Is Handwriting Obsolete?

Do you remember that era of uncertainty, back around the end of high school, when you were trying to figure out what to do with your life? Hoping that the right answer would magically appear before me, I took a test which promised a list of possible careers based on my primary and secondary traits.

For my blend of opposites (artistic and analytical), there were only two suggestions: fur designer – I think we have already established that I am probably not Cruella de Vil – and graphologist. I had to look the latter up: it means a person who practices the art of handwriting analysis.

Not the kind where you give evidence in court that the purported suicide note was written not by the lord of the manor but by the devious machinating butler (that’s graphanalysis, part of the science of Questioned Document Examination) but the fortunetelling sort, where you inspect a piece of someone’s handwriting and tell them what kind of person they are.

Jehan Georges Vibert --The Fortune Teller, private collection
Your handwriting suggests that you are credulous and easily taken in.

(Note: if you want to find out what kind of person you are, examining yourself will get you further than getting a stranger to examine your handwriting.)

I found the idea interesting, read a book or two about it, and then lost interest when I found it was considered a pseudoscience. But my interest in handwriting remained, and to this day I get irritated by people who proclaim that there’s no need to teach children to write by hand as in the future everyone will be using digital devices for everything and no-one will need to write anything by hand ever again.

Note: predicting the future is also a pseudoscience. Unless it’s either very short-range, or admitting a wide margin of error, or both. Refusing to teach children a practical skill because they might not need it is not responsible educating. That’s like abolishing driver’s ed because someone’s invented driverless cars. Yes, there are many ways in which inputting data into a digital device can replace writing things by hand. There are also many ways in which it can’t.

George Baxter- The Lover’s Letter Box
No one ever thinks of looking through a tree’s Sent folder

For example, people are more likely to remember things that they have written out by hand, because forming the letters and the words is a more interactive experience than pressing a series of keys or tapping a series of places on a screen. Paper and pen/cil are a lot more durable than an electronic device, don’t require ongoing access to electricity and don’t cost so much to produce.

They’re also a lot more flexible. If you want to do something different with your pen/cil and paper, you don’t have to wait for someone to write a program or app for you. You just do it. And while there are still language barriers, format is less of an issue. No one has ever had their love-letter returned by the postal service because their beloved’s letterbox couldn’t open that filetype.

Nor is paper subject to attacks from malware, or disappearances due to bugs in the system (although some kinds of insects do like to eat paper). Nor do you have to worry about Big Brother reading everything you write and taking notes. Nor do you have to buy a new one every five minutes because this kind of paper is totally two years ago and your pen won’t write on it any more.
Lady Blogger with Her Maid, after Vermeer
I am not a Luddite – not really. I welcome the recent suggestion that New Zealand school children should be taught to code. I think it’s an excellent idea to actually teach children to master the ways of the digital world, instead of being passive consumers. But that should be in addition to teaching them to write with their hands, not instead of. Just as radio, film and TV have not replaced books, nor e-books their physical counterparts, typing and tapping have not replaced handwriting – and until they do, it’s robbing children of a skill not to teach them how.

Of course, one can go too far the other way. I see no reason to force children to learn an elaborate cursive with letters that bear no resemblance to their usual appearance (looking at you, D’Nealian upper and lower case Zs). While a certain aesthetic quality is a bonus, the main thing is to be clearly legible. I can still remember the terror of some of my contemporaries at university on being told that if the lecturer could not decipher their exam papers, they would be failed.

Some might argue that the natural solution is to allow everyone to write their exams on a computer, but that massively increases the opportunities for cheating, and the corresponding efforts to prevent it. And what if some innocent student is busily typing away and the power goes out? Or the connection fails? Or a glitch destroys all their work?

girl-1064659_640

Pen and paper are one kind of technology; digital devices are another. As is so often the case, the wisest course (it seems to me) is not to blindly promote one technology and deride or ignore the other, but to use each in the ways that it best suits, thus getting the best of both worlds in the strengths of each. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

Licensed to Kill

Ever been in a car when the brakes fail? Halfway up a steep hill with a drop-off at the bottom is where it happened to me.
Add to that the general non-workingness of the handbrake and the fact that I had only been driving for a few months at that point and you have the explanation for my subconscious distrust of brakes (and general avoidance of hills).

No, this isn’t the reason for the mid-week quote, that’s more to do with how much our world (at least here in the West) is set up for cars instead of people. Which is in large part why I will tomorrow be sitting a driver licensing test – even if you don’t want to live a car-centric life, it still pays to be able to drive. (Legally.)


