Why Handwriting Must Die

Van Mensvoort
August 26th 2011

Associate professor Anne Trubek argues that handwriting will soon be history, because writing words by hand is a technology that's just too slow for our times, and our minds. A copy-paste summary from her essay:

"Handwriting has been around for just 6,000 of humanity's some 200,000 years. Its effects have been enormous, of course: It alters the brain, changes with civilizations, cultures and factions, and plays a role in religious and political battles."

"Most of us know, but often forget, that handwriting is not natural. We are not born to do it. There is no genetic basis for writing. Writing is not like seeing or talking, which are innate. Writing must be taught."

"Proclaiming the virtuousness of one way of forming a "j" over others is a trope that occurs throughout handwriting's history. For instance, early Christians jettisoned Roman scripts they deemed decadent and pagan. "

"In the American colonies, a "good hand" became a sign of class and intelligence as well as moral righteousness."

"Only wealthy men and businessmen learned to write."

"It was not until the beginning of the 19th century — a scant 200 years ago — that schooling became universal. Then, handwriting was finally taught to American schoolchildren."

"For many, the prospect of handwriting dying out would signal the end of individualism and the entree to some robotic techno-future. But when we worry about losing our individuality, we are likely misremembering our schooling, which included rote, rigid lessons in handwriting. We have long been taught the "right" way to form letters."

"It took the printing press to create a notion of handwriting as a sign of self."

"Handwriting slowly became a form of self-expression when it ceased to be the primary mode of written communication."

"When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one. The supplanted technology is vaunted as more authentic because it is no longer ubiquitous or official. Thus for monks, print was capricious and script reliable. So too today: Conventional wisdom holds that computers are devoid of emotion and personality, and handwriting is the province of intimacy, originality and authenticity."

"Typing in school has a democratizing effect, as did the typewriter. It levels the look of prose to allow expression of ideas, not the rendering of letters, to take center stage."

"The moral of the story is that what we want from writing is cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts. "

"A system that can become streamlined through specialization and automaticity has more time to think."

"This is what typing does for millions. It allows us to go faster, not because we want everything faster in our hyped-up age, but for the opposite reason: We want more time to think."

"When people hear I am writing about the possible end of handwriting, many come up with examples of things we will always need handwriting for: endorsing checks (no longer needed at an ATM), grocery lists (smartphones have note-taking functions), signatures (not even needed to file taxes anymore). These will not be what we would lose. We may, however, forsake some neurological memory. I imagine some pathways in our brains will atrophy."

"Then again, I imagine my brain is developing new cognitive pathways each time I hit control C or double click Firefox. That I can touch-type, my fingers magically dancing on my keyboard, free of any conscious effort (much as you are looking at letters and making meaning in your head right now as you read), amazes me. Touch-typing is a glorious example of cognitive automaticity, the speed of execution keeping pace with the speed of cognition."

"Do not worry. It will take a long time for handwriting to die, for us to have the interview with the "last handwriter" as we do today with the last living speakers of some languages. Even the revolutionary Greeks took a long time to change habits. After they created the Greek alphabet, they spent 400 years doing nothing with it, preferring their extant oral culture. Handwriting is not going anywhere soon. But it is going."

Read the entire essay here.

Share your thoughts and join the technology debate!public: 1


Posted 18/09/2011 – 20:10

Olde media, superseded in efficiency by newer technologies, always get preserved and become elevated to art forms. Handwriting is just one example. See McLuhan's Laws of Media.

Posted 05/09/2011 – 16:31

Handwriting has his place along with keyboard input. The reasons are, that handwriting can be used everywhere and is more flexible (ie. math input or together with graphics).

Posted 29/08/2011 – 21:34

I agree with Dave, Carin, and Rudiger's comments. What I would like to add is, this whole discussion is pointless. If it dies, it will. It doesn't HAVE TO die. Hanwriting may seem unnessesary, or just another fine motor skill, like shaving, doing the dishes, sewing, knitting, and picking your nose. I never heard anybody start discussions of why knitting should die, even though it's now exclusively for enthusiasts who find joy in doing it, nobody needs to knit their skarf in order not to freeze in the winter. Why I think it should be thought in schools BEFORE children start using computers: which do you think is easier – to learn an alphabet by learning to handwrite the letters, or just by looking at them on a page or screen? A blank paper demands that the mind creates it's own images and ideas in order to write them down, not distract likea computer screen does with its pre-made images.
Also, I think the author is limiting her arguments to the keyboard interface, and what about interfaces that we haven't even imagined yet? What if in 5 years an interafce is invented that renders typing obsolete, but raises the need people to be able to handwrite?

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