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Is the Star Wars Galaxy Funtionally Illiterate?


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#1 bigdamnhero

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 10:37 AM

Posting this here rather than NGD because I'm more interested in the implications for roleplaying than I am in debating what is/isn't canon. Also hoping to keep this from spiraling too far down into political commentary on the current state of our society. (Tho I do feel there are some parallels.)

 

Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate

 

This blog post is a few years old but it's new to me. (It got referenced in a WaPo article yesterday for the Fourth plugging the author's new book.) Basically the author points out that in 8 SW movies we never see anyone reading for pleasure, and most people don't seem to read at all beyond "I know that this symbol means go faster" type of things. There's no journalism that we see aside from government propaganda. History doesn't seem to be a thing, given that event just a couple decades old are shrouded in mystery, as if the only thing anyone knows about them is what they heard from some dude in a bar. Facts that should be easily-verifiable even at our level of tech seem equally lost to subjectivity - and no one seems to care or even recognize that maybe they should be verifiable. (No one took pictures of a planet-wide blockade at Naboo? No one?)

 

I'm not suggesting Lucas did this consciously, of course. But a lot of the contradictions in the Star Wars universe actually makes a lot more sense if you think of it as the ultimate "post-factual society" full of functional illiterates with no access to (or tradition of) independent news, analysis, or historical records.

 

What do you think? How would this affect a sci-fi RPG, whether set in SW or something else?


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#2 DasBroot

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 11:24 AM

It's more than 'go faster' - Aurebesh is a full alphabet and numbering system that first showed up in the original trilogy (though just like Klingon without any real rhyme or reason to it besides looking cool).

 

http://starwars.wiki...m/wiki/Aurebesh

 

The EU and West End Games RPG expanded it by assigning letters to the symbols and it's canon these days:  Poe's flight suit in Episode 7 features it on the left breast of his flight vest - and it translates to "Pull to Inflate" according to the article linked.

 

I like the premise (iconography was the same way in Shadowrun - many people were illiterate) and it wouldn't surprise me if entire worlds in Star Wars had low functional literacy rates (like farmers and craftsmen have had traditionally in the real world) - we don't see many (any?) schools, after all.  We don't really get a chance to, though, in context of the movie narrative.

 

Is it most? I don't know. Is it many? Quite possibly.


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#3 Grailknight

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 01:24 PM

Remember that most of the narrative is centered on backwater or frontier planets where people go to hide out from the Empire or are places for the Empire's secret bases. We hardly ever see a mainstream world and its culture. Coruscant had real civilization along with the industry and entertainment we'd expect from a hi-tech society.



#4 zslane

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 01:57 PM

Yeah, you can't design and build starships, AT-AT walkers, and deathstars without the fundamentals of civilization: math and literacy. Or if you can (in your fictional universe), you have to go to pretty great lengths to explain how that's possible since it contradicts the entire human experience.



#5 Steve

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 04:53 PM

Do the droids take care of doing all the reading? If they ever rose up in rebellion, I suppose they could start subtly by giving false readings of text.
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#6 Tjack

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 05:29 PM

I've come across this in a Star Wars campaign I played in. Like the real world, it's common for people to speak several languages but only read one or two. The basic trade languages are Common with Aurebesh as the written version and Huttese.
Han Solo in the movies speaks Common, Huttese, and Wookie. In the novels he can fake his way through a number more. In the real world, it's like someone who can make himself understood in Japanese or we call "Chinese" but is really Mandarin or Cantonese without being able to read a menu in those countries.
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#7 Lucius

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 05:43 PM

Yeah, you can't design and build starships, AT-AT walkers, and deathstars without the fundamentals of civilization: math and literacy. Or if you can (in your fictional universe), you have to go to pretty great lengths to explain how that's possible since it contradicts the entire human experience.


Wouldnn't starships, AT AT walkers and deathstars contradict the entire human experience even with math and literacy?

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#8 zslane

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 06:00 PM

Not insofar as we can only imagine them existing, at least in large part, due to the abilities of scientists and engineers.


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#9 bigdamnhero

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 06:38 PM

It's more than 'go faster' - Aurebesh is a full alphabet and numbering system that first showed up in the original trilogy (though just like Klingon without any real rhyme or reason to it besides looking cool).

..

The EU and West End Games RPG expanded it by assigning letters to the symbols and it's canon these days:

Obviously a lot has been added by fans, EU authors, etc. But in terms of what's in the films themselves? Yes there are obviously words, and people seem to understand what they mean at least within the context of the job they've been trained on, but we don't see any use beyond that. That's what "functional illiteracy" means: someone who knows enough words to "fake it" but isn't able to actually read paragraphs.

 

we don't see many (any?) schools, after all.

I believe the only school we see is the Jedi Academy in one of The Films That Shall Not Be Named. And IIRC it seemed to me mainly focused on rote memorization & meditation. We see kids watching pretty holos (no words), but no one's reading any texts or taking any kind of notes.

