Handwriting for Humanity

A handwritten quote in the front of my diary, "History is not always written by the victors. History is written by those who write stuff down." Max Miller - Tasting History

I should probably start this post by explaining what an unabashed geek I am. Professionally, I help solve problems people have with computers and software, and I’ve been doing that for almost 20 years. Personally, computers have been a big part of my life since the 1980s. Not like hackers, but for more mundane uses, like writing essays in college.

In fact, the ease of writing is one of the first things that attracted me to computers. In grade school, I often got points taken off because of my nearly illegible handwriting. My cursive was terrible, and my printing was only slightly better. The first college I attended was Adams State College in sunny Alamosa, Colorado, and I brought with me an IBM PC XT clone and a dot matrix printer. As terrible as the print quality was on that printer, it was completely legible and far better than writing things out by hand.

Over the following decades, things only changed slightly. With the advent of email and larger hard drives, it became less necessary to print stuff out. Why print out a document when I could send it in an email? Even in grad school it was rare for me to print stuff out because I could store the documents on my computer. If I worried about a computer crash, I could always keep my files in the cloud so they’re always available. But these solutions are imperfect for a variety of reasons, and not always suitable for things that are important and personal.

A couple of months ago, I bought a fountain pen on a whim. I was watching a video on YouTube, from Half as Interesting I think, and there was a throw away line about how Lamy Safaris are collectible fountain pens and easy to use or something. I forget which video it was, and going back through the HAI videos I can’t seem to find which one it was, but that throw away line, interested me. I’d never heard of a Lamy Safari and my impression of fountain pens was that they were either very expensive and/or prone to leaking. Doing a bit more digging, I found Lamy Safaris have a reputation for being good beginner fountain pens because they’re relatively inexpensive and have a specially designed grip that makes them easy to hold. They’re also come in a variety of colors, so I bought one on Amazon along with some ink and some cheap notebooks for practicing.

At first, I thought I might try it for awhile then stop using it because it was difficult to use or wasn’t satisfying, but it turned out I was wrong. The pen I bought has a medium nib and writes really smoothly. Older fountain pens have a reputation for leaking but this one doesn’t. For the first few weeks I was mainly practicing the skill of writing, which was a bit embarrassing. It had been so long since I’d written cursive, I’d forgotten how some of the letters are supposed to be formed and how to link them together. But after much practice, I found my handwriting was getting better. I began to feel confident about it.

As an aside, in my case the key seems to be writing slowly. If I write faster, I tend to make more mistakes. By concentrating on the writing and going slowly, there are fewer mistakes and it’s mostly legible.

Growing more confident about my writing skills, my thoughts about handwriting in general began to change. A few years ago I began keeping a diary and had always used a text editor for it. I didn’t need anything fancy, so a text editor was fine. At the start of April, however, I began writing my diary by hand. I thought I might do it for a week or so before getting frustrated and reverting back to the text editor, but I haven’t. As foreign and uncharacteristic as this thought seems to me, I like writing by hand. If someone told me in January that I would soon start writing my diary by hand, I would have though they were nuts.

History isn’t always written by the victors. History is written by those who write stuff down. Max Miller, Tasting History

For the past year or so I’ve been thinking about printing out my diary. As convenient as computers make it to keep a diary, in the digital form it lacks permanence. I have backups, so if the computer crashed, the files wouldn’t be gone forever, but if some sort of cataclysm happened, computers might become nothing more than doorstops and their files would be eternally inaccessible. As ancient as ink and paper seem compared to today’s technologies, they’re incredibly durable. We can still read texts that were written centuries ago, even some from over a millennia ago.

Though I haven’t printed it out yet (that’s a different story), I think I’ll keep going with writing it by hand. It’s soothing. There’s no cacophony of keystrokes, but only a faint whisper as I pull the pen across the paper. Plus, I can do fun things like using different inks to color code the diary by year. Technically, I could do that with a regular word processor, but there are a lot of steps so it’s not as simple.

Taking the writing a bit further, a few days ago I wrote a letter to a friend who lives over a thousand miles away. An actual handwritten letter on stationery. I can’t even remember the last time I did that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was decades ago. Yes, it would have been super easy to send an email, but I think my friend will appreciate the letter because it’s such a rare activity and it’s completely unexpected. It’s sort of like receiving an unexpected gift.

One of the dirty secrets of free email services like Gmail and Hotmail is that they scan your email to figure out how to best monetize it to sell stuff to you. Most social media does the same. In the IT industry, it’s understood that if you aren’t paying for a service like email, then you’re not a user, you’re the product. Now, with all of the major tech firms focusing on AI, our emails and social media posts are becoming fodder for their Large Language Models (LLMs). The AIs like ChatGPT and others will use these to make their responses seem more natural. For work emails, this is fine, but I don’t trust these companies enough for me to want to let them know my innermost thoughts, so I keep my diary offline and am rediscovering the long lost art of letter writing.

The disadvantages of snail mail are the same ones that have been there from the beginning; sending a letter by mail costs money and it can take a few days to get to its destination, but I think for a correspondence between friends or family members it’s worth it. It’s something to be valued, so it becomes less of a disadvantage and is more a sign of affection.

Finally, while AI can be used to create deep fakes using only a single photo and a short audio sample, as far as I know it can’t read handwritten text and can’t be used to mimic anything handwritten. Handwriting is inefficient by it’s very nature, but I see this inefficiency is a benefit. If something is handwritten, I know it was created by a person and there is something reassuring about that.

I should probably start this post by explaining what an unabashed geek I am. Professionally, I help solve problems people have with computers and software, and I’ve been doing that for almost 20 years. Personally, computers have been a big part of my life since the 1980s. Not like hackers, but for more mundane uses,…

Comments

  1. Cool Nicely said and interesting Yeah your handwriting was kinda bad Mine was never great and they spent a lot of time teaching cursive back then and we had to practice

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