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On Handwriting

October 14th, 2012

Sullivan quotes Philip Maugham:

[T]here is good reason, argues Philip Hensher, for such a paradoxical evaluation of our handwritten style: “We have surrendered our handwriting for something more mechanical, less distinctively human, less telling about ourselves and less present in our moments of the highest happiness and the deepest emotion,” he writes, while simultaneously recognising that “if someone we knew died, I think most of us would still write our letters of condolences on paper, with a pen.” Hensher’s new book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (And Why it Still Matters), rests on the argument that “ink runs in our veins, and tells the world what we are like”. Handwriting “registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature. It has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy and beauty in its own right.”

I beg to differ. Handwriting is given status primarily because it was used for such a long time, and that was out of necessity, not preference. In that sense, it is like people preferring paper books over electronic media. As the modern alternatives push aside the old, those who prefer what they grew up with have a tendency to create ornate rationales as to why their outdated ways are superior, and bemoan their passing. I recall one person making similar claims about ebooks, saying that they lacked the “permanence” of books, in that electronic media is alterable. As if people often go about altering ebooks they read, or that it is impossible to alter printed material by reprinting it.

The fact is, handwriting is much more a chore than it is an art for most people. It can take years to learn and perfect, and many people never master it. And what art it may possess only exists because human beings have so imbued it. However, this art can be instilled far more effectively by the choice of phrasing than by the fact that it comes a little more directly from your hand.

Handwriting discriminates. It can be brilliant, artistic, illuminating— but only if you are skilled at it. Those who cannot master it as well are severely set back if handwriting is the only means of written communication. Their words, with value by themselves, are muddied by a discriminatory medium. Yes, the mastery of language use can also be discriminating—however, language use is at least necessary to communication. Handwriting is not.

Handwriting can also be a barrier to communication; no doubt you have encountered undecipherable scribbles, and have heard the almost clichéd stories of doctors’ unreadable scrawls. Instead of demanding that doctors learn penmanship, I would rather they spend more time learning how to be doctors, and use a keyboard to enter prescriptions.

Handwriting is the fashion industry of written communication: it is a superfluous and superficial art which can be expressive, but takes itself way too seriously. Just as the person who inhabits the outfit is far more important than the clothes themselves, the words and their meaning are what truly matter, the handwriting in which they are expressed being nothing but a decoration in comparison. And beneath the words, our feelings, choices and intent. Hensher’s conceit about expressing emotion is ill-considered, with the use of language itself towering over a lilt or a flourish of the pen. The worst handwriting in the world could be possessed by the most compassionate heart, articulating the most poignant or noble message. Handwriting can add a flair, but it can also rob us of expressiveness.

What it comes down to is the fact that the words, and the meanings they convey, constitute the soul of writing. Handwriting, in contrast, is almost frivolous. It is, in a sense, skin deep. Handwriting can add beauty, but barely any meaning. The great deal of time learning it can be better spent in other endeavors. Such as learning how to use words to express yourself—something that schools, ironically, have sometimes spent less time teaching kids than they have teaching them penmanship.

And what meaning it does add can be matched by fonts—perhaps even outmatched. Presidents and marketers alike choose fonts with great care to express their messages. Obama chose “Gotham,” a font reminiscent of city buildings, to express a sense of civil service, of community, of utility. Gotham is also sans-serif, a font category that implies a message of importance. His opponent in 2008, John McCain, chose Optima, a font associated with military service via its use in the Vietnam Memorial; this font was coupled with the use of a beveled nautical star, also with military connotations. Ironically—or perhaps not so—Optima is a “centrist” font, a sans-serif typeface which has hints of serifs. Romney, in the meantime, seems to have chosen a muddle of fonts which do not appear to have meaning directly relevant to his campaign—something telling to a designer. (Mitt’s team also seem to have forgotten that many fonts are not public domain.)

Each font has its meanings and associations. For example, I have done a good deal of hiring, and have found, in hindsight, that people who interviewed and later performed very well often had used Garamond as the primary typeface for their resumes. A humble yet elegant font, most people have it but almost never use it, and are unaware of how beautiful it can make a document look when used correctly.

Here’s the thing, though: with fonts, one can express a broad variety of associated meanings. With handwriting, you are more or less stuck with one style. While fonts can be easily learned and applied, handwriting takes great effort and practice, and yet is more limited in its ability to express specific messages.

