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In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Unforgettable", Chakotay falls in love with a woman he knows he is going to completely forget, and she somehow magically makes technology "forget" her too.

In order to remember her he spends a long time at the end of the episode writing on a paper pad.

Why/when would Star Trek characters learn how to write manually? All computer interaction, and even log entries are spoken in natural language. Surely handwriting is totally obsolete? Especially given the significant amount of time currently committed by schools to develop handwriting skills in children.

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    Same reason they are all obsessed with 18th century navel traditions? – user16696 May 26 '15 at 13:54
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    Even if they enter most text through speech, I imagine the best way to learn to read as kids would involve learning to write or type as well. And in the real world, research has shown people learn somewhat better when they have to write rather than type notes. – Hypnosifl May 26 '15 at 14:09
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    Considering that people in Star Trek still need to read, what makes you think that people could not also manually reproduce the letters they read every day by hand? – Ellesedil May 26 '15 at 14:37
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    I doubt handwriting will ever be obsolete. Scribbling some ideas on the back of an envelope is too convenient... if you have an envelope. – Jaydee May 26 '15 at 14:41
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    @Martha: I highly doubt that, even for the Chinese language. In the end, readers and writers must agree on what makes the significant parts of the script that tell the different glyphs apart, otherwise it wouldn’t work. And everyone who knows these characteristics of the written language is in principle capable of reproducing them, even if the result might not “look good”, they will be good enough for someone else to understand its meanings. That’s especially true for the character of the question who makes notes for himself. – Holger May 26 '15 at 17:54
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A skill can be completely obsolete, and yet still widely known. For example: many people ride horses, despite the horse being obsolete for the sake of cars. Many people practice archery, despite guns rendering that obsolete. Many people know how to work with vacuum tubes, despite those being extremely rare at present. Yes, handwriting is obsolete in the time of Voyager, but why would people not know it?

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As to when they would learn to write, I'm not sure, I would imagine it would be at the same time you did, in early childhood.

As to why, the Voyager episode you mentioned proves that there are circumstances where a hard copy of information is preferable to a digital copy. Off the top of my head, I can think of another circumstance...

In a predominately digital/technological society, which The Federation certainly is, the safest way to make absolutely sure that there is no digital trace of a piece of information would be to never put it in digital form. Want to make sure some clever Star Fleet officer can't recover your deleted file? Never create it in the first place. Just write it on paper and make sure to destroy it. The intelligence/clandestine applications are easy to imagine.

In the specific case you bring up, I guess you could make an argument that Chakotay could have typed/spoken it and then printed a hard copy. I dont really have an answer there. Maybe he just prefers writing? Some people do.

However, that episode is not the only example of hand writing in star trek.

For example, in the DS9 episode "The Visitor" Jake Sisko is shown using a stylus to hand write onto a tablet. Later in the same episode, he presents a hand written paper copy of a novel to the girl visiting him. He says that it's full of notes and edits.

I suspect that, in reality, you are correct that there would be less emphasis on hand writing in that society, just like many schools don't teach cursive today since long form handwriting isn't used as much. But, just like we still need or prefer to write some things out by hand, I figure the same applies to Star Trek.

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    OMG they really don't teach cursive any more? I'm scared. – o0'. May 26 '15 at 17:11
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    @Lohoris: [citation needed] – Mason Wheeler May 26 '15 at 18:25
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    @MasonWheeler just try? – o0'. May 26 '15 at 18:32
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    @Loheris: "printing" = "non-cursive handwriting" in this context. Confusing, but the word "printing" has multiple meanings. – wyvern May 27 '15 at 2:49
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    @Lohoris Even if it's slightly faster, it's absurd how much time and mental energy is wasted in elementary school classrooms teaching it. – Brian Gordon May 27 '15 at 3:54
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If you know how to read, you also know how to write. It's that simple. If you have learned to read an alphabet, you will be able to write it even if you've never done so before. By definition, being able to read a language means knowing the symbols used in writing it. If you know them, you can write them. So, even in a society that never uses paper and pencil, any literate person would, nevertheless, be able to use one if forced to. At worst, they'd have awful handwriting, but they'd be able to write.

