Amazing discoveries in science fiction: Everyone in Star Wars might be illiterate

"It seems like all the characters in Star Wars learn how to do is punch certain buttons to make their machines do what they need to do, and everything else is left up to droids." Ryan Britt at Tor has an analysis on how all the citizens in George Lucas' space epic have culturally evolved to a state in which the written word has gone extinct and, as a result, no one can read or write. Consider this the next time you send a text with your voice, if you feel like giving yourself a small anxiety attack. (via io9)


  1. Wait… what? Galactic Basic is plastered EVERYWHERE, I even knew how to read it at one point, (Yes I lack a life that much) Illiteracy is not a problem in the Star Wars Universe, I’m sorry. 

          1. Tech manuals aren’t canon. The diagram shown on screen in TNG purportedly only showed one bathroom. Can’t seem to find a reference, ‘tho. 

      1. Sorry, doesn’t work for me. In Empire, Luke and R2 are having a *conversation,* something spontaneous. Functional literacy isn’t likely to cover that.

  2. In the original movie the text TRACTOR BEAM POWER was clearly written in English on the console Obi-Wan used in the Death Star. I believe they replaced it with either Galactic Standard or some kind of graphics for the special editions.

  3. The article suggests that this is common in most Fantasy/SciFi.
    Seems fairly obvious that reading a book in which a character is reading a book for any length of time is far too meta.
    And really we don’t hear every detail of the characters lives, whens the last time you read a popular fantasy/SciFi in which the character is sitting on the toilet?

    1. We get a fairly intricate description of a bathroom in one of William Gibson’s books in the Blue Ant era…

    2.  “Seems fairly obvious that reading a book in which a character is reading a book for any length of time is far too meta.”

      Unless you’re Neal Stephenson.

  4. I have decided that no one in the Star Wars universe bathes because they don’t show anyone bathing in the movies. It’s true!

      1. Well, Anakin wooed Padme using a line about how she is so soft and inviting when the rest of the world is difficult and hard, and speaking of hard…

        Then they had lame, passionless sex.

  5. Obi-Wan didn’t do any reading in the Jedi Library, sure, but he was at least able to read control panels on the Death Star.

    Also, iirc, on Coruscant in the bar (Attack of the Clones), they have sports scores on the screens.  I realize this is a bar on the galactic capital planet, so people are likely to be literate, but they’re also the people most likely to be able to afford high-tech gadgetry, including sophisticated droids to think for them.  Then again, there’s that thing of people seeming to resent droids…

    I don’t buy it.  I’m pretty sure they can read.

  6. Bathroom and other types of signs are pictographs so that foreigners and kids can find their way around. And also because our brains are much better at finding a pictograph than a word.
    Voice text will kill written communication. The internet will make people illiterate. Video games will make kids illiterate. The computer will kill physical writing. Video will kill the radio. The radio will kill books. The printing press will kill books. After people start writing things down they will stop using their own memory.

    What’s with being one of those ancient doomsayers that declare that every new technology is going to make us all illiterate and stupid. (Or in the case of the first, that literacy itself will make us stupid)
    I expected better of Boing Boing.

  7. A slightly more interesting question, I think, is why it is that science fiction almost never shows anyone reading. At a guess: most science fiction movies are action movies, with a strong bias towards “person of action” and against “person of reflection”, and a person of action doesn’t sit around reading a book in an action movie.

    You don’t see a lot of people reading books in general in TV and movies, but the show about a detective I watched last night had a lot of police reading documents and newspapers and computer screens with text legible to the viewer and so on.

    At least with fantasy, there’s the wizardly tome schtick, and so forth. Ironically, I suppose that you’re more likely to see a character in fantasy reading a book, because there’s a presumption that most people wouldn’t be literate and books would be extraordinary, so showing a character reading a book indicates that the character is extraordinary.

    1. Most science fiction movies aren’t science fiction, they’re just space opera, thrillers, and adventure stories.

    1. I thought the same thing.  That podcast came out 10/2 and then 24 hours later this article was online.  That is a crazy coincidence, no?

  8. I have often wondered how schools will transform post the information age. For example, why should we continue to make children memorize benign state capitols, when their onboard internet chip can tell them instantly. Kind of like learning new skills in the Matrix- no need for today’s schools (which probably could have been said about the curriculum and the boring institutional process 30 years ago too).

