scale (more on these in future posts) are only really maturing now.** Other cultures may be ahead or behind the Anglosphere in this respect, but a general rule is probably that smaller language groups and newer or less stable political units are likely to be further behind.

Given that the written word is so central to modern societies – starting with its role in education but extending far beyond into the economy and culture – it’s worth thinking about how the history of reading-as-technology might help us to see better ways forward.


It seems fitting to be using writing to work through these ideas. Comments are welcome below or via email – with thanks in advance for giving me the the benefit of the doubt if the ideas get untidy.

*They may exist in great diversity, most visibly in the case of shelter making and clothing, but they exist.
**I’d like to refer to these techniques as metaliteracy but the term seems to mean something else, so I’ll need to give it more thought. Suggestions on a postcard, please.
***By which I mean learning, rather than schooling.
****This could be a typo. L and O are neighbours.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...