The Pen is Dead – Long Live the Pen

New technologies such as digital pens, digital paper, handwriting recognition, and more are pushing handwriting, as well as how we record our thoughts, into the 21st century.

Taking notes is a simple task. It really requires nothing more than a pen and some paper. Writing by hand, however, appears to be on the decline as sales of paper and pens are falling off. In a further indication of this decline, school systems increasingly have decided to stop teaching handwriting.

It seems that handwriting is giving way to keyboarding as computers have proliferated over the last few decades and email, Twitter and texting have become the standard for how we communicate the written word. The efficiency of the keyboard has driven the more laborious chore of handwriting towards extinction.

This is not the first time that technology has superseded handwriting. It has happened before.

In the United States from about 1850 until around 1925, handwritten note-taking and correspondence for business was dominated by a handwriting method called Spencerian Script. While it was a beautiful and flowing form of handwriting, it was very slow to use and required a significant investment in time to learn.

Example of Spencerian Script

Business at the dawn of the 20th century was changing and demanded more efficiency and speed. The slow, but beautiful Spencerian Script was soon supplanted by two new technologies that were better suited to the new and faster pace of business—the typewriter and the Palmer Method.

The Palmer Method was a newly developed handwriting method that was more streamlined than the Spencerian Script method. It was quick to learn and made note-taking much easier and less time consuming. Handwriting evolved and was made more efficient by the Palmer Method, at the same time, the typewriter represented a completely revolutionary technology for the written word. Typewriting required no printing press, was fast and created legible and consistent text. It quickly became the de facto standard for all business correspondence for most of the 20th century.

Example of the Palmer Method

While the typewriter and “Palmerized” handwriting reigned for much of the 20th century, they were both eclipsed by a new and also revolutionary technology—the personal computer. The typewriter gave way to the modern computer keyboard, which was even faster and more efficient. “Keyboarding” became the new standard for handwriting and typewritten text and it is now taught almost universally in schools, while the use of handwriting with pen and paper is rapidly declining and is no longer even being taught by many schools.

Today, kids don’t write notes to pass in class, they text. We don’t handwrite and send letters—we send emails. Who will remember things like the flow of a great fountain pen, the smell of a freshly sharpened pencil, the feel of writing on a crisp piece of linen paper? They already seem like relics of a bygone time.

However, pen and paper are far from dead. They are both adapting to new technologies and our relationship with them is changing. New technologies such as digital pens, digital paper, handwriting recognition and more, are pushing handwriting, as well as how we record our thoughts, into the 21st century.

Digital Pen—A digital pen captures analog handwriting and translates it into digital data that can be displayed as handwriting or converted to text. These include Microsoft’s Surface Pen, Samsung’s S-Pen, the iPad Pencil and others. These smart digital pens allow pressure sensitivity, giving different line widths and colors choices, to better approximate using a real pen, pencil or even a brush. Digital pens are now inextricably part of how certain computers like the Microsoft Surface Pro, iPad Pro, or Samsung tablets operate. They can act as a pen, a pencil, a brush, or a computer mouse, to point and click.

Digital Paper—For digital pens to work well they require the digital equivalent of paper. This comes in the form of applications like Microsoft’s OneNote and Word, Evernote, and others. These applications approximate the work and flow of a paper notebook and make taking handwritten notes quick and easy. They are maturing with new and highly improved features like handwriting recognition, voice recognition, and audio recording.

Digital paper is challenging the very concept of what pen and ink can do:

