Endangered Handwriting?

Yesterday, I was listening to a Slate podcast (the “Culture Gabfest“) in which commentators Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner discussed, among other things, Ms. Turner’s review of the book The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher. The book laments the decline of handwriting, as digital technologies replace more traditional pen and paper. Ms. Turner, in her review, suggests that Mr. Hensher does a poor job supporting his argument, as he notes that the (relatively brief) history of handwriting focuses on efforts to improve legibility. Ms. Turner argues that type is perfected legibility and that claims of handwriting revealing personality or character have been debunked long ago.

I find Ms. Turner’s arguments compelling, but the commentators on the podcast, Mr. Metcalf and Ms. Stevens, did not. They suggested that there is still something inherently better about receiving a letter compared to receiving an email and that the memories and good feelings associated with the hand-written word far outpace anything that could be created from a lump of uniform digital text. Further, they argued that writing on a computer is inherently inferior to writing with pen and paper (though both admitted they seldom did any pen-to-paper writing any longer).

The problem with these critiques is that they ignore the oft-cited quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.” More specifically, they do not recognize a notion advanced by researcher Sim Sitkin: Communication channels carry both information and symbolic meaning. As symbolic meaning is learned both through teaching and experience, there is nothing inherently better about a written letter compared to an email, but there may be subjective benefits to one over the other.

Those preferring letters may see them as a thoughtful act that suggests the sender really cares about the receiver. Letters take more time to create and send than is required if using email. Letters also can be personalized more, with drawings and other flourishes. And if one grew up in a time when letters were a prime means of communication, it is no wonder email seems a poor substitution. But for those of us growing up in an era of decreased letters and cards, an email can be just as exciting. I love to receive emails from friends, but I would find it odd if a friend sent me a letter instead. Why did they take the time to do that?, I would wonder. What does this mean? So, same channel but different meaning. The medium is the message, but that message is different for each of us.

The same issues hold true for claims that writing with pen and paper is better than writing on a computer. Besides intuition that such a claim is true, Mr. Metcalf and Ms. Stevens suggested that writing on a computer leads people to both write and edit at the same time; thus the brain’s stream-of-consciousness is restricted, leaving many potentially good ideas off the page. This, however, is merely a habit of computer use. Nothing stops individuals from training themselves to let their fingers fly over the keys, pounding out whatever nonsense thoughts they have. If this is truly a better way to write, then people will adapt to it on the computer.

Is handwriting doomed because of superior digital technologies? Examining actual usage, the answer seems to be a resounding no. Some people love notebooks and use them for many purposes; for example, I keep my to-do lists on paper. Other people love digital gadgets and the ability to capture information on their smart phones; for example, I am in the habit of taking pictures of interesting books I see so that I can check them out from the library. And most people use some combination of the two! The great thing is that we don’t have to make a choice. We can carry a legal pad and an iPad, scratch paper and a smart phone, some loose-leaf and a laptop.

Thus from a policy perspective, it’s hard to argue that we should spend more time on penmanship in school. Ultimately, we live in the best age for written information that has ever existed. Our society has become hyper-literate because we consume vast quantities of written information every day, likely far more than we did even a few decades ago, all thanks to digital technologies. Neither handwriting nor digital technologies are going away, and somehow we will manage to use both in our daily lives.

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