The U.S. Postal Service chicken-scratch deciphering center closed about 10 years after it opened, an indication of the advances in computer technology.. The Akron Remote Encoding Center on Exeter Road, near the Lockheed Martin plant and the airdock off U.S. Route 224, opened in 1994. At the center, employees looked at mail on a computer screen to decipher messy names and addresses that computers could not read. Computers could read only about 40 percent of the mail in 1994, and, if I remember correctly, the computers could read only neat block printing. The mail that stumped the computers was studied by employees who entered the information on their keyboards. Now the computers can read most of the envelopes, including cursive. Once again, people and handwork are being replaced by machines.
It’s a centuries-old problem but painful nonetheless. Computers can read the worst scribbles, scratches and scrawls — or should I call it cursively challenged chirography? — that some folks call handwriting, but people don’t have it so easy. How many people look at a note they’ve written and say, “I can’t read my own writing?”
Writing is a form of communication, a means of conveying knowledge or information. If the writing is illegible, the information is not communicated. If the writing is somewhat legible, it can cause misunderstanding, inconvenience and wasted time.
Messy writing is mumbling on paper. People seem to have little patience for mumblers and will say “Speak up!” but have loads of patience and tolerance for hand-mumbling. Pencraft is an option for most people; after students learn to make letters and words, the emphasis on neat writing is dropped. It’s partly due to the complacency of familiarity. Once people can write without thinking, about the making of individual letters, and have learned how to put letters into words, they increase their speed and focus on the message more than on the appearance of that message. But if the appearance is bad enough, the message is lost.
The cause is our society’s emphasis on hurrying. Neat writing takes time. It’s understandable that writing will be messy when someone is taking a telephone message or school notes, for example, but that hurried, messy writing becomes a habit, and writers forget how to write neatly.
Hurrying is a habit that can be broken. Messy writing can be made neat. But it takes time, dedication and relearning. Handwriting, as with anything, requires regular, slow practice, Years of bad habits must be unlearned, a process that is more difficult than learning the first time, and our computer age has teamed with our hurry mentality to limit our chances at handwriting practice.
If you’re a cacographer and want to write neatly, return in spirit to grade school. Print and write the alphabet over and over, slowly and with thought, paying attention to the loops of the ascenders, the curves of the descenders, the direction or lack of a slant. Calligraphy can neaten your handwriting, because in calligraphy letters are separated into their components: the eyebrows and crescents and lines that combine in different ways to form letters. Calligraphy also forces you to letter slowly. It demands thoughtful, meditative hand motions that slow the mind and bring it peace. Neat handwriting won’t stop computers from taking jobs. Society rarely takes voluntary technological backsteps. Computers may dominate much of life, but as long as people communicate with handwritten messages, they can enjoy the making and receiving of fine penmanship.
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