  • Notebook metaphor—Digital paper applications typically work on the metaphor of a paper notebook—providing pages, chapter tabs and multiple notebooks. Also, imagine never running out of paper. Digital paper applications can provide page after page of digital paper. Some applications not only allow the user to scroll down for more paper, but also allow the user to scroll horizontally for a seemingly infinite piece of writing paper.
  • Mixing Media—Digital paper applications allow you to easily make notes that combine typed text, handwriting, voice and, video recordings, graphics, charts, and drawings, all on the same page.
  • Searchable Handwriting Recognition—Applications like Microsoft OneNote can convert your handwriting (legibly written) to searchable text. Alternatively, you can photograph your paper-based notes and programs such as Microsoft OneNote or Evernote will then process your handwriting to digital paper and make your notes searchable. Operating systems such as Windows have even “baked in” the ability to recognize handwriting (but it must be trained by you to understand your handwriting).
  • Record while you write—Many applications will record a meeting (video and audio) while you type or hand-write your notes. Microsoft OneNote and digital pens like the LiveScribe will go a step further and sync the audio recording to your written notes, allowing you to click on a paragraph or word and hear the audio recording made at that point in time. Other pens like the Bamboo Spark will record your handwriting as you write on paper and then transfer the strokes of your pen to a digital paper application—transforming them from analog to the digital—giving you the best of both worlds.
  • Collaborative—Today, business is all about collaboration and digital paper with handwriting can easily be shared as part of a collaborative conversation rather than relegated to a paper notebook that gathers dust in your office.
  • Editable—Digitally handwritten notes work just like their paper-based counterparts and can easily be edited as needed.
  • Take It with You—No need to leave your notes at the office. Because your digital notes are electronic you can carry all of your digital notebooks with you when you travel.

Writing vs. Keyboarding

Why write rather than type? Without a doubt keyboarding is a faster than handwriting, but handwriting—digital or analog—may be a better choice. According to a 2014 study done by UCLA and Princeton that investigated the effectiveness of different styles of note-taking, students who took notes by hand had better retention and understanding of the discussion than students who took notes on a laptop. The study concluded that typists have a tendency to just transcribe only what they hear, while manual note-takers apparently apply more critical thinking, reframe ideas into their own words, and decide what is important about what is being said. Further, when you keyboard during a meeting on a laptop, it gives the impression that you are not listening and some believe it is perceived as a barrier between you and your client. While writing notes, whether on paper or on a tablet, there is no vertical screen and there is no barrier.

The future of digital pen and paper is bright. The next generation of ink management technology will likely be interactive. You will be able to make simple gestures with a digital pen and do anything you can do with a normal keyboard. Interactive digital ink will transcend just doing handwriting recognition and will encompass the recognition of equations, formulas, shapes, diagrams, musical notation, and more.

Technology is enhancing the humble, everyday pen, giving it new and more powerful abilities. Our love affair with the pen is far from over. There is just more to love. Long live the pen.

Sources

“Fare Thee Well My Pen—The Demise of the Pen, Nick Bilton,” New York Times, July 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/fashion/the-demise-of-the-pen.html

“As Society Sheds Paper, an Industry Shrinks,” Adam Belz, Star Tribune, October 31, 2013, http://www.startribune.com/nov-18-2012-as-society-sheds-paper-an-industry-shrinks/179601951/

“No Room for Erasers, As Technology Deletes Pen Businesses,” NPR, November 7, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/11/07/243230361/no-room-for-erasers-as-technology-deletes-pen-businesses

“How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive,” Josh Giesbrecht, The Atlantic, August 28, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/08/ballpoint-pens-object-lesson-history-handwriting/402205/

“Why You Should Take Notes by Hand—Not on a Laptop,” Joseph Stromberg, Vox, March 31, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2014/6/4/5776804/note-taking-by-hand-versus-laptop

UCLA-Princeton Study: “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, January 16, 2014, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/6/1159

“Lawyers Should Take Notes by Hand,” Sam Glover, Lawyerist.com, June 17, 2014, https://lawyerist.com/74436/lawyers-take-notes-hand/

“The Palmer Method,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmer_Method

“Spencerian Script,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spencerian_script

“Learning Cursive Handwriting All Over Again,” Mark Tucker, WriteAnalog.com, January 9, 2015, http://writeanalog.com/learning-cursive-handwriting/

“Cursive Handwriting is Disappearing from Public Schools,” T. Rees Shapiro, Washington Post, April 4, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/cursive-handwriting-disappearing-from-public-schools/2013/04/04/215862e0-7d23-11e2-a044-676856536b40_story.html

 

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Originally published in Practice Innovations, Thomson-Reuters, January 2017