Archive for Thursday, August 4, 2011

Smith: Handwriting obsolete?

August 4, 2011

During the past 100 years or so, our world has seen tremendous changes in technology. In almost all cases, the new technology has resulted in a higher and better standard of living. New technology has changed every facet of life, from transportation to education, health, entertainment and communications. I doubt that anyone a century ago could have envisioned life as it is today.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that progress and product improvement has resulted in many objects becoming obsolete. And I expect that during the next two or three decades, the list will grow much, much longer.

The list of items relegated to museum shelves ranges from buggy whips, linotypes and auto running boards to more recent inventions, such as pagers, to name a few. I believe that cell phones and other electronic gizmos will make land line phones obsolete. I doubt many under the age of 20 know anything about typewriters. GPS systems will probably end the need for road maps. I think there is very little future for telephone directories. Bank checks and “snail mail” are quickly moving into the ranks of the unnecessary. Both are being replaced by the electronic world.

I talked with a middle-aged professional man who complained that in centuries to come, we would forget how to talk since conversation is a lost art. He grumbled that no one telephones to seek an opinion, they just fire off an email or text. We agreed that a century from now, humans would have seven-inch long thumbs. The evolutionary growth would be due to the overuse of the thumbs while texting.

All of this started me thinking about what might be next to join the “over the technical hill,” and I would predict that it will be handwriting and the simple, inexpensive pencil. As far as handwriting is concerned, it is almost obsolete now. Let’s be honest, when was the last time you saw a teenager or a grade school child using a pencil. When I was substitute teaching, kids had to be reminded to bring pencil and paper to class. About the only students who seemed to like pencils were art students.

As far as handwriting goes, I have spent my life attempting to make it obsolete. My handwriting has been described as “awful,” “sloppy,” “unreadable” and “horrible.” Those are the kindest comments about my penmanship. I will be the first to admit that my handwriting leaves a lot to be desired. When I was in the newspaper business, we had the rule that all notes be turned in with the story for proofreading. The comment was that it didn’t make any difference since no one could decipher my hen scratches. I was quick to point out that I could read my writing — well, most of the time. From the earliest days of my childhood, I rebelled against neat handwriting, although I don’t know why. I have always used the typewriter and now I use the computer.

On that subject, the young reporters have it much easier that we old timers. They take notes of meetings using their laptops. I really imagine the proofreader I worked with would have liked to see me use one. In fact, it certainly makes covering a meeting much simpler and probably more accurate. Unfortunately, I spent my career in the pencil and notepad era.

If you stop and think about it, the pencil was a huge invention in its time. It completely revolutionized communication. The ancient Romans used lead disks to write on papyrus scrolls. I read that the word “pencil” comes from a tiny brush the Romans used to write with.

The pencil allowed people to write notes and to easily communicate. I read that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant always carried a stubby pencil with him and used it to scribble battlefield notes. The pencil had another benefit, too. After the development of the eraser on one end of the pencil, mistakes could be corrected quickly. For those who love trivia, the pencil eraser was developed by Hyman L. Lipman in 1858, and the invention earned him the princely sum of $100,000.

Now the pencil, and in all probability, handwriting will soon be a thing of the past. And I suspect in another century, museum-goers will marvel at how primitive life used to be before email, Twitter and whatever else is coming in the future.

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