On February 28 2013, White House Chief of Staff, Mr Jack Lew, was made US Secretary of the Treasury, and as such, his signature is to appear on American currency. Unfortunately his signature resembles the loops we all make when testing a ballpoint pen to see if it’s still working, and there was an uproar loud enough that Lew ultimately had to create a new signature that was more currency-friendly. He’s now on the money.
My signature is as bad as Lew’s was. Like most people, I invented a signature in my teens that I’m now stuck with for life. It’s a horrible glyph I barely remember creating. It bugs me that the gesture that defines me in the written world was designed by a self-absorbed 15-year-old sitting at the back of math class bored out of his mind, which is basically what most signatures are. With the general decline of cursive script, signatures are, along with graffiti, one of the few remaining personal gestures that remain in our culture.
Cursive script: I recently gave the daughter of a friend, 22, a bottle of wine in return for helping me on a small project. I hand-scripted a thank-you note along with it, but her face went blank when she opened it to read it. I asked what was wrong and she said, “I can’t read … squiggles.” Chalk up another win for digital technologies.
I have beautiful handwriting, but it’s a lot of work, and I have to be in the right mood to deploy this handwriting, and its content has to merit a personal touch – thank-you notes or birthday cards. My handwriting is beautiful because, starting in my thirties, I worked hard at fixing it. An insouciant Vancouver school system left me and my cohorts with scrawl like Adrian Mole circa age 12 ⅛. You can practically see the pimples in every stroke.
Fun fact: I’m left-handed, which has always made cursive script a worthy challenge. Oddly, when I need to write anything larger than six inches high, such as on chalkboards, I become a right-handed person – the letters suddenly turn into objects and they want to be navigated by a different part of my brain.
I’m also not a good typer. I’m a 3½ fingered typer, mostly index fingers, but also with a dash of thumbs on the space bar. I’m also pig lazy. Typing may be less work than handwriting but, even still, if I want to put out words, I only ever want to type them once.
In 1998 I was in a Brussels hotel and my laptop died. To meet a deadline I used the hotel’s business centre. I sat down to work and … it was like I’d had a stroke: none of the Benelux keyboard keys was in its “correct” spot. I tried to type my article but I gave up after three sentences. It was worse than difficult, it was impossible, infinitely more difficult than back when I (badly) taught myself in my late teens. My brain couldn’t do it.
Four years ago I noticed I was making far more mistakes than usual typing on my Mac laptop; clumsy, embarrassing errors, and I was worried: is this how it starts? Then the errors progressed and I felt like I was back in the Brussels business centre, but this time my stroke was occurring in slow motion and bore the dark undercurrents of mental decay. Worrying about this decay became my silent mania until finally it dawned on me that I had started using an iPhone hardcore at the same time my “condition” began. While I’m a 3½ fingered typer on a keyboard, I’m also a 3½ fingered typer on a mobile phone … except my thumbs are doing what my fingers do, and my thumbs are doing what my fingers were doing. Added bonus? Autocorrect. So deep inside the box of tangled electrical cords that is my brain, that little neuron cluster that had orchestrated my keypad stokes for 25 years suddenly had to reconfigure itself to accept a similar yet inverted reality – and it didn’t like doing so one bit.
Science tells us that all humans grow 10,000 new brain cells a day but, if we don’t activate them by learning new things, they’re reabsorbed back into our bodies – which is slightly creepy, but if you didn’t try to retain them, then you probably don’t deserve them. It took my typing cortex four years to both grow new cells and to renegotiate the neural and ergonomic issues of getting used to swapping thumbs and fingers between devices … Four years.
The good news was that I asked around and learnt that most people in my life were quietly experiencing similar secret panic over escalating typing uselessness – I am not alone! But I can see that our species’ entire relationship with words, and their mode of construction, is clearly undergoing a massive rewiring. I bridge an era straddling handwriting and heavy smartphone usage. Young people like my friend’s daughter with her emoticons and rampant acronyms are blessed in having no cursive script to unlearn – with the bonus of having no sense of something having been lost. That’s a kind of freedom, and I’m jealous. Part of accepting the future is acknowledging that some things must be forgotten, and it’s always an insult because it’s always the things you love. We lost handwriting and got Comic Sans in return. That’s a very bad deal.
Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel is ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, published by William Heinemann.
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