 

Remember that most of the narrative is centered on backwater or frontier planets where people go to hide out from the Empire or are places for the Empire's secret bases. We hardly ever see a mainstream world and its culture. Coruscant had real civilization along with the industry and entertainment we'd expect from a hi-tech society.

True. But even in the Coruscant scenes (mostly in the prequels), we never see people reading AFAICT. Nor do we see anything that resembles news feeds or an attempt at journalism.

 

Do the droids take care of doing all the reading?

That is the author's assertion, that basically they rely on Droids to handle all the technical stuff. I'm not sure we see much to dispute it.

 

It also helps explain the Empire's obsession with making things Bigger and BIGGER. If you've lost the ability to innovate, all you can do is make the same thing only HUUUUUUUGE!


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#10 zslane

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 06:47 PM

The films never show anyone actually working aside from military or scavaging duties, but I'm confident that had we been given a glimpse of (for example) Galen Erso at work over the years, there would have been some evidence of advanced literacy, even if only strongly implied.



#11 Nothere

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 08:33 PM

Well it could be a matter of technology making something irrelevant. Like how cursive is considered by many to be irrelevant today. As to not seeing people read for fun, you see very few things people do for fun. As far as I recall in the original movies there was only one time we see people doing something for fun. Jabba and his dancing girls. The case might be made for the folks at the Mos Eisley spaceport but the musicans are doing a job, and while there are many drinks the only people see know what are doing there are Han and Chewie, and their getting a job. 



#12 zslane

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 08:54 PM

Well, it would be interesting to see how George Lucas envisioned science and engineering being taught from one generation to the next without literacy. Frankly, though, I don't think he did.



#13 Badger

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Posted 05 May 2017 - 11:42 PM

Posting this here rather than NGD because I'm more interested in the implications for roleplaying than I am in debating what is/isn't canon. Also hoping to keep this from spiraling too far down into political commentary on the current state of our society. (Tho I do feel there are some parallels.)

 

Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate

 

This blog post is a few years old but it's new to me. (It got referenced in a WaPo article yesterday for the Fourth plugging the author's new book.) Basically the author points out that in 8 SW movies we never see anyone reading for pleasure, and most people don't seem to read at all beyond "I know that this symbol means go faster" type of things. There's no journalism that we see aside from government propaganda. History doesn't seem to be a thing, given that event just a couple decades old are shrouded in mystery, as if the only thing anyone knows about them is what they heard from some dude in a bar. Facts that should be easily-verifiable even at our level of tech seem equally lost to subjectivity - and no one seems to care or even recognize that maybe they should be verifiable. (No one took pictures of a planet-wide blockade at Naboo? No one?)

 

I'm not suggesting Lucas did this consciously, of course. But a lot of the contradictions in the Star Wars universe actually makes a lot more sense if you think of it as the ultimate "post-factual society" full of functional illiterates with no access to (or tradition of) independent news, analysis, or historical records.

 

What do you think? How would this affect a sci-fi RPG, whether set in SW or something else?

 

I used to have a hard time with nobody seeming to know about the Clone Wars in the Star Wars universe (oversimplification by me)

 

 

But, then many of the millennials seem to have no (bleeping) clue what the Berlin Wall was.  Or much if anything about the Soviet Union.

 

Becomes much more believable.  I wouldn't say the galaxy is illiterate, per se, though. 


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#14 dmjalund

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Posted 06 May 2017 - 01:05 AM

there may be many alien languages that have no written version.


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#15 bigdamnhero

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Posted 06 May 2017 - 09:08 AM

I'm confident that had we been given a glimpse of (for example) Galen Erso at work over the years, there would have been some evidence of advanced literacy, even if only strongly implied.

Probably. But he's the top 0.01% of the educated elite. Even at the lowest point of Earth's Dark Age, there were always a handful of people who could read. That doesn't mean it's commonplace.

 

Well it could be a matter of technology making something irrelevant. Like how cursive is considered by many to be irrelevant today.

I could buy that if we were given some indication of what replaced it. Maybe all books are audiobooks and no one takes written notes because they've all been trained to make mnemonic notes in their heads? I could maybe buy that. But we don't really see any evidence of that either. The issue is not just the lack of written knowledge, but the almost complete lack of knowledge.

 

As to not seeing people read for fun, you see very few things people do for fun.

Yeah, fair point.

 

Well, it would be interesting to see how George Lucas envisioned science and engineering being taught from one generation to the next without literacy. Frankly, though, I don't think he did.

As noted in my OP, no one is suggesting Lucas did any of this intentionally. It's strictly a fan theory, trying to make sense of some puzzling questions about why the galactic society is the way it is portrayed.

 

I used to have a hard time with nobody seeming to know about the Clone Wars in the Star Wars universe (oversimplification by me)

 

But, then many of the millennials seem to have no (bleeping) clue what the Berlin Wall was.  Or much if anything about the Soviet Union.

