Thursday, February 26, 2009

Handwriting's Dying! So are Our Personalities! (According to the BBC)

"The slow death of handwriting"
BBC News Magazine (February 26, 2009)

"Christmas cards, shopping lists and what else? The occasions in which we write by hand are fewer and fewer, says Neil Hallows. So is the ancient art form of handwriting dying out?

"A century from now, our handwriting may only be legible to experts...."

What follows is a generally coherent article on the virtues of handwriting, with brief forays into the history of written communication. I'm a bit of a traditionalist, and can understand a nostalgic regret for changes in a culture.

Just the same, I think the author is focused a bit too much on the techniques we use to communicate, and not enough on how we assemble our ideas:

"Perhaps the best argument for keeping our pens is that otherwise, in a society that is recorded in more detail than any which came before it, we will leave plenty of data but very little of our personalities behind...."

I know that each person's handwriting is distinctive, but it's not the only way we leave our fingerprints on what we write. I contend that facets of my personality that create the Narcissus-X and Through One Dad's Eye blogs are not particularly dimmed by the almost-total lack of handwriting in either. (Through One Dad's Eye's photos occasionally show handwriting - so there is some "personality" there, by BBC standards.)

The author explains, in the final paragraph: "Our descendants may struggle to read our letters, but they'll never even see most of our texts and e-mails."

This is a significant point: although digital data will, potentially, endure as long as there are people to maintain the machinery, it's also very ephemeral. One power surge could wipe out the collected works of Proust.

Hardcopy, on the other hand, is fairly permanent. I've held a receipt for livestock in my hand, that was probably written when some of my ancestral homelands were still under glaciers. Cuneiform on clay tablets is about as easy-to-create and permanent a data storage technology as humanity has developed to date.

But, although having faded ink on yellowing paper has a certain charm, digital records have their place, too. I've seen to it that a number of personally-important accounts of my family are in digital form - where my children and (God willing) descendants can access them, make copies, and distribute the words and pictures to whoever wants them.

Back to the Death of Handwriting and Personality

Then, there's this comment of the teaching of handwriting: "...Many found the experience tedious, but for left-handers it could be torture. Often they were forced to write with their right, while their 'bad' hand was tied down...." I agree, the old practice of forcing people with 'sinister' tendencies to write with their right hands was unwise, occasionally harmful, and downright silly. But, aside from adding about two dozen words to the manuscript, I don't see how that observation relates to the article's topic.

Yes, that sort of daft educational technique involved handwriting, but did it lead either to the downfall of handwriting, or have some other effect on the evolution of handwriting? Maybe so, but the author didn't explain.

Still, if you have some extra time, it's a good read.

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