Written Word in a Digital World

Write, don’t think | Source: Mark S. via Unsplash

“Apsara extra dark, extra marks for good handwriting”

Does the line ring a bell? Well, for some of us it certainly does. Once it’s said with its quintessential jolly rhyme, it is a mark of remembrance of one of the most famed pencils in the childhood of every Indian boy or girl. This unforgettable tune and those unforgettable words mark the birth of our ‘written word.’ As fledglings of writing, we started off comparing the thickness of the pencil and the lead bleeding out of it. HB or 2B, Apsara or Nataraj, we would always compare, not knowing the abbreviations or the difference, but defending our choice nonetheless.

The cursive writing classes where we would compete with our friends over who had the best loop-d-loop of their “O” or who had the best squiggle in their capital “Q” were fond memories of the days gone by. Our “Cursive Writing” books were adorned in every way possible. If numbers
didn’t add up or if the alphabets didn’t come to our mind, at least we knew how to write them, and we prioritized effort in writing the answers beyond anything else.

As the alphabets seemed more relatable, we started forming words, some which were universal, some which were our own. I still remember my teachers guiding me through forming two letter words, then three-letter words, then four, all while maintaining a defined yet unique way of writing. We each had our own style. Some would maintain a strict plane, ensuring each letter was of the same height. Other would write like a strong breeze was flowing from the left of the page, with each letter holding on to the line, as their tops slanted to the write with the ‘i’ and’j’ looking like their dots were flowing away. I guess that’s how italics was born. Whatever it was, it was personal, even if we tried to impersonate someone’s else writing, perfect it never was. Our handwriting was our identity.

When a notebook didn’t have a name on it, the handwriting within it was analyzed to decipher the identity of the owner. When a teacher of the neighboring class came in to borrow a notebook, the child with the best
handwriting book was always taken. A moment of pride.

Teachers, classmates and even parents would scratch their heads trying to decipher the handwriting of certain people, it’s as if they were architects of a new language, apart from the “architect” the only one who could decipher the code was their best friends.

But soon, with the influx of technology, the writing was replaced with typing, the pen and paper, with the keyboard and screen, and the written word, for the digital word. Handwriting evolved from an identity to a norm, no more were we writing for the sake of writing.

In the senior years, no more did we concentrate on the loop of an “O” or the squiggle of a “Q”, we were more concerned with what those letters formed. Writing became a means of understanding, rather than a display or art. To write a formula, a theory, a concept in your own words, gave you
clarity and a direction of thought that no textbook could ever give. The most complicated of topics could be simplified and understood if it was broken down and written in one’s own words. I remember, that not a single page of an entire notebook was left blank while writing the notes of a
theoretical subject. For the practical subjects as well, students use to pride themselves in the number of notebooks they’ve completed (end to end) with mathematical sums. These notebooks also had a personal air to them, which masked as a confidentiality tool as well. Some of us would store our used notebooks, not as a reserve to check on our earlier mistakes but to keep at the corner of our eye and say, ‘I’ve done so much.’ Looking at the pile like a war hero does with the horrific seasons he’d witnessed. [Okay, this might be a stretch, but you get the point.]

Whilst in college, scholarly textbooks are left aside and class notes of the top-notch student photo-copied and disseminated to everyone, there is a scurry to the Xerox machines in and outside every college, especially the week leading up to examinations. Those notes are treated as holy texts, they are worshiped as were their makers [only before the examinations though].

Handwriting is truly a core part of our life, especially whilst in the confines
of an educational institution. Think back, when you left your school or college, how much did you actually write? How often did you pick up the pen? How often did you look for a blank paper to address your thoughts, emotions and reflect your personality on? Even if it was merely to test out a new pen or uncover a new way of writing a “Q.”

There is no doubt the written word is being encroached by the ‘digital word.’ The most obvious testament to that would be my writing this article, ironic as it may seem. Digital word has indeed fast-tracked on the surge of technology and its incorporation with everything in our lives. This has certainly caused advancement in communication and transportation among others, but its encroachment into certain aspects of our lives, to enable convenience has indeed made us lazy.

The digital word’s infiltration into communication, specifically written communication has increased our reliance on technology and less on our own abilities. We look to technology to bridge the gap that was
left to the thought of our solitary minds. Technology has not necessarily replaced thinking, but it has replaced the bridge to thinking. A stark example, one that is obvious in this context is the ‘auto-correct.’ A convenient and timely tool, has, so inadvertently bridged our gap to thinking like no other. The method to the madness is corrected, typically, we initiate the word or type it out incorrectly, and leave it to the auto-correct or auto-complete to do the rest. I might be overstating the apparent, but there is no objection that these have become daily occurrences in modern life. So much so, that we’ve incorporated it as a given, we simply wait for a word to be suggested or
completed rather than applying the effort to even make an attempt towards its completion or correction.

Modern technology is dynamic and there is no stopping it, but it shouldn’t make us think less or ease thinking by making us mentally inactive. Differences should be made between tools that allow us to think better by removing hindrances, decreasing transaction costs, and allowing for nuance, versus technologies that skip thinking altogether. Construction of words, structuring of sentences, spacing of paragraphs, are aspects of our thought, some creatively altered to provide for artistic nuance.

This overreliance on technology has affected education as well. Students are leaning on grammatical tools to complete and correct their words, lesser confidence in their grammatical skills, and greater reliance on technology. Students spend far more time outside the confines of the classroom communicating through mobile devices and whilst doing so they heavily rely on the features of auto-correct and auto-complete to aid them at every step, the same might elude them in the examination and in day to day life. Even post-adolescent children often decompose complete words and sentences into unintelligible short-forms like ‘pls’ for ‘please,’ ‘sry’ for ‘sorry,’ and ‘4rm’ for ‘from.’ The absence of punctuation, capital letters, breaks in paragraphs, and correct spellings whilst using the written word is a profound example of this.

Grammar and punctuation are the inner linings that hold any language together, and the words are their foundation. They are the intricate and often unseen strings spun together for us to traverse our words upon. Invisible webs, allowing words to stick. This foundation cannot be completed based on the suggestion of sentences, it has to be completed based on the conviction of the write, complete with an understanding of the letters, words, and punctuations.

This is not a question of being a Luddite, or a skeptic, or even living in the past. This is an appeal to avoid laziness and complacency and push to understand the language that was made from us, used by us, and taught for us to be complete and correct.

Technology has certainly increased development over the years, the
dissemination of information via email is much quicker than sending letters, although there is an art and reverence associated with the latter. The “mode of communication” is not my point of contention, it is the very “communication” that is. The letters, words, and sentences, in a letter or in an email were made by mankind, not by a product of mankind’s intelligence as technology is.

Handwriting is the building block of this nurturing, it is the initiation of the child into a world of creation, adorned by the beauty of language. Sticking by this and preventing the contamination of language, not by technology-resistance but by technology co-existence, will ensure children of the future have an independent road to critical-thinking, through the power of language, and its most impervious tool, the written word.