In school, some of us were afflicted by the calculator syndrome, which atrophied our maths skills when we came to rely on handy calculators for arithmetic that we could do in our heads.  These days, the ubiquity of computers has given us the instant coffee fix syndrome.  We are prone to juggling several on-screen tasks with the attention span of someone on a caffeine high – without taking the time to integrate what we read with what we know, much less to reflect on its implications. 

Glitzy screens and the lure of instant intelligence have eclipsed our inner resources.  As French Renaissance writer Michel Montaigne observed, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom”.  It’s less true that “a little learning can be a dangerous thing” than that a mass of disjointed information can give us the illusion of knowledge.

Our gadgets have changed the way we interact with one another.  The synergy of interacting in person is more often supplanted than supplemented by speaking over the phone, which in turn has given way to texting and email.  However, the tick-a-box act of sending a quick message doesn’t make up for the personal touch of a phone call nor does calling someone render trivial a chat over coffee.  And using a computer does not reduce trusty old pen and paper to quaint artifacts.

Daniel Chandler is a British specialist in semiotics, the science of signs and meaning.  In his book The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand, he shares anthropologist Sir John Goody’s insight that “Nothing surpasses pen and paper as being good to think with”.  Chandler describes pens and pencils as “immediate extensions of our fingers… in this sense to write with a pen or pencil is to touch one’s text.”

A blank sheet of paper is an exciting prospect and a daunting proposition.  So much potential, so many possibilities… and yet, where do we start to unravel our threads of thought?  And what new patterns do we weave with them?  There is something creative about holding pen over paper and letting our thoughts flow out.  If we persist, the act of writing, while remaining conscious, can spark the subconscious and the words take on a life of their own.  While this is achievable on a computer, it takes an extra effort to put on hold the myriad electronic threads of thought vying for our mouse clicks.

This high-tech instant fix syndrome is starting to ring alarm bells among educators.  In Public Discourse, US bioethics teacher Elise Italiano notes that “most studies published since the early 1990s confirm earlier conclusions; paper still has advantages over screens as a reading medium”.  She quotes a 2012 study that examined how “children remembered more details from books they read on paper than ones in e-books with animation, videos, and games”.  As for recording with gadgets, “When you can take pictures of lecture notes or record the teacher, why pay close attention in the first place?”.  This would be familiar to folks who spend their vacation digitally snapping everything in sight and miss the magic of the moment.

A similar study by Indiana University psychologist Karin James in 2012 found that “printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns”, with a strong positive effect of handwriting that went beyond better recall to the expression of more new words and ideas.  “When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.”

The technology-as-panacea myth would have us throw bits and bytes at problems crying out for solutions that transcend science.    Debunking this “more is better” mindset, an article in last month’s Scientific American discusses research which found that college students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more than those who type them out.  Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that pen users “listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information” while laptop users simply transcribe “in a fairly mindless, rote fashion”.   The latter were more prolific in their note-taking but it was too easy to “rely on less demanding, mindless processes when typing.”

Some of us are old enough to remember the joy of reading or scribbling with a stillness that casts a faint glow on the depths of our heart and labyrinths of our mind.  It’s an expression of the paradox of boredom that the flicker of a candle in the dark is often more illuminating than the glare of lights on a screen.  Once we get reacquainted with books and pen and paper, we can help the next generation discover (or rediscover) the less-is-more joy of purposeful boredom.

Tim Lee is MercatorNet’s Comments Editor.  He has developed a shorthand script as a tool for an integrated approach to note-taking and has written a book on this.

In midlife, Tim Lee (a business analyst in a past life) discerned a calling to be a writer and embarked on a quixotic quest to develop a universal symbolic script that captures the poetry of words in the...