Handwriting – distinct or extinct?

Is there a place for handwriting in a digital age? Without any master plan or strategy, we have sleep walked from a world where our personal tool for communication was the handwritten word, to one where the keyboard is king. The technological revolution has resulted in an array of unintended consequences changing our way of doing things quite profoundly.

So should we be bemoaning the decline of handwriting? Philip Hensher in his book “The Missing Ink” believes we should. He makes a strong case for the visceral qualities attached to handwriting. Certainly I remember that when I corresponded with friends and relations by handwritten letters or cards the ritual was not merely a functional communication; recognition of the cursive style added piquancy to the correspondence. The handwritten envelope landing on the doormat heralded the arrival of some one I knew. 

Indeed  handwriting as an insight into our character became a forensic science in the last century. Graphology aimed to tease apart the individual quirks in our writing to paint a picture of who we are. In 1942 Time magazine declared “If taken away from fortune-tellers and given serious study, graphology may yet become a useful handmaiden of psychology, possibly revealing important traits, attitudes, values of the ‘hidden’ personality.” Although by the end of the century the belief in graphological analysis of handwriting was waning, nevertheless the emotional resonance attached to taking pen to paper remained.

Yet how many people today would recognise the handwriting of a colleague or friend? Isn’t it more likely that the personality of the sender in an e-mail for example is caught in the smiley emoticon to sign off the communication? Electronic communication is the modus operandi of discourse between individuals. We communicate efficiently across a whole range of technological platforms – ‘writers’ cramp’ has been replaced by ‘Blackberry thumb’ . We communicate faster and more widely than ever before. In the mighty information superhighway handwriting is increasingly being tossed aside as slow, inefficient, old fashioned.

Interestingly schools still exist in the nether regions between the brave new digital world and the centuries’ old form of personal communication. The public examination system remains a bastion of the handwritten script. It has to for a range of reasons. But has anyone, anywhere taken a decision, as a point of principle, about teaching our young people to write with pen in hand? Or is the reality that the technological revolution has overtaken our capacity to make such a decision? There is a real danger that handwriting will become an archaic skill unless we can find a new purpose for this uniquely human form of communication.

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