Computer nerd says writing’s on the wall re: cursive
Guest Column by Reg Harbeck

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 12, 2012

Reg Harbeck considers impact of computers on handwriting as principal form of communication.
Photo courtesy of Reg Harbeck

This is the second of two guest columns by my sons, Reg Harbeck and James Harbeck. Last week’s featured James’ comparison between out-of-focusness in photography and in human affairs.

This week’s column is by his older brother, Reg, a computing philosopher, writer, keynote speaker, and mainframes strategist who wonders what the digital age is doing to handwriting.


If I’m right, it may be a sign of the times, but the times we sign our names are just about the only times most of us write nowadays. And with chip credit cards, they often don’t even give us credit for using a pen, because we’re signing with a PIN instead.

Speaking as a computer nerd whose handwriting would be suitable for writing prescriptions, this computer-enacted proscription of cursive suits me fine, but it’s interesting to note the looming disappearance of penmanship in the information age.

Back in the 1970’s when I was in elementary school, I remember learning and practicing my handwriting.

As I grew older, I became aware of such topics as calligraphy and handwriting analysis. And, of course, I learned many of the idioms that we use that refer to handwriting, such as, “the writing’s on the wall,” “signed, sealed, delivered,” and “a write-up.”

In high school, I studied typing, never realizing that typewriters would soon disappear and be replaced by computers and printers that also used QWERTY keyboards.

That turned out to be very useful, as I am able to touch-type when doing such Internet activities as email, Facebook and blogging. I’m even writing this article on a computer. (Do you remember how long ago you would first have said, “of course,” to that fact?)

Now, I’m not about to write off all forms and uses of handwriting, nor even address all its corresponding uses. But it does seem to me that the nature of written communication is changing for good, whether or not for the better.

The strongest evidence for this is among “digital natives” – i.e., those people young enough to have grown up with computers and other information technology such as the Internet and mobile phones.

Thinking of the young people in your life, how often do they use pen and paper to communicate something with you? To underline this, how often have you had to read or explain something to them because they couldn’t recognize the handwriting?

One interesting impact this is having is on literacy – and I’m pleased to say it doesn’t seem to be reducing the amount of reading that’s going on, though it certainly is decreasing the number of letters used in spelling – as I’m sure U R aware. In fact, the advent of texting seems to be resulting in more written (OK, texted) communication than ever, even as it puts average word length on a diet.

I’m willing to bet one thing we’re unlikely to miss is writer’s cramp. (But is it being replaced by smart-phone thumb cramp?)

Also, the amount of cut/copy-and-paste going on may be cutting our comprehension of what we’re communicating. It has now become far too easy to “borrow” someone else’s words without thinking carefully about whether they mean exactly what you’re trying to say.

Now, as I mark the passing of handwriting as a primary form of communication, I must remark about the passing of the torch of a certain custom: personalization.

Handwriting has generally been seen as something very personal – hence the use of signatures. Today, that has been succeeded by choice of font, and even text colour, which have succeeded in adding a whole new type of personality to written (or typed) communication.

And, of course, there are emoticons, and those funny abbreviations – LOL.

All of which suggests to me that we still have an active hand in written communication, cursive or not.

Signing off, I’m Reg Harbeck.


© 2012 Reginald Harbeck

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