Whatever happened to old-fashioned handwriting?

January 14, 2001|By Andrew Reiner

I HAVE BEEN waging a protest against electronic correspondence, particularly e-mail. Nothing too loud or garish, though. I'm no Luddite who smashes computers.

In fact, I own a laptop. It's just that I have no interest in stepping into the beckoning currents of cyberspace because, despite everyone's assurances, from over here the water doesn't look too lovely. Especially not from where my students are wading.

I have no quantitative proof to back this up, but I am becoming more convinced that, contrary to the assertions of computer evangelists, corresponding online hinders, not helps, young writers' skills.

I see this with my sixth-graders' papers, which are littered with more "i"s and "u"s than an e.e. cummings poem and more run-on sentences than clowns in a VW bug. Why? Because, as they have reminded me, "netiquette" -- the Internet's unwritten nod to Emily Post -- ignores rules of grammar and punctuation and teaches a shorthand that values brevity over clarity.

The technological arguments on behalf of e-mail are obvious. It enables us to communicate anywhere in the world with the touch of a button, minus long-distance phone bills and a sluggish postal service. And it supposedly increases our productivity in the workplace.

But some corporations and companies are finding the opposite.

A sales manager for a company with 8,000 employees and $1.3 billion in annual sales recently told me that since e-mail was introduced at the firm six years ago, "instead of enhancing communication, it has made communication more detrimental."

Not only has the daily avalanche of e-mail he gets drastically lessened the time he would spend on clients' needs but his organization nearly lost its biggest client because of the confusion that such one-sided messages create. For this reason, he said, "we're encouraging our salespeople to use the telephone more often. It's more expedient at resolving issues."

This is one reason why I prefer the phone. It eliminates the back-and-forth messages that e-mailing requires to resolve complex issues and problems. It also eliminates the breach in trust that occurs in workplaces and homes as many children and adults are stealthily exposing private e-mails to bosses and the rest of the world.

Also, the telephone enables you to better clue into the other person's message simply by paying attention to the tone of voice and inflection. When you consider that only 7 percent of meaning in all of our communications are received through written words while 93 percent are derived through tone of voice and body language, e-mails seem an ineffective way to communicate.

But the message isn't the only thing compromised with electronic correspondence.

The technology breeds an impatience and carelessness that prevents the writer from achieving intimacy; it's hard to slow down long enough to plumb deep, meaningful thoughts, to find a reflective, interior space amid the interruptions of instant messages and ads.

Even the end product of this bloodless technology undermines intimacy: the perfect uniformity of letters makes every communique appear the same, unlike hand-scrawled lettering, which captures and freezes in time the idiosyncratic loops and lines, the calligraphic heirlooms, of cherished cards or letters.

The problem with such walls that this technology erects between us is precisely its appeal to many people: It guarantees privacy and anonymity.

The rub with an invisible cyberself, though, is that it doesn't require us to take responsibility for our own words. This was clarified for me when one of my sixth-graders told me that "with e-mail you can say whatever you want to someone and not worry about them finding out who you really are."

The price we pay for such anonymity is that it encourages us, and, especially our children, to escape face-to-face confrontation. When undertaken with mutual respect, confrontation leads to human solutions for human problems.

When we evade confrontation, however, we resort to violence and cannot find common humanity with those who see the world differently than us.

As a teacher who works to get his students to understand perspectives other than their own, I was dismayed last spring when Stanford University's Institute of Quantitative Study of Society released a report which found that the Internet is becoming the "ultimate isolating technology."

In these times when isolation is becoming an ethos, it is critical to remember that while technology should be measured by its productivity, it also must be judged by its ability to enhance our humanity.

Andrew Reiner is a free-lance writer who teaches writing to middle-school students at St. James Academy in Monkton.

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