It is the age of the keyboard, of the icon, of the visual cue, of a world of beautiful design and wondrous new ways to create and interface with language, with information. While those enamored with the art of penmanship in all its forms will be quick to defend their preferred form of artistic expression, one could easily attest that it is a dying art.
Every day you can read about the technological marvels taking over the classroom, taking over the ways in which we do things, changing the world into a more efficient machine. "Snail Mail," which is how we refer to that dying breed we once knew as "the letter," has been replaced by its keyboard driven and electronic equivalent, the e-mail. Children have laptops, and their teachers have retired the nail scratching jolly giants, trading their well-contrasted greenish hues for the electronic, touch screen driven whiteboard.
So thinking of this new, type driven world, ruled by the power of the pre-designed font, I tapped some text in my Palm and on my mobile phone, and wondered, "When was the last time I put pen to paper and wrote something longer than my signature or a post-it note?" The age of portable computing and devices has created a generation of typists. The digital font has redefined the written word.
Writing. What is it? If you look at the dictionary, writing is defined as letters, symbols, or words formed on a surface such as paper with an instrument like a pen. There are other definitions of course, but even those defining the abstract use of the word, often use the expression "set down" which goes back to the original, "as on a surface." So where has writing on a surface and its resulting art form, penmanship, gone?
The written word dates back thousands of years to the earliest peoples who used symbols to represent property or count agricultural items. Through time, the symbols (think traffic signs or icons) began to represent words and later sounds. They helped cultures preserve their knowledge and accounting. These symbols were eventually stylized and became the cute little drawings we associate with Sumeria, better known as Cuneiform, which is considered the first written language. Other adorable drawings as language include the Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Chinese Calligraphy. These types of writing were complex, having thousands of symbols to remember, and you needed a certain level of artistic skill and or care to do them properly. Thankfully for those who flunked art class in school and to summarize a bit, it evolved and eventually became the alphabet system we know today with its flowing style of lines, curves and speedy writing.
A person with good penmanship was someone highly regarded and respected for their beautiful letter art. One could hear a person talk about someone's penmanship. Sloppy writing signified a sloppy person, whereas someone with perfect penmanship signified someone orderly and sophisticated. The study of someone's handwriting eventually became the science of graphology. Today, graphologists analyze handwriting for corporations, law enforcement, etc., in order to better understand the personality of those whose writing they study, be it an employee or a criminal. But if everything's typed, how can you analyze their writing?
Which brings us back to the dying art, today. Calligraphy, which the dictionary defines as the art of fine handwriting and dates back to ancient China, is at least 4,000 years old. Today, it has been relegated to the task of wedding invitations and Chinese tattoos, though even the former is often seen in its generic digital equivalent. We're turning writing into a niche art form.
So what happens to this ancient art and basic form of communication? Cursive is no longer taught in many schools, preferring the simpler "print cursive" which is but italicized print. The 3rd graders already use laptops and keyboards, developing a high skill and preference for typing. At that age they can already type 40 to 50 words per minute and they don't have to erase, check their spelling, or go through the difficult task of proofreading. The computer takes care of those chores for them. When done, just e-mail the teacher.
I'd never go as far as saying the pen is dead or that handwriting will disappear, but it certainly poses a question as to its future and ours. If we've forgotten how to handwrite and it becomes nothing more than a niche art form practiced by the elderly, what happens when the digital devices fail? What will we do, call the wedding invitation girl to save us?
Author's note: This commentary was originally handwritten.