Diarmaid Ferriter: Handwriting and the loss of cogency

Digital technology is vital but it may be eroding communication functions

A mature student in Cork has asked me to write her a handwritten letter. She and her fellow cultural and heritage students in Cork CSN College of Further Education are engaged in a project to celebrate the craft of handwritten letters, as “the simple hand-written letter is becoming an endangered species”. This student can be called mature because she informed me she is one of a group affectionately referred to as “the one foot in the grave lot” by the staff of the college.

Whatever about her foot, her fingers are certainly well above her final resting place judging by the beauty of her handwriting. Such letter crafting is a welcome antidote to the digital world we inhabit; perhaps, like my own mother, she has refused to learn how to send emails. When I was in Boston on sabbatical my mother looked askance at computers and instead sent me handwritten letters, as welcome for their novelty in the midst of screen mania as they were for their intimacy and evidence of her generation’s care in putting pen to paper.

Many of the sources drawn on for research in modern Irish history are handwritten and all the better for it

As a historian, I inevitably inhabit the world of letters; many of the sources drawn on for research in modern Irish history are handwritten and all the better for it; handwritten elaboration reveals much more than the functional, colder text and instant messaging of recent times. Letters contain greater nuance; we are more likely to fire off an angry email than craft an angry letter as the letter’s creation tempers absolutism.

Holy relics

Think of all we have learned from historical characters through their prolific letter writing. It is astonishing to see, for example, that the recently published fifth volume of the collected letters of WB Yeats is almost 1,200 pages long, but still only covers the years 1908-1910. Writer John O’Connell, author of the book For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication (2012) has made the point that in the contemporary era “physical letters feel like holy relics – little pieces left behind. We have this idea that our digital footprints will stick around forever, and in a sense they will. But how accessible will they be? There are emails I sent 15 years ago that I’d love to see again but I have no idea how to get hold of them.” It is unlikely many go to the trouble of printing out copies of emails for their personal, family or institution’s archive.

One of Oscar Wilde’s works, De Profundis, was written as a letter to his lover. The governor of Reading Gaol decided, in a compassionate move, that although prisoners could not write essays, novels or plays, Wilde would “for medicinal reasons” be allowed to write a letter, and as it was unfinished at the end of each day, it was continually returned to him. This allowed Wilde to ultimately craft a reaction to, in the words of De Profundis, “the silence, the solitude, the shame – each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience”.

Speed and desire for immediate gratification fuels too many modern communications and illiteracy becomes normalised

That intensity of that transformation meant the letter was deep, rhythmic and emotional, hardly experiences of most digital communications. Speed and desire for immediate reaction or gratification fuels too many modern communications and illiteracy, too often glossed over, becomes normalised. The recent OECD report on the illiteracy of some third-level students is sobering: it finds that 6 per cent of Irish university graduates are functionally illiterate. That is connected to the expansion in the numbers attending third level but the fact that the research focuses on literacy levels of graduates between the mid-1990s and 2012 means that the digital hinterland of that cohort is also relevant and we have to ask ourselves how one can graduate from university without being literate.

‘Digital natives’

We are also storing up trouble with iPad schools and overreliance on technology-enhanced learning that can facilitate distraction and neglect of writing and reading skills. This is not about making the case for ditching technology, but the balance can be lost at great cost. Irish children are still good readers by international standards, and we should ensure that continues. Last month, publicity was given to an EU research study, Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitisation, revealing that young “digital natives”, brought up on a diet of iPads and smart phones, are much more likely to absorb information from printed books than screens and are more likely to read the printed prose more fully than on screen. This research also suggests critical skills of interpretation and note taking are compromised by digital technology and can lead to students being overconfident about their comprehension ability.

There are thus key cognitive and ultimately communications functions that are compromised by digital technology. The answer is not to avoid the screens entirely, but to use them more discerningly, while the occasional writing of a letter would also help.