Friday, December 26, 2003

The End of Handwriting

David is in Kindergarten, and he has homework over the Christmas break. One of his homework assignments is to work on writing out the lower case letters of the alphabet.

It is interesting to watch kids learn to write. Even though the vast majority of the characters that a kid sees in books are lower case, kids seem to universally learn to write capital letters first. The exception is the letter "i" with its cute dot. So David currently spells his name "DAViD".

David's homework assignment has us sitting with him writing out long strings of "Aa Bb Cc Dd..." Like most kids, he will get this figured out fairly quickly. Then it's on to cursive I imagine.

The thing I am wondering as I do this homework is, "Is David's generation about the last generation that will learn to write by hand, and use handwriting in any serious way?" Think what is going to happen over the next 20 years or so. The Internet and the Web will permeate into every facet of life, especially as we figure out all the kinks with the wireless infrastructure. Every device will have an embedded processor. Robots will start appearing and interacting with us on a regular basis as part of our day to day lives. Voice recognition will improve over the next 20 years to the point where it is nearly flawless, and every device will recognize spoken commands and questions rather than typed ones.

In other words, by 2020 or so we will no longer have a need for handwriting. We will interact with everything with spoken commands. We will no longer "type" -- we will dictate (finally). We will fill out forms on screen rather than on paper. Or, with any luck, forms will vanish completely. We will no longer be forced to write down name-address-phone on forms every day because databses will already contain this information.

There will be no need to learn handwriting because no one will be writing anything by hand any more. At that point, will we continue learning to write for nostalgic and emergency reasons? For example, "you might be stranded on an island and need a way to write a rescue note, so you better learn handwriting!" In the same way, I took classes on using the slide rule in high school even as we watched calculators become ubiquitous and make slide rules completely irrelevant. There will probably be a transition period like that, and then we will abandon handwriting in the same way we abandoned the slide rules. Or maybe we will continue to teach handwriting to kids in the same way that we teach them about scissors and paste or finger painting. There is no real practical reason for learning the skill of finger painting, but it is something that kids like to do.

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