[shrug] The Millennials I work with are a pretty savvy & knowledgeable bunch. But regardless, the point is if they don't know what the Berlin Wall was - or more likely, don't remember all the details - they can Google it in about 5 seconds. The SW Universe doesn't appear to have anything resembling Wikipedia. Or history books. Or news/journalism of any kind. (Think how prevalent journalism was in Babylon 5, or Galactica, or even Harry Potter.)

 

In Force Awakens, Rey says she thought Luke Skywalker - one of the most important & influential people of the last 30 years, who was an active force* in galactic history within Rey's lifetime - was a myth. Throughout the Prequels, Palpatine is able to get away with making completely fact-free claims and not only does no one attempt to present contrary evidence, no one even thinks to ask if there's evidence either way. People simply don't act like informed, engaged members of an educated society. They repeatedly show an appalling ignorance of both current affairs and recent history, and everyone seems to accept that as a norm - rather than complaining "These damn kids today don't even know who Luke Skywalker was!" their ignorance is treated as completely normal and expected.

* Pun completely unintended!


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#16 bigdamnhero

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Posted 06 May 2017 - 09:36 AM

In hindsight I probably should've given this thread a different title, because I'm less interested in how well this particular fan theory fits with canon, than I am in the roleplaying implications. Most SF settings assume some degree of education, literacy, and availability of information, typically at least equal to our own if not far more advanced. So forgetting SW for a second, what might a futuristic interstellar society look like where the following were true:

  • The vast majority of the population is functionally illiterate, able to read only enough to handle basic tasks of living and their specific jobs.
  • Advanced science & technology exist, but only the scientific elite really understand any of it - the vast bulk of the population is completely ignorant of how their gadgets work. (Even more so than in our day.)
  • People have become heavily reliant on computers, androids, etc to do the bulk of their computing, as well as remembering how things work. No need to know how to repair your moisture condensers - get a Droid to fix them for you.
  • There is no news or trusted journalism; people have only the most superficial awareness of what's going on in the world/galaxy.
  • There are no good historical records, or at least not that are widely available and generally agreed upon.

Without getting too political: there's some concern these days about our world becoming a "post-factual" society where access to "fake news" and false information is so easily accessible that there is no longer agreement on what even basic facts are. What if we extrapolated those trends forward and turned them up to 11, but assumed that society somehow managed to survive anyway? (Because otherwise we'd be in a different genre.) Maybe this all happened as the result of deliberate suppression of information by government or institutions or secret societies or whatever. Or maybe people just lost interest in knowledge and at some point that became completely normal.

 

What might that future look like? What would roleplaying in that future be like, and how would it be different from more typical SF RPGs?


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#17 Lucius

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Posted 06 May 2017 - 10:35 AM

(Because otherwise we'd be in a different genre.)


I think you may already be in a different genre.

In fantasy it is common for wizards and sages to be highly literate and educated, but most people, sometimes even aristocrats, are not.

If I understand you, you are proposing something similar - a setting in which there is a very small very literate and numerate elite who are for example engineers who can design a death star or roboticists who can program a droid, but most people live out their lives in a state of profound ignorance.

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#18 Nolgroth

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Posted 06 May 2017 - 10:59 AM

I could get behind a functionally illiterate society for Star Wars. In Hero terms, I would set the baseline as Illiterate and Literacy costs that extra point on any of the languages that are spoken. I think that, while society as a whole would remain illiterate, the Player Characters would pretty much break that mold. A single point to be literate seems almost a given for just about any character unless there was a strong role-playing reason not to. It could provide interesting color to the campaign, but I wonder how much it would change the way the campaign is run.

 

I wonder though, if Literacy is just a single point, if you cannot defer it past character creation. In other words, the characters start out with knowledge about how to do their job and are illiterate. As the campaign moves forward and they are exposed to the opportunity to learn, they can drop a point into Literacy for a language or two. Maybe that's one of the reasons pilots need a navigational computer to plot out trips. They literally cannot compute the numbers themselves because they were never taught math. They were taught to select the icons for where they are and where they are going and the computer does the rest. It doesn't exactly jive with the original trilogy but it also isn't so jarring that it is an immediate stop sign either.

 

EDIT: And even the Jedi teach through "holocrons" instead of written text. Perhaps recordings and iconography is more important than the written word.

 

EDIT 2: That would also be one of the explanations for why technology has pretty much stayed static for thousands of years.

 

EDIT 3: Just kidding. Nothing more to add.


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#19 zslane

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Posted 06 May 2017 - 12:42 PM

Right, okay, if by "functionally illiterate" we mean illiterate the way European society was illiterate in the middle ages, then sure I see that as a possibility in Star Wars. I thought it was being suggested that there was no such thing as literacy at all in the Star Wars universe. But yeah, since Star Wars is basically Space Fantasy, with artificially intelligent droids everywhere to handle all the complicated technical details of daily life, general illiteracy probably isn't really an obstacle to anyone's life. Consequently, it shouldn't be an obstacle for players in that universe either.



#20 Nothere

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Posted 06 May 2017 - 03:56 PM

As the question has come up, what has replaced books? C3po. Notice how the explains the first three movies to the Ewoks.

 

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