In any case, I don't think it is possible for a society to ever completely move away from analog writing media. What if I want to leave a note on your door? Or pin a message to a tree to tell you how to follow me in the forest? Or put a message in a bottle? There will always be moments where writing glyphs on a static medium is the way to go.

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    +1. This is especially true in a society like the Federation, in which everyone seems to love and have great respect for "out-dated" art forms and traditions. – Nerrolken May 26 '15 at 17:34
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    Second this. Well over 99% of what I write is with a keyboard. That's not 100%, though--notes and labels are still useful things. – Loren Pechtel May 28 '15 at 2:28
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There was at least one nuclear war on Earth in the Star Trek universe after the Eugenics Wars. Such a war is likely to be preceded by high altitude nuclear detonations to damage spy and communications satellites to hamper enemy reconnaisance. A side effect of this bombardment would be widespread failure of unshielded electronics and power systems, including most computerized data stores and networks. The only information that would remain widely accessible in regions affected by the EMP blasts would be printed information. That fact is bound to imprint deeply in the minds of those who survive. After the war there would never again be a human society that relied solely on electronic data storage for its survival.

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    I think this is plausible in a scifi world, but I don't think it is consistent with the world of Star Trek. ST is way too hopeful, idealistic, and optimistic to have such trauma be an integral part of its utopian culture. – Nerrolken May 26 '15 at 16:15
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    @nerrol what makes you think that. That same war resulted in centuries of persecution of genetically engineered humans well into tng/ds9 era. – user16696 May 26 '15 at 17:24
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    @cde Well for one thing, we never see this answer's core premise ("there would never again be a human society that relied solely on electronic data storage for its survival") actually expressed. I don't recall any offline knowledge cache maintained by the Federation, or any protocols designed to prevent the collapse of its infrastructure. Starfleet seems quite content with ship's logs and personal logs being purely electronic, and all data transfer is electronic. There's simply no evidence for any mistrust of electronics in the Federation, certainly not on the level that this answer implies. – Nerrolken May 26 '15 at 17:31
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My first thought is that they wouldn't be able to write, because they would never need to in normal situations. Of course they would know the shapes of the letters, so they could write them down in an emergency, just like we can send SOS in an emergency, but they would be very slow and clumsy at it, just as we cannot send 40 words per minute in Morse code like a skilled telegrapher could 100 years ago. But another possiblity is that tablets and electronic paper might be so cheap by then, that it would be cheaper than real paper. For them, writing on real paper would be like writing on parchment (animal skins) would be for us. So they could still be writing with a stylus on electronic media, as is seen in the original series. There are many situations where you cannot speak out loud to a computer and you would want to input to the computer in a silent manner. The computers' handwriting recognition would be so good by that time that it could perfectly interpret your scribblings. In fact, they may develop a shorthand that would input information faster than traditional writing.

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I don't see your reasoning actually. Why would you stop teaching written language to children because most things don't use it?

I think the already stated answers suggesting that character do it because it's a quirky obsolete skill like archery or horse riding are focusing on the fact that writing is obsolete when it's not, it can't be. Road/Street signs, the writing on your consoles/monitors/books, name tags, ship hull markings are just a few things off the top of my head which would be hard to do without written language. As well as that you don't always have a console/computer on away missions and relying completely on battery power to convey/record information is just silly.

My answer is because it's just as useful in that universe as it is in ours. Simple. It would be hard to learn/teach reading without also learning/teaching writing.

