The banality of writing

You and I know how to write because others wrote before us. Westerns thus go back to the Romans, and the Romans to the Greeks, and so on to the very beginning of writing itself, which was not in Europe, but in ancient Sumer.

The Romans lived in a highly literate society, but there was an important distinction between those who knew how to read and write, and those who actually wrote. Elite Romans preferred not to write and left the skill of writing to the lower classes, often even to slaves. For such a literate culture, the cultured were pretty tech-averse, writing being considered a technology in need of manual operation. So the Romans raised their ink-free finger and started dictating to scribes and other professionals of the written word.

We’ve never been too far from this distant practice, and we’ve probably come even closer to it now, as fewer and fewer people get to write anything by hand. Writing is in decline, while Siri and Alexa sure look like they are ready to interview for the scribe’s position. Just imagine Cicero at his desk saying ‘Ave, Siri, please take the following down’.

Isn’t it ironic for me to say such a thing? I am after all writing this. But am I really? I am in fact typing at my computer. Potato-potato, you’ll say. Yes, but chirography, or the act of manual writing, is not the same as typing, although there are some similarities. In essence, they are different. While they are both manual operations requiring skill and dexterity, writing is fundamentally different and a hundred times harder to learn than tapping keys. It takes a lot longer for a child to learn to write than to type. You may teach a simple machine to type, but handwriting is closer to magic. While someone’s typing skills are a function of speed and accuracy, their handwriting is a bundle of cursivity, legibility, fluency, and also speed. Not to mention the personal signature embedded in someone’s handwriting.

 

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