Tuesday 22nd July 2014

Matt Gemmell’s latest post about how we’ve lost the intimacy of hand-written letters in this age of electronic communications makes a good point: receiving a hand-written communication is a hugely more personal experience than simply viewing ephemeral text on a screen.

Handwriting used to be my daily companion, and now it’s becoming a rare art.

I wonder how much this is ‘becoming’ the case for people born in the past twenty years or so, people for whom computing devices of various kinds are part of the fabric of life. Sure, in schools children will often be writing things by hand, but outside of that, and as they reach the higher echelons of education, I suspect very rarely is pen put to paper.

For someone of my age (33) or older, then yes, handwriting is perhaps something once regularly practiced but rarely is today. On the other hand, to what extent did the average person before 1980 or so actually write letters to (or receive them from) anyone?

Whenever we read about a noted historical figure, inevitably they left behind a body of letters; a graceful collection of intimate and illuminating one-sided conversations in written form.

This post was originally started as a comment on the ‘handwritten’ gimmick in Matt’s post, the main problem of which is that it doesn’t feel as personal as I believe it was intended to be; it comes across more as a photocopy. His critique of “electronically rendered thoughts” applies more or less equally to printed materials too.

But, that would be mostly missing the point of the post, I think, as would be wondering about how much the post is looking to the past as a rose-tinted golden age (so maybe a sort of … copper colour?).

iPhone stopwatch and mechanical stopwatch

Even if hand-written correspondence was actually super rare, it’s still a worthy thing to aspire to, now more than ever. It’s almost the antithesis of anonymity, the opposite of ephemeral. As Matt puts it, “an imposition of human will upon the environment”: an actual physical thing that bears, to a much greater degree than words-on-screen, traces of the person who wrote it.

I guess you could argue that the additional ‘metadata’ that hand-written letters bring is irrelevant: that what actually matters are the words themselves, regardless of how they’re presented. Certainly, a distinctive voice will carry through despite the reduction in bandwidth, but I contend that the extra information is like body language, adding essential context that makes the words more real, more like they’re coming from an actual person.