Long, long ago humans began to form small groups and tribes. As well as providing physical protection for one another, the groups had other advantages. Knowledge could be pooled. No longer did each generation need to find out for themselves which plants would kill you or make you seriously ill, where the best places were to find water or different species of animals and birds, how to make fire and so on. Instead, those with good memories could pass on their wisdom and knowledge to a younger generation, or to peers who may be less knowledgeable about certain matters. Stories about what happened in the past could also be passed on for both instruction and entertainment. Group identity could be forged.
Thus began what we now call oral tradition or oral culture. Members of the tribe could function collectively as repositories of knowledge and tradition, though individuals (especially the elderly who had spent a lifetime acquiring skils and knowledge) might have their specialist roles within this economy. Accurate memory was highly prized, and since the tribe’s members relied on it, it was cultivated as a skill. Various “tricks” to aid memory helped ensure that the tradition was corrupted as little as possible – repetitive phrasing in story-telling, word associations and so on.
One day, the tribe hear of an invention called writing. This is marvellous! By making a series of symbols on a cave wall, or on clay or wax tablets, or even on animal hides or processed plant fibres, information can be preserved almost indefinitely. And if the medium is portable, it means that messages and information can be transported accurately from place to place. Both time and geographical distance become less of an inhibition to the carrying of information. Of course, it needs people with special skills make the writing in the first place, and then to read it back. Information transmission becomes the preserve of these specially trained individuals, who hold considerable power over the other members of the tribe.
But some are rather sceptical. Others are in awe of those who have these special powers. Still others are a bit worried about where this is all going to lead (Plato.for example). After all, if you can go to a piece of writing to get the information you need, doesn’t this mean that you don’t need to remember for yourself any more? And perhaps the elders aren’t so important in this new world order. Oral tradition doesn’t die out. After all, it is quite expensive to produce a text. Even if you have the skill needed to read and write, the pens and inks and writing surface are all quite expensive to produce and also require specialist labour. Writing and Oral tradition co-exist. But it is true that writing changes the need for accurate memory, once you have a permanent record to refer to.