Fonts are a great equalizer. They allow anyone to express through written language what only some can achieve by hand. Hensher’s implication that typography is “less human” is nothing but self-important hogwash. It’s like suggesting that one’s appearance is mechanistic and inhuman simply because you did not spend years learning how to make your own clothes. It’s like suggesting that it’s more human to make your own home or else you’re a soulless ant in a hive-like artifact, disregarding the fact that what happens within the home and what it represents to the people residing there has far more significance than the personalized shape of the moldings.

And signatures? Hah. I’ll be glad when they disappear. We’ll be far better off with biometric identification. In my job, I sometimes have to sign stacks of documents. I’m lucky if I can get a few signatures that really look the same. As a security measure, it sucks. I was at my bank a week or so ago, and had to sign a form. What followed was so absurd as to be almost comical: they told me the signature didn’t match well enough, so could I please add a little more to my first name? Oh, we need a dot above that “i.” And there should be a little hook at the bottom of that “P.”

Seriously. They spent about 5 minutes telling me how to forge my own signature.

No, handwriting is not some thing of unmatched beauty which is being crushed by robotic printouts robbing us of our humanity. Hensher says it is less mechanical, as if there is some inherent magic with piercingly specific meaning in slight variations in writing the letter “k.” He says typing is “less human”; well, so is driving a car over walking, and yet I bet Hensher thinks nothing of driving to the supermarket—also less “human” than a local family-run grocer. Or maybe I’m wrong, and the guy is Amish.

I will actually agree with him on one point: the use of handwriting in letters of condolence. But even that is more traditional than inherent, the current favor for such personal attention in crafting the letter being appreciated less for its intrinsic value than for its conventional meaning. When you think about it, such letters are actually less human than someone coming to you and delivering such a message in person. For those who desire permanence, electronic messages can be regarded as just as human, just as touching—for, as I stated earlier, the soul of a message is in the words chosen and their expression of human feelings and intent.

The only advantage I can see in handwriting is not from the art itself but from a by-product: the feeling of physical connection to the user. This paper with this message which I am holding right now was written by that person; it is a physical link which we, as humans, tend to appreciate.

But even that can be met almost fully with print—by printing the damned thing out. Sign it if you must, but still the paper comes from that person no less, was held in their hands and traveled to yours. Not as attractive for the traditionalists, perhaps—but this advantage, as far as I am concerned, pales before the advantages of “mechanical” text.

Tell me—were this blog post written by hand and scanned for display, would it be more meaningful? Or would you be just as likely to think, “Jeez, I’d rather not spend the extra effort to read his handwriting. Why didn’t he just type it?”

And if you think that print is less enthralling, then explain to me why literature is not considered some lifeless, inhuman art as a result of the fact that it is printed?

Handwriting, whether art or chore, is departing, and as far as I am concerned, mostly for the better.

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  1. Tim Kane
    October 15th, 2012 at 01:15 | #1

    Early in my second year in college I realized that my hand writing was nullifying the affectiveness of my in-class note taking. If I waited to long, I found my own hand written notes too hard to understand, especially if I couldn’t remember the class itself. (I wonder how much of my learning came straight from raw memory of class material.)

    So I began to write in ‘block’ letters and haven’t looked back. By block letters I mean all capital letters, with capital letters determined by the fact that they were simply bigger in size. Block writing is much slower, and requires much more effort – I actually covered less ground… if I had to write quickly I would use cursive and then convert to block style quickly thereafter – or run the risk of “losing” the material. I was still doing this in 2003 when I graduated from law school. Now the students can record the lecture on their device.

    Block letters mystified my students in Korea, and I had to explain the above to them (I don’t like lower case letters when hand writing – there’s problems in using them) but at least they got whatever I was communicating.

    I have worked with a couple of people whose motor skills prevented them from having anything close to reasonable hand writing, but in no way reflected on their other characteristics, qualities or capabilities – in fact caused me great surprise. This did not cause me to judge them, because my older brother has the same problem.

