A friend of mine shared this link on his Facebook page to a Time commentary piece on the supposed uselessness of cursive writing. As someone who has never properly mastered cursive handwriting, I can understand the frustration one has at trying to get all those loops and swirls together. I had to sit down with a tray filled with salt and practice drawing the cursive letters out with my fingers over and over, because my handwriting was so poor. I eventually gave up that struggle and found some homegrown midway point of block letters with occasional connectivity and some bizarre ligatures of my own design (my most common being an ng smashed together). If there’s anything I have taken away from the salt tray in elementary school, it’s that cursive letters are awesome when creating unique gestures in your touch screen browser.
But this isn’t about my problems with cursive, this is a larger question about the value of handwriting in general. The author is quick to dismiss physical handwriting for the expedience of the typewritten word. True, the ability to write a tremendous amount in very little time is a huge selling point. But what is lost in the quest for speed?
Lifehacker, one of the prominent blogs about getting things done swifter, better, and often using technology to that end, back in January had a great writeup about why handwriting is better than typing. They cite a number of studies that show how handwriting activates different parts of the brain than typing does and how students who took handwritten notes are more apt to perform better on exams.
One of the big scares that I heard years ago was that due to the prominence of the Pinyin transliteration system Chinese nationals were losing traditional writing skills. If my recent trip to China is any evidence, there is no doubt that handwriting is alive and well, if not even more prominent than ever. All of the students I spoke with had phones with a stylus to input characters, as did both of my American friends. It’s just easier to do that than to try to use the keys to go through Romaji input to find the right character. If anything, technology is making handwriting even more important. Sure the PRC has simplified the character system but they’re not giving it up, and they’re not losing their handwriting skills.
But handwriting is only the beginning.
In an article in Psychology Today author Art Markman posits that the act of talking out loud also leads to memory retention. I know that PT is not on the high list of credible sources, especially with their recent ridiculously racist screw-ups. That said, I think there’s something here. Speaking aloud is much slower than what one can think, and reading aloud from a page is substantially slower than reading solely in your head.
At the recent TEDxLibrariansTO conference I had the privilege of hearing researcher John Miedema talk about the importance of slow reading. His thesis is that reading a text slowly leads to greater retention of the material and a greater comprehension of the content and context. Among the comments he made were how poorly eBooks are suited to complex and dense material. I couldn’t agree more. While I blazed through Justin Cronin’s The Passage on my Kindle app for Android on my phone, I have yet to conquer James Gleick’s The Information or Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. The content is just too difficult for me to really get via the eBook.
Part of the problem I have with reading these complex works on my phone, or even on my laptop, is that I’m missing an element. Back in May I wrote, completely without any research to support my hypothesis, that the physical book is a memory aid in a number of ways. eBooks are a new technology, one that is still rapidly evolving, and perhaps they will eventually find ways to simulate the memory aids of the physical book in the virtual environment. Until then, I think I’m going to consciously make the choice to purchase physical copies of complex subject matter and leave the eBooks to novels only.
But am I supposed to ditch the digital and go back to pen and paper? Not necessarily, in fact I think some folks are doing us one better. In the sphere of handwriting I feel there is some progress for the person looking for the longhand simulacrum. LiveScribe is awesome, because it is so comprehensive in its approach. It is not only a pen, but an audio recorder, and it uploads to the internet or a desktop client for digital search capabilities. It is engaging the brain in at least three different ways, and all of them together create an amazing package as a memory aid. On the other side of this is NoteSlate, which at this point is still kind of vaporware, but a brilliant idea. It’s sole function is as a handwriting tablet, from which you can upload your work online. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about convergence devices, which is why I love my Android phone, and if Steve Jobs wasn’t so anti-stylus I would be all about an iPad for its multi-functionality. But I’ll take a $99 NoteSlate, if and when it exists. If only for meetings.