Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Is handwriting a dying art?

With Computers, e-mails, text message and chip-and-pin technology taking over, the days of handwriting appear to be numbered

By Stuart Jeffries  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Actor Patrick McGoohan's words are becoming less and less true as technology extends its cheerless remit.

"I am not a number," he declared in the cult TV series The Prisoner, "I am a free man."

But increasingly we are numbers -- digitized and quantified, rewritten as algorithms and asked for our personal codes to confirm who we are before call center workers will deign to bandy words with us. As if to prove the point, from last Tuesday morning in the UK anyone with a chip and pin card will be obliged to use their pin number and not their signature when making a purchase.

It seems odd that the powers-that-be have used Valentine's Day as the deadline for their unromantic automatization project. Who, after all, writes poetry about pin cards? Let's have a go. "Roses are red, violets are blue, my pin number is 3, 5, 4, 2." (It isn't, incidentally. I'm not that daft.)

Rather than sinuous penmanship, our identities are increasingly confirmed by numbered sequences that have been imposed on us. And, if signatures are becoming increasingly irrelevant, what then is the future for handwriting in a world when (according to a new Lloyds TSB Insurance survey) one in three children has a computer in the bedroom, many more are accustomed to writing on them at home and school and, if I had a penny for every time I have heard or read parents and teachers bemoaning the poor state of pupil's handwriting, I would have enough for a ?335 Mont Blanc Meisterstuck fountain pen in precious resin with a gold-plated finish?

Last Monday afternoon I received a lovely letter from a correspondent that began: "Please forgive scribbled note. I can no longer type." But why, with all due respect, should anyone ask forgiveness when favoring me with the personal touch of their penmanship? When did typing become better than handwriting? (To which question an irritatingly good reply is: If you're so clever, why didn't you write this article by hand?)

Our very personalities seem to be slipping away when it comes to determining our identities. True, even signatures can be hellishly commodified (think of how Picasso's signature became the imprimatur of the boring Citroen people carrier), but they do at least remain distinctive to each of us, and an expression, whether we understand it or not, of some aspect of our character. As the Web site for the British Institute of Graphology says on its home page: "As a child you were taught to write. Why don't you continue to write the way you were taught?"

The fact that you don't, it postulates, is the reason graphology exists.

Elaine Quigley, psychologist and chairwoman of the institute, says: "Pen and paper will always be necessary. Everything changes but I think writing will survive."

She would say that, wouldn't she? Her discipline depends on people disclosing their personalities via handwriting.

The death of handwriting has been greatly exaggerated, says Patricia Lovett, fellow of the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society.

"When the telephone was invented, for example, it was thought that there would be no need for writing, then this was repeated with the invention of the typewriter, again with the computer, fax machine, e-mails and, recently, texting. At each stage some have suggested that this would result in the demise of the need to write by hand. Yet so far, this has not been the case. Even though some people may find typing easier than handwriting, putting pen to paper is something that children need to learn to do," she says.

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