    1.  It’s not about the state capitals, it’s an exercise to teach kids how to memorize a medium-length list by rote.  Which is a fairly important skill even if you’re internet-enabled everywhere you go; and a good warmup for multiplication tables, which actually are important info.

      1. You learn state capitals before multiplication tables? At what age do you learn them both? Just seems like backwards order to me. (I’m from another country.)

        Multiplication table would actually be the only thing of “must learn” things to learn by rote that I can think of. How many things do you learn by rote as an adult? I sure cannot come up by anything.

        1.  Permanent/semi-permanent: correct spellings of non-phonetic words, decimal equivalents of 16ths, the order of major named streets in your hometown, phone numbers and birthdays of family members, meanings of traffic sign ideograms,  basic procedures for job-critical activities (“I can do that in my sleep!”)

          Temporary: contact information for current clients/coworkers; this week’s to-do list, major plot points of the last few books you read, shopping lists, etc. ad infinitum

  9. They also have some kind of miraculous 100% efficient digestive system that never requires them to poop. I mean, you never see them doing it, therefore they probably don’t do it at all. 

  10. Foolishness.  If we’re going to take the Star Wars universe at face value and accept all the things like hyperdrive and a Galactic Empire, then we’ll have to accept the fact that within the Empire itself are hundreds (thousands?  Millions?) of species and cultures of varying degrees of societal and technological advancement.  The Tusken Raiders of Tatooine don’t seem to be particularly advanced; the most modern bit of technology we see them wielding appears to be a sniper rifle.  I don’t think they have much truck with holocrons or datapads.  Maybe they read and write, maybe they don’t; since they have a strong oral storytelling tradition and a fairly rough, primitive life there might not be much room for literacy in the Sandpeople’s culture.  But surely they’re not illiterate due to an overabundance of technology.

    But consider the human engineers of the Empire.  Is all their technology developed, passed down, improved and refined through oral storytelling and glyphs?  Do Wookiees possess their reputation for high technological skill simply because they instinctively know which is the business end of a bowcaster or hyperdrive monitor?  Or do they ever consult User Manuals?

    It seems to me that if a galaxy-spanning Empire that contains so many species has gone to the trouble of creating a lingua franca known as Galactic Basic to facilitate communication between as many different species and subcultures as can physically reproduce the sounds and can be bothered to learn it in the first place, it’s a good bet that the written form of the language might be as commonly known as the spoken (not by everyone, obviously, but it’s equally obvious from the movies that more people understand spoken Basic than actually bother to speak it, as Jabba, Greedo, Chewbacca, and R2-D2 could cheerfully attest).

    I think it’s highly likely that most citizens of the Empire actually are functionally illiterate in Basic, though I think it’s likelier that this is due to the fact that the vast majority of them are not involved in or concerned with interstellar trade, interspecies intercourse, or dealings with larger concerns than just getting by in a cruel galaxy.  Most Rodians, I venture to say, hang out with other Rodians, and if they compose poetry or sing songs or perform plays or write their memoirs, it’s probably in Rodian.  And if we’re going to assume that casual visitors to a Mos Eisley cantina are going to choose which restroom to use based upon a glyph depicting a gender and/or species that may not match their own, rather than just being able to read a sign (in whatever language) that reads “Excrete Here,” then we may not be giving enough credit to the intelligence of the barkeepers of the galaxy.

    Really, just as the vast majority of 20th-century humans never left the area immediately surrounding their birthplace, I doubt most citizens of the Galactic Empire ever bothered to leave their homeworlds.  And I doubt that most of the illiterati lost their literacy because of overreliance on technology.  I think they probably never had it to begin with, whereas most of the characters we meet within the Star Wars movies have occasion to speak or at least understand multiple languages in their dealings with multiple species.  Owen Lars may never have needed to learn to read, but he’s a poverty-level moisture farmer who has to keep his machinery running, not a poet or soldier or merchant or diplomat.

    As for the fact that the Jedi have gone from fairly common to legendary in the course of twenty years or so, that’s just bad writing on Lucas’ part.

    1. “The final nail in the coffin which proves widespread illiteracy is how fast stories of the Jedi mutate from a fact of everyday life into legend, seemingly overnight”

      Yeah, this seems less of an issue with character’s ability to read than Lucas’ ability to write.

    2. consider the human engineers of the Empire

      Maybe there are none. Consider – there is rapid change and advancement in spaceship design, yet no change at all in droid design during the two full generations of Star Wars. Maybe once the R2 unit was designed all living entity employment in the engineering and construction and repair fields became pretty much obsolete. And all the doctors are droids – maybe all hard jobs are done by droid. The droids run everything and humans are just sort of pets, free to do their fighting and fornicating and frivolity.