New Zealand’s driver licensing system, for those of you unfamiliar with it, has three stages. First the Learner’s, for which you have to pass a multichoice theory test, and which entitles you to start learning the practical (with a qualified driver beside you). After that the Restricted – a fairly rigorous practical test, after passing which you can drive solo (although, true to name, with restrictions). Finally there’s the Full licence test – and two years after that you can start teaching others to drive, God help them.

All of this is intended to make up for the fact that NZ allows teens to become licenced drivers when their hormone-raddled under-developed brains probably shouldn’t be given charge of anything more dangerous than an electric toothbrush (never mind a tonne of speeding metal). Even after the recent changes to up the age, it’s still possible to be driving solo by 16 1/2.


I was at the learner stage when I had my hill-side inkling of mortality (don’t ask me how I got down safely, I have no idea). My aunt had nobly volunteered to teach me the practical side of motoring, although who knows if she would have if she’d realised what a job it was going to be. (I highly recommend psychiatric nurses as driving instructors, by the way – they don’t scare easily.)
I am not at all talented when it comes to modern technologies like the horseless carriage, and have lived a mostly car-free life, which is how I’ve managed to procrastinate on sitting my full until a week before my restricted expires. That makes ten years since I got my learner’s licence – five times the minimum for progressing to a full.

I didn’t actually realise the full effect the hill episode had had on my driving until the instructor I recently drove with pointed out that I tend to overuse my clutch and underuse my brake when I need to slow at intersections. Misuse my clutch might be more what she was thinking, but she was too kind to say so.
She’s more or less broken me of that habit, but unfortunately I’ve got several years of not doing the right combination of brake and clutch in/change down/clutch out to make up for – most of my driving experience, in fact. As the saying goes, practice makes persistent.

So I’ve got to get that sorted before I sit the test tomorrow. I figure practice today, practice tomorrow, don’t get flustered, and I might have a chance. Wish me luck!

What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you behind the wheel of a car? I probably won’t see your comments before the test (practice practice practice!) so don’t worry about psyching me out – let ‘er rip!

In Praise of Old Technologies

A bit of a oxymoron, I know, but in these days of planned obsolescence, last year’s technology can be dismissed as ‘old’.

Now, I’m no pitchfork-wielding Luddite demanding a return to the good old days before the Industrial Revolution. It would make it harder to have a blog, for a start. But I do think there is a case to be made for some of the old technologies.

Angry peasant mob

Take my sewing machine, for example. (Please don’t – I’m using it.) It was made soon after World War II by Japanese craftsmen, in an early example of the time-honoured principle of using someone else’s idea and selling more of it (the idea in this case being Mr Singer‘s).

It is largely composed of cast iron and weighs about as much as a moderately-sized child. I wouldn’t call it indestructible, but if I dropped it on the floor I’d be more worried about the floor than the machine.

Ceiling Hole

The best thing about it is how relationally-friendly it is. OK, the marketing guff on modern machines probably talks about how quiet they are instead (it’s a shorter word, to begin with), but the result is the same. And I’ll bet mine’s quieter. I can have it running at full speed (i.e. as fast as I can turn the handle) and still keep up an audible conversation. In a whisper.

Not to mention my machine is about as old as the oldest surviving member of my family, and is still in perfect working order. Look so good when you are sixty, you will not, o sewing machine of today!

iWaste

It isn’t just sewing machines. I’ve mentioned before that I write with a fountain pen (more than one, in fact). I wouldn’t give one to a five year old, perhaps, but once you’ve mastered the art of writing, using a fountain pen is not all that esoterically difficult. And it’s beautiful, fun, and better for the environment – same as the sewing machine.

And then there’s the candle-lamp with glass shade I inherited from my grandmother. No naked flames, so it’s fire-safe, but it provides enough light for me to read by. Again, there is no obsolescence, planned or otherwise. As long as they keep making machine needles, candles and ink, I’m set.

Reading By Lamplight

Of course, there are those who are all for the new and shiny and can’t imagine why someone would see value in the pre-penicillin era. Well, we’re rapidly approaching a post-penicillin era, so at least I’ll fit in.
And when the fossil fuels run out (or the price is more than most can afford), will my life be obsolete? No. I’ll be sewing, writing or reading, by the light of my candle-lamp – just as I do now.

What’s your favourite ‘old technology’ – or would you like to make a case for the new? If you’d like to make the argument for no technology at all, get off the internet, you hypocrite! That aside, all comments welcomed – have your say.