Full article by Gaby Hinsliff:

“Here’s a test that may date you, with the same rough accuracy as counting the rings of a tree. Imagine you need to write something down: a shopping list perhaps, or a reminder to do something, or even a phone number. If you have so much as scrawled on a Post-it today, you’re probably over 35. If you just put all that stuff straight into your phone, you’re probably under 35. If you are already composing a beautifully penned letter of complaint about the implicit ageism in this article, you are almost certainly over 55.

Handwriting isn’t dead, exactly. It’s just that at a press conference the other day, when the usual sheaf of background papers was circulated and I started scribbling notes in the margin, I realised that all the cool kids were just photographing the relevant chunk with their phones. Click, store, move on.

What is handwriting for? Does it really matter if the looping, rhythmic movements of pen over paper go the way of cave paintings and scratching on wax tablets? At seven, my son already begs to be allowed to turn in homework projects not as the laboriously lettered, erratically spelled paper posters they used to make last year, but as PowerPoint presentations, like the rest of his class. The idea vaguely offends my puritan work ethic, but teachers are, quite rationally, all for it: PowerPoint will be a far more fundamental skill for these kids in future than making papier-mache models.

The London primary that a friend’s child attends has gone further, consulting parents recently on whether they should bother teaching handwriting at all, beyond the basics of legible letter formation. Why fuss over the niceties of cursive when, realistically speaking, by the time these kids grow up they’ll write everything by tapping a touchscreen, or else just dictate it hands-free using voice-recognition software? Finland has just agreed to ditch the compulsory teaching of handwriting in schools from next year, and it is already disappearing from American classrooms.

But there is something about the move from manual to automatic – from laboriously shaping each letter to just hitting a button – that changes things, and that’s not just true of spelling. I increasingly notice the disappearance of small ways in which humans used to engage tangibly and effortfully with their world but now don’t; a growing physical distance between people and stuff. How many people still wind a watch at night; start a car on a freezing day by easing the choke out to just the right point; insert reels of film into a camera, and take photographs of something other than their own face?

Even the days of upending a ketchup bottle and whacking it to get the gloop out, or rolling up and squeezing the remnants from a toothpaste tube, are numbered: a young engineer from Massachusetts has patented a slippery coating for the insides of containers, which supposedly allows clogged contents to be poured as easily as milk.

Yet, while much is said and written about how technology changes relationships between people – how we relate differently to each other when meeting through a screen or Tinder account rather than in the flesh – we don’t think much about the changing relationship between humans and everyday objects.

A life without physically touching and handling things can, for some, become a life spent without really noticing what you’re doing. How much easier is it to spend too much money when it’s just a case of wafting a contactless card over a reader, rather than scrabbling around in your pocket for notes and coins and handing them over?

Driving a manual car on holiday last summer after years in an automatic, I was surprised by how much the act of physically shifting gears at a roundabout or junction changes things; in an automatic it’s too easy to cruise along, barely noticing the road, letting the car do the work.

You could argue that all this is just about force of habit, that while the middle-aged may have learned, Pavlov-style, over the years to associate shifting a gearstick or picking up a pen with engaging our brain, our kids will be different. However, with handwriting at least, it may not be that simple.

Something about the move from manual to automatic – from shaping each letter to just hitting a button – changes things
A recent study of American students, in which half were asked to take lecture notes on their laptop and half by hand as in ye olden times, found that the former group recorded more information. But it was the handwritten note-takers who had the strongest conceptual understanding of what they had been told, and could most easily apply that information. It seems likely that the brain may be engaged slightly differently by the slower, more cumbersome nature of writing (inconceivable as this is to anyone who’s ever pecked uncertainly at a keyboard, using a pen feels far more awkward to teenagers than typing). Because they couldn’t write as fast as they could type, the writers couldn’t just unthinkingly record everything verbatim; they probably had to concentrate harder to analyse what they were hearing so they could sift the most important nuggets from the chaff.

If nothing else, this presumably justifies my dinosaur habit of still taking shorthand notes during interviews, even when at least one tape recorder is whirring. Logically, it shouldn’t be necessary, but somehow the words don’t sink in properly unless I write them down, making it easy to miss the tell-tale evasion or hesitation that prompts a follow-up question.

There’s no going back to a more manual life now, and perhaps we shouldn’t waste much nostalgia on that. Nobody really pines for the days of wringing the washing out with a mangle. The extra calories burned in heaving oneself out of the armchair to turn over the TV channel by hand rather than clicking a remote can’t be that significant (at least not compared with the calorific impact of downing half a bottle of wine while slumped in front of Broadchurch). And the move to an easier, faster, freewheeling culture of tap and swipe rather than push and heave can only be good for people with disabilities, or for the shaky and arthritic of hand.

It doesn’t really matter that our kids will never have to learn that trick of mending an unspooled cassette tape by poking a biro in and turning it, so why should it matter that, as electronic reading takes off, they’ll increasingly no longer need to touch and turn paper pages – or even write on them?

Humans can probably adapt pretty quickly to living one step removed from our physical world, working out what’s lost and gained, and finding ways to compensate for that, just as the growth of a supposedly impersonal web-based culture has sparked an unexpected revival of live meetings. There’s no need to come the Luddite.

But in return, kids, don’t laugh at us for our smudgy biros and holiday postcards and to-do lists scribbled on backs of envelopes. We might have the last laugh yet. “