Once upon a time, whatever news appeared in print or was presented by television or radio newscasters was taken as the veritable truth. It was disseminated and acted upon as if it personally affected everyone in this country, which of course it did in varying degree.The news, which is an acronym for ‘north, south, east, west’ was a force that galvanized and united us in our quest to uphold our national identity and position of strength and democracy in the world.
In these deeply unsettling times, politicians and pundits air their hopes, grievances and manifestos with ever coarser, less articulate language, often distorting truths and provoking our knee-jerk emotional responses rather than inspiring our better natures and actions.
But tempting as it is, I’m not going to rant here about the plague of fake news that has gone viral so to speak. Enough ink (traditional and digital) has been devoted to it to satisfy every news glutton and social media addict. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how our written and spoken communication has dramatically eroded in the last few decades and why that is so.
Historically, the erosion began as the telephone gradually replaced the need to write letters and notes to friends, colleagues and relatives in favor of quicker responses. Now, unsurprisingly, the most obvious symptoms of the decay of communication are found in text messaging and spoken media. Texting encourages immediate gratification though its efficiency is often characterized by lack of punctuation and fragmented sentences. With the ability to ‘text’ attachments, it is also replacing email as well. In spoken media, soundbites have become the takeaway from our information sources, relieving us of the personal responsibility for closer analysis and comprehension of what we are told. And as we viralize those more easily digestible soundbites, we dilute the true value of reasoned public discourse.
Though I don’t see any of these communication lifestyles changing any time soon, but we might be overlooking a possible way to keep them in perspective; by reclaiming our abilities to communicate in writing and emphasizing the importance of teaching those skills to our children.
In my post of May 5, 2013, ‘The Demise Of Handwriting’,* I responded to a New York Times article that questioned the value of teaching classical cursive handwriting to schoolchildren in an era when easily accessible technology has mostly rendered it a vestigial skill.
I now realize that the desire of some in the education industry to end the once compulsory teaching of well-crafted handwriting has only exacerbated the downward spiral of quality in our written and verbal communication. The beauty, details and nuances of language, qualities that once defined great writing and oratory, are greatly in danger of becoming cultural artifacts. This is not to say that the revival of handwriting in our education system will cure the metastasizing mediocrity in communication. Still, doing so might reduce our dependence on word processing tools such as auto-correct software and re-instill the importance of careful thought and craftsmanship in self-expression, thereby helping the restoration of self-confidence in our contributions to that public discourse.
This notion is evident to me each day as I read the newspaper. I am frequently and unpleasantly distracted by numerous spelling and grammatical errors throughout the texts. Books exhibit the same lack of craftsmanship with multiple errors in texts or within indexes to those texts when I am directed to an incorrect location of a specific topic or page. Even as I question how mainstream publishers, who have traditionally employed a staff of professional editors and proofreaders, could allow such carelessness to pass unnoticed into the public eye, I am aware that from a practical and financial perspective, automation technology has relieved publishers of the need to hire them. Nevertheless, given the current imperfect state of artificial intelligence, this development can easily result in an inferior product. As an author with books published both in the mainstream publishing industry and the growing on-demand publishing market, I’ve noticed the growing emphasis on quick profit before quality and when preparing books for the latter, I must remind myself to very carefully edit my own manuscripts for errors before submission and printing.
So, for those of us that bemoan the deterioration of our own handwriting, I would like this post to be a reminder that it’s not too late to refresh and restore those skills. Getting started may be as simple as forming letters of the alphabet as a telephone doodle, penning the few lines of a thank you note for a gift you received or to the host/hostess of a social event you attended. When you begin, don’t worry about your initial efforts being judged on the calligraphic quality of what you write. With practice this will improve. Instead, focus on its clarity and intent because ultimately that scrap of paper, not the mercurial texts or e-mails on your digital device, will be evidence of who you are. Or, in future, of who you were.
*Map shown above is a Mnemonical Globe/Wm. Stokes,1879 (Boston Rare Maps: http://bostonraremaps.com/inventory/a-capital-globe-indeed/)