    In Germany, they DO judge you by your hand writing and your grammar, etc…

    Now my brother is excellent person at setting up dealer sales channels for manufacturers. His first company, Rockford Fosgate was a small company before he went to them. In every assignment, in every territory they gave him, he more than doubled the flow of product. Then they sent him to Europe. He was a complete failure there. No doubt, his hand writing didn’t serve him well there, where Germany was the lion share of the local market. I’m sure they thought of him as a philistine. They had to fire my brother, and shortly there-after Rockford Fosgate went into a significant decline. I’m sure there was other problems, but my brother moved on to another manufacturer in the same market and doubled their sales shortly there after – so much so that they changed their compensation plan just for him to reflect the value he was adding. (my understanding of events long ago).

    “…rests on the argument that “ink runs in our veins, and tells the world what we are like”. Handwriting “registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature. It has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy and beauty in its own right…”

    From what I read and understand, this is the role urine markers play in the dog world. A dog smells a fire-hydren, and they can identify the all the dogs that have “marked” it and can even determine the dogs likely ‘personality’ or at the very least, aggressiveness by the quantity of certain hormones in the urine.

  2. Tim Kane
    October 15th, 2012 at 14:11 | #2

    I think the point of my evolution in my writing was to drag me to the point where my hand writing had the nearest effect of machine printed text in my reading. That is, unable to misinterpret what I had written and the ability to instantly interpret what I had written. My hand writing isn’t as bad as my brothers, and at times it is good, but even at its best, it is a slower read than block printing, and slower still than printed text – and the point of writing, is that it is meant to be read,so easier to read the better, even if it is harder to write, as in hand printing block text over hand cursive writing.

    When you think of it, the characteristics of writing that indicate our unique personhood are the imperfections in our writing, because the point of writing isn’t reflect personality, but communication of thoughts and ideas, and nothing does that like machine created print.

  3. Tim Kane
    October 15th, 2012 at 23:54 | #3

    The Company I work at (though not for), Sprint, was, as of today, acquired by Softbank. What can you tell me about Softbank?

    Any idea of what this means in the grand scheme of things?

  4. Troy
    October 16th, 2012 at 02:05 | #4

    Sprint is a marginal player in the US and was getting pushed around a lot by Verizon and AT&T. Telecom is a Big Money game in that the people with the most money buy up spectrum rights, new technology, and otherwise push the little guys around.

    Sprint has lost over $10B since 2008 — every year $2 or $3B in the red. They’re cumulatively $40B in the hole but they are apparently still digging.

    The $8B Sprint is getting from Softbank will double their cash on hand and give them another few years to turn the ship around.

    Softbank is borrowing the money to make this merger, which is what Japanese companies can do since Japan can and is printing money like crazy to try to weaken the yen.

    My phone plan is a Virgin Mobile pre-paid plan (which is re-branded Sprint service) — I just stopped by a Radio Shack yesterday to put another $20 on it that gives me another 3 months of service (100 minutes of talk time which is all I need) so I hope Sprint stays around too . . .

    Japan is literally a dying market now so Japanese have to look overseas for growth.

    To put Sprint’s struggle for survival in perspective here, Verizon has a market cap of $127B, AT&T over $200B, and Sprint is at $17B.

    While “don’t buy any green bananas” is a bit overly pessimistic, I would not bet my life on Sprint surviving to see 2020. The world seems to only need two choices Coke/Pepsi, and I don’t really see Sprint’s raison d’etre.

  5. Luis
    October 16th, 2012 at 09:57 | #5

    Don’t know about SoftBank as an employer or administrator. In Japan, they are known as an upstart, and the president, a Japanese-Korean named Masayoshi Son, a kind of a character and a go-getter.

    Softbank is known for offering low prices with only nominal customer support. They tend to be pretty competitive. Also known for their comical commercials, represented by the odd family with a dog being the father and a black guy being the brother while Mom and the daughter are Japanese. Tommy Lee Jones joined the cast in a recent tie-in with Boss Coffee.

    You can probably thank the iPhone–along with NTT’s stubbornness–for the takeover of Sprint; the iPhone helped Softbank vault upwards in popularity and profits.

  6. Tim Kane
    October 16th, 2012 at 11:08 | #6

    Is Softbank the only company that offers the Iphone in Japan?

  7. Luis
    October 16th, 2012 at 11:14 | #7

    Nope. KDDI Au started offering it a year ago. NTT Docomo still will not offer it. They offer the Galaxy S III.

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