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Originally published Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at 2:31 PM

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The keyboard and the app are mightier than the pen

With the rise of touchscreens, how much longer will we need to rummage around for pens in our purses and backpacks?

New York Times News Service


The pen is dead. It was murdered by the finger.

I first realized this last week when my girlfriend asked to borrow a pen to sign the back of one of those paper check things.

“Sure,” I replied, picking up my laptop bag to rummage inside. I pulled out a succession of rectangular-shaped gadgets, but there was no pen to be found.

“Hmm, maybe we have one upstairs,” I said as we both began a detectivelike search for anything that resembled a vessel for ink. We scoured the home office, kitchen drawers, bedrooms, even looking through our cars. But again, no pen.

After backtracking to figure out when I last saw a pen in the house, I realized it had been more than two months.

While my home is filled with multiple laptops, smartphones, tablets and other Internet-connected devices, there isn’t a single pen to be found. No ballpoint, fountain or rollerball. No highlighter, marker or even an itty bitty nub of a pencil.

Rumors of the pen’s demise have been around for almost two decades. The PalmPilot and early tablets were supposed to finish it off, replacing it with a pen look-alike called the “stylus.” That fake plastic thing proved to be slower and more expensive, however, so the pen lived to scribble another day.

But for me, the pen has finally lost its usefulness to the finger and the touch screens it controls.

Unlike pens, fingers don’t run out of ink, they’re free and you always have one with you. I use mine to take notes on my phone, highlight books on my Kindle and draw pictures on my iPad. I don’t have to worry about losing this work because, unlike a piece of paper, my digital notes live in perpetuity online.

Until recently, financial transactions were among the last holdouts for the pen. But these days I pay my utility bills by opening an app and signing a screen. When I go to my local coffee shop, I sign an iPad with my finger. Theory, Apple and dozens of businesses I interact with have all eliminated pens (and styluses) in lieu of a finger and a screen. And, a couple of months ago when I bought a new home, I signed every document but one (which needed a notary public) using my iPhone. Think about that: I bought an entire house on my smartphone.

While I loved pens in the past, I have to admit, it’s a lot easier not using them.

“There’s that famous quote that the best camera is the one you have with you, and in that respect, the smartphone has won out over time,” said Naveen Selvadurai, a partner at Expa Capital and a co-founder of Foursquare. “In the same sense, the best pen is the one you have with you, and that’s your finger.”

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he described the finger as “the best pointing device in the world.” And in typical Jobsian fashion, he seemed to know that fingers would be next big thing.

“Any technology that removes a step for people is often the one that ends up winning out,” Selvadurai said.

Not surprisingly, some pen makers have seen declines in the United States, including Bic, the maker of those iconic plastic disposable pens, which said sales of pens fell slightly last year. Bic is trying to reverse the decline, starting a “Fight for Your Write” campaign this year, which the company describes as a “crusade” to underscore the importance of handwriting.

Pam Allyn, literacy expert and spokeswoman for the campaign, said writing with a pen or pencil helps children develop a sense of identity. “It gives you the power of seeing yourself reflected back at you,” she said, though she also acknowledged that writing with a digital alternative can do the same.

And for every research paper showing that pens are better for learning or memory retention, there are competing studies showing that computers are superior.

For example, a yearlong study by Dr. Pere Marquès Graells, a director of research at the University of Barcelona, found that children who used tablets in the classroom had improved understanding of topics, were more creative and more capable of independent learning.

Graells, who interviewed 2,000 students and 150 teachers for the study, said that 87 percent of teachers reported that tablets helped students learn better.

A competing study by Pam A. Mueller, a researcher at Princeton University’s psychology department, found that people who took notes using pen and paper tended to retain more information than those who used keyboards.

The problem, Mueller wrote in the paper, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” is that laptop note takers have a tendency to transcribe every detail, whereas pen note takers just jot down the important information.

There is one thing that the pro-pen and pro-computer camps agree on: The pen will eventually become obsolete.

“Everyone is shifting to a digital world,” Mueller said. “There may be room for pen and paper when putting up a sign or writing a birthday card, but for note taking and work, there’s no way of reversing the current changes.”

So it is with a heavy heart that I must bid the pen adieu. But don’t fret; the finger is here to take its place. Or, to quote a proverb often used at the end of eulogies, “What the caterpillar perceives is the end, to the butterfly is just the beginning.”

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