The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keypad

A high-tech stylus that keeps you writing by hand.

The Livescribe 3 smartpen syncs with an iPhone app.

Courtesy of Livescribe

This week, Slate is reviewing all the “smart” gizmos we can get our hands on. Read all the entries here.

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 realized that I was turning into the hapless time travelers 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 nondominant 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 anymore. 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 out of a Portlandia sketch. It’s what keypads are for.


This is why I was initially skeptical of the Livescribe 3 smartpen, which captures, digitizes, 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 at $149, you could still have two smartpens for about the price of one low-end Montblanc.)

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 college 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 most in 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 organized 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.