      Because frankly, the tech in Star Wars looks like it was designed not as aids to humans, but to make as much busywork for humans as possible to make them feel useful. You don’t need people to aim and fire cannons or to lift a scanning unit into the Millennium Falcon or even pilot fighters, but they do.

      1. There is something to the idea that the Galactic Empire (and the Old Republic before it) has become decadent and overripe for a fall, just like in Asimov’s Foundation series.  But still, the very idea that R2-D2 is an off-the-shelf astromech droid, not much different from any others of his model run except for a modicum of luck and pluck at the beginning of Phantom Menace but due to some extraordinary adventures and the unusual fact that his memory never once got wiped during the thirty-odd years covered by the movies he’s the only character that knows everything about what’s been happening (but is unable to communicate any of it to anyone but that twit C-3PO, whom R2 trusts with only whatever small tidbits of info 3PO needs to know to get to the next plot point), whereas ol’ Goldenrod himself, who is portrayed throughout the original trilogy as a standard off-the-shelf protocol droid but turns out to have been assembled entirely from spare parts by a clever kid of whom 3PO himself has no memory or awareness whatsoever, since his own memory does get wiped at intervals, a kid, in fact, who turns out to be the father of two of 3PO’s later “masters” on two separate planets… man, that is some of the most purely ridiculous character development in droid history.

        This stuff was obviously not designed to stand up to logical scrutiny. It’s a space opera. The laser blasts travel slowly enough to have a visible trajectory. Explosions in space go Boom. Something with tentacles lives inside the waste-disposal system of a newly-commissioned vessel of war. Someone who should know better says that those blast points are “too accurate for Sandpeople… only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise,” referring to the absolute worst shots in the galaxy, who we all know “can’t see a thing in this helmet.”

  11. Darth Vader curled up by the fire to read the latest novel by his favourite Nabooan romance novelist.

    Each movie has about a quarter of an entire galactic civil war.  Screen time is precious, too precious to show someone spending a few hours tucking into a good book… and if they did, Darth Vader’s breathing was far more ominous, and took most of what they could have used on it.

    It’s not like they have their own custom language or anything.

  12. There’s a lot of hate on for this idea, but I rather like it. Not because it is well argued (although that is not bad) but because I like the thematic feel of it. Even in the extended universe Star Wars is portrayed as a fairly stagnant society. The Sith rise up every dozen generations or so, are beaten back down and life goes on. But technology and the shape of the culture as a whole doesn’t shift much, even over thousands of years.

    So the idea of them living in a, in some sense, post-progress society is interesting. Perhaps technology has reached a point of diminishing returns and the society as a whole is too large for even significant events to shift it much. Sure there are those who are still fully educated and active in exploring new things, but as a percentage of the total galaxy they are few and far between.

    It doesn’t really change the Star Wars canon much one way or the other, but I think it presents an interesting backdrop.

  13. I thought this was good food for thought: is there any value to literacy once technology has reached a point where you don’t need it?

    Ok, the article talks about the lack of new media and entertainment, but neither of these really seem to related to illiteracy — there could just as well have been news cameras and NPR and videobooks.

    If people send messages using voice and holographs, and information is also recorded this way for future generations, is there a real need for a symbolic representation of the phonemes used in speech? Why shouldn’t 90% of the Star Wars inhabitants be illiterate?

    1. People can read much faster and more selectively than they can talk, and much visual information still needs to be tagged with explanatory words.  Take a 5-second look at any design/engineering drawing for an example.

    2. It more or less kills the creation of any new content by reducing potential creators to passive consumers.

  14. In Empire the way that Luke talked to R2 was through a text panel that turned R2s speech into Basic.  If backwoods moisture farmer Luke skywalker could read.  I think probably most could.

  15. All this toilet talk. 

    I just presume everyone in excretion-less Sci-Fi-Fa has a small teleporter in their nethers or is using The Force or has advanced adult diapers for space travel etc. 

    So anytime someone makes a serious face over something there’s odds on whether they are being serious or just taking a pee or poo. Makes it more fun to watch, some characters pee and poo way more than others

  16. Everyone has forgotten that there is giant yellow text flying through the galaxy, as is clearly shown at the beginning of each film. Case closed.

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