Handwriting and the Way We Think

A recent report demonstrates that cursive handwriting is on the decline. More people are composing on computers and more teachers are only accepting typed papers; I personally haven’t written in cursive for about ten years and do a fine job with print. While I am inclined to simply wave nostalgically goodbye to excellent penmanship, there are significant changes that occur when we switch from a writing to a typing culture.

First off, as Marshall McLuhan illustrated in the Gutenberg Galaxy, our thought processes altered dramatically when we shifted from an oral culture to a written culture. The simple act of writing things down changed the ways we thought by using a book as an extension of memory, a change that became more dramatic the more literate people became and the more widespread the book. The result was the book, as an extension of the memory, altered our ability to remember by having us rely on knowledge stored in books, privileging the ability to write over the ability to speak, and composition styles through handwriting and editing rather than mental construction. While Walter Benjamin lamented the loss of oral culture in “The Storyteller”, McLuhan saw the change as something to not just embrace but to be aware of its effects.

Similarly, the shift from handwriting to typewriting alters the way we think. We delete our mistakes, leaving no trace behind and cut and paste whole pages of text with ease. We have spellcheckers that not only make it easier for us to correctly spell words, but are easier to misuse and actually hurt spelling. We have new vocabulary resulting from typos and Internet shorthand. We stare at a monitor and replace the tactility of the pen with the mechanical punch of the keys; writer’s cramp is a disease replaced by eye strain. Some of us may actually compose faster (typing above 70 words a minute is a skill for success?). But the primary change is that because computers allow us to compose nonlinearly and arrange information with nonlinearity, we are beginning to think more and more nonlinear.

This translates into a new set of skills for not only creating information but also in consuming information and becoming information-literate. When Vannevar Bush, in “The Way We Think”, proposed the memex, a device that would later inspire the computer, he realized it was important that we not simply record information but that we make it easier for people to access it. What typewriting has done is made us rely more on the memex network at our fingertips, the Internet, without really understanding how to use it, how to locate reliable sources, how to evaluate sources, and how to access all sides of an issue. Which isn’t to say that “Google is Making Us Stupid” as the Atlantic wondered, but rather it is altering the ways in which we must think, including shortening our attention spans.

If all that sounds heady, there is a more practical reason why we should be interested in the shift to typewriting, and that is the longevity of the information we are creating. While we have Benjamin Franklin’s journal from his trip to France over two hundred years ago, we have an incredibly hard time accessing digital documents generated only twenty years ago due to media decay, changes in format, and obsolescence of older technology. Websites appear and disappear daily, information is altered with Orwellian unnerve, and search engines pull up different hits each day. While it may be easy for us to access this information, its ephemeral nature and lack of concrete tactility are weaknesses that must be overcome if we are to successfully shift to a typewritten culture and expect what we create to be as sound as Benjamin Franklin’s journal.


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