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Stealth wallpaper

Is txting killing handwriting?

Next year, students taking their SATs will have a new task to perform — a 25-minute longhand essay. And this is apparently panicking teenagers across America. Why? Are they worried that their nanoscale attention spans are not longer up to the task?

Nope. They’re worried they no longer are able to write by hand. Growing up in the digital age means you write solely by keyboard, or by 12-button mobile phone keypad. As one student told the Seattle Post Intelligencer:

“People like myself, who don’t have good handwriting, are wondering if some anonymous person is going to think I spelled stuff wrong and not understand what I’m trying to say,” said Lucas Rohm, a 16-year-old Country Day alum who is now a rising junior at Greenwich High School. “I definitely feel handwriting is something I need. Country Day just kind of brushed that out.”

I can sympathise. I’m a journalist, and I crank out quite a lot of text each month, but since I spend the majority of my time at my keyboard, my muscle memory for handwriting is simply shot. I take notes pretty frequently on notepads, but I almost never write entire stories by longhand. But every once in a while I’ll have to work with pen-and-paper — as, for example, when I’m on the road and can’t use my laptop, but am on a deadline and need to start sketching out an article while on a bus. And as I work away, I wonder: Is there any difference between our cognitive styles when we write longhand, versus typing on a keyboard?

Since I type about 70 words per minute, I can type practically as fast as I can compose sentences in my head. So does the much-slower pace of handwriting actually create a different way not just of writing, but of thinking? Does the buffer buildup between my brain and my arm affect things?

What I mean is this: When I’m typing, because I can generate text so fast, I’ll toss lots of stuff out on the page — and then quickly edit or change it. But when I’m writing by hand, because it’s so much slower I’ll try to compose the sentence in my head before trying to write it. With a keyboard, I sort of offload some of my mental-sorting onto the page, where I can look at the words I’ve written, meditate on them, and manipulate them. With writing, that manipulation happens before the output. Clearly this would lead to some cognitive difference between the two modes … but I can’t quite figure out what it would be.

Along these lines, it’s worth pointing out that a 23-year-old student in Singapore seems to have set a new world record for speed-typing on a phone keypad. As the Globe and Mail reports:

Student Kimberly Yeo, 23, managed to type a fiendishly complicated 26-word message on her phone in 43.66 seconds, organizer Singapore Telecommunications said in a statement Monday.

Her effort — in heats held at the weekend — could beat by a wide margin the existing text message record of 67 seconds, set last year by Briton James Trusler in Sydney, Australia, it said. [snip]

Contestants had to type: “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human.”

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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