The pen is mightier than the keypad: A piece of new hi-tech kit aims to get us scribbling again

Our use of computers has all but made the daily use of pen and ink obsolete, says Jessica Winter

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Abe: What's wrong with our hands?
Aaron: What do you mean?
Abe: Why can't we write like normal people?
Aaron: I don't know. I can see the letters... I know what they should look like; I just can't get my hand to make them easily.

– from 'Primer' (2004), a film by Shane Carruth

I was struggling to handwrite a thank-you note a few years ago when I realised that I was turning into the hapless time travellers from the cult film Primer, whose temporal hijinks somehow wreak havoc with their penmanship, turning it into a drunken scribble.

The card I was writing looked less like a token of thanks than a ransom note written with a non-dominant hand; it seemed the opposite of grateful to make its recipient try to decipher my smudgy squiggles.

At the same time, there's a decent chance that the intended recipient of my scrawl had similar insecurities about the psychopathic-kindergartner cast of her own handwriting.

Maybe the decline of the handwritten thank-you note is about bad manners; I suspect it might be a matter of simple embarrassment.

Our handwriting muscles have gone flaccid, if we ever had them in the first place. Schools don't want to teach cursive any more. If you have a desktop and a laptop and a tablet and a phone, or some permutation thereof, there will come a certain point when putting pen to paper turns into a hipster-ish affectation.

It's what keypads are for.

This is why I was initially skeptical of the new Livescribe 3 smartpen (which came out in the UK last week), which captures, digitises and archives anything you write or draw with it, and which struck me at first as a curious and possibly unnecessary collision of analog and digital writing forms.

(It's also a rather expensive collision, although costing from £129, you could still have two smartpens for about the price of one low-end Montblanc.)

The Livescribe 3 smartpen was released last week

The previous generation of smartpen was a self-contained gizmo that synced files with Evernote; the new version requires an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch to create an instant digital copy of your jottings once you've downloaded the Livescribe app. (Android compatibility is on the way.)

The pen's nub is also a stylus, and there's a USB port nestled inside, while the clip has an LED light that turns blue when the pen is connected to the device of your choice. The stem of the pen is somewhat fatter than most basic ballpoints but not so rotund as to make writing awkward (and I don't remember exactly what a pen feels like, anyway).

Once done with the minimal setup, I can see not one but two renditions of my various serial killer-ish notations appearing as I write: one on the pages of my special Livescribe notebook (with "digital paper enabling Anoto functionality," which I think is a way of saying that the paper can track the pen's location) and one on my iPhone that can live in the cloud forever. Hooray?

The smartpen has plenty of nifty features that will be godsends to the hypergraphia-addled students and beleaguered archivists of the near future. You can collate notes, add photos to them, share them and turn them into searchable text.

For my own purposes, I imagine the smartpen coming in most handy on any remotely exotic vacation, when I'm constantly snapping pictures and jotting down notes about what I'm seeing and hearing – pictures and notes that seem vivid and self-explanatory in the moment but can shape-shift into a confusing, fragmentary jumble by the time I return to them later.

The smartpen might not make me a better note-taker-slash-self-historian, but it might at least make me a more organised one.

The best aspect of the smartpen may be that, in giving my horribly decrepit penmanship the honor of cloud-based immortality, it leaves me with no excuse to forfeit the uniqueness and intimacy of writing by hand.

It's altogether possible that, if I practice hard and often enough with the smartpen, someday I might regain the ability to write a decent thank-you note.

Or at least a legible one.

This article originally appeared on

And meanwhile, for children who’ve never learnt how to use a pencil...

By Simon Usborne

Julia Donaldson of Gruffalo fame wrote the following rhyme in praise of an old stick children once used for writing: "My pencil is my friend. Our letters curl and bend, And when ideas refuse to come I chew the other end."

Yet for new generations of non-scribblers, her ditty could surely be re-written: "My iPad is my pal. My fingers zoom and swipe, And when ideas refuse to come then I can always type."

Kids just can't write any more, we are told, in the way we're also told they don't know sausages come from pigs. This week an online guide to nurseries announced in a press release that "children are increasingly exposed to an overwhelming amount of technology at an early age", amid fears tablet computers were "displacing traditional methods of learning and play activities".

One newspaper then lamented: "Figures suggests that almost half of boys struggle to write simple stories, lists or a letter to Father Christmas at the age of five."

How terrible!

Yet, while the ease with which even tiny babies can master touchscreens is the stuff of YouTube virality – and while surveys can easily suggest the yoof of today are doomed – there remain standards.

For those with memories of t-crossing handwriting classes at primary school, where leady rubbings dirtied the desks, it is perhaps pleasing to hear that today's supposedly hopeless iKids still learn handwriting.

Moreover, as the National Handwriting Association reports with glee, proposed changes to the national curriculum set to be introduced next year will improve provision for handwriting. As well as being really good at fast, joined-up writing, 10-year-olds "should also be taught to use an unjoined style (e.g. for labelling a diagram or data, writing an email address, or for algebra)."

In the meantime, as tablets are increasingly used as teaching aids in classrooms, technology that could be viewed as killing handwriting is increasingly honouring the form. As well as Livescribe's smart pens, various apps and services turn fingers into writing instruments, in the way Apple intended with its first iPad.

Google's new translation app, for example, turns a phone into a notepad on which, say, a foreign friend can write a word. It then turns their scrawl instantly into text and offers a translation.

This week, FiftyThree, the makers of Paper, an award-winning writing and sketching app, began shipping Pencil, its first bit of hardware, to US customers. What resembles a thick, wooden carpenter's pencil houses some very smart electronics. Switches embedded at the nib and "rubber" end communicate with an iPad via bluetooth to render lines finely or erase them precisely even for the fattest-fingered user.

It also cancels out the effect of a hand resting on screen while you write, and limits the ugly scrawl that can come when a finger is drawn into doing something it was never supposed to. What it will not do, however, is respond well to chewing.