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    This is what I think too. I don't see a reason why they should not be able to write by hand. I don't believe that hand writing will ever completely die out, because there will always be situations were it is just much less complicated to use a pen instead of some digital device. – luator May 28 '15 at 14:30
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    THANK YOU. I'm not sure why, but the suggestion that handwriting will one day be obsolete is incredibly frightening and demoralizing to me. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Sep 13 '15 at 4:35
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Even without Star Trek's penchant for showing characters partaking in ancient activities for recreation and leisure, they all regularly use a PADD to take down notes and send information to one another. It's not as if writing has become a completely lost art due to the advent of electronic PADDs.

While they usually use their fingers to manipulate PADDs, it's not difficult to imagine a stylus-type object used for writing out more elaborate or more specific messages for certain PADDs - it would be superfluous for Starfleet personnel, who are supposed to be using their gear for official business, but not for someone who just wants to draw or hand-write a note to someone.

That, and there's an Art Class on the Enterprise D, where we clearly see people sketching and painting on canvasses. So it's not as if there isn't a use for a paper medium at all anymore (or they just prefer the aesthetic of 'real' art, and the tactile feel of creating something with their hands).

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Several existing answers have already answered why people from the 24th Century would have learned hand writing.

However, in reference to the episode that brought you to this thought, there is a reason why Chakotay specifically would be familiar with hand writing.

Chakotay is of Native American descent, and although reluctant to learn at times, was still taught the Native American ways growing up. From the Memory Alpha Wiki on Chakotay:

Being of Native American descent, Chakotay's tribe – mainly because of the intrusion of more technological societies – left Earth to find their own home on another planet near the Cardassian border. From an early age, his father tried to impart his values on Chakotay in many ways, such as taking him on hikes to nearby forested worlds of their ancestors.

And more information about Chakotay's tribe and the planet he was raised on can be found on the Memory Alpha Wiki page on Dorvan V:

In 2350, a group of Native Americans from Earth settled on Dorvan V, having searched for a new home since 2170. The settlers were worried about losing their traditional culture on an increasingly culturally-homogeneous Earth, and this was the main reason for their quest. As a result, in the 24th century, the population still lived much like their ancestors did many centuries before.

No doubt Chakotay would have been exposed to and been taught handwriting in his "traditional" upbringing, more so than other humans would have.

  • Except that the written alphabet among American aboriginal peoples is traditional only to the Mayans as far as I know. The Sioux writing system, like many others, was developed by missionaries in the 19th century for Bible study. That's not to say that you're necessarily wrong - his upbringing was certainly different from that of his shipmates - but strict adherence to pre-European culture would involve neither reading nor writing. – Mikkel May 28 '15 at 5:46
  • @Mikkel The Cherokee writing system, while inspired by the writing system of Christian missionaries, was developed by the Cherokee themselves for their own use. See Cherokee syllabary: Early history. As I recall (no citation available at this time) it was also notable for being easy for the Cherokee to learn, assigning glyphs to syllables they were already using (rather than e.g. English where a single glyph or glyph set can map to multiple distinct sounds as mentioned in e.g. writers.stackexchange.com/a/17464/2533). – a CVn May 28 '15 at 12:03
  • @MichaelKjörling Fascinating; I wasn't aware of that! I had though Chakotay was Sioux, but on further investigation, they're vague on his background. So I guess fill in whatever makes sense for the plot. All American aboriginal peoples are the same anyway, right? </sarcasm> – Mikkel May 28 '15 at 14:53
  • @Mikkel Right, they are all the same. As I recall, that was very clearly established in Free Willy. (And I'm not proposing that Chakotay is Cherokee. The Cherokee written language is just one real-life example I happen to know about which runs contrary to your initial comment, so I figured I would bring it up as a counterexample.) – a CVn May 28 '15 at 16:38
  • @MichaelKjörling Of course, since the writing system was developed in the 19th century in response to European influence, the argument could be made that it's not "traditional". His people are established to be culturally reactionary, so they would presumably have reverted to a defined point in their history. I'm sure the written form of his language was part of his studies, but the method of teaching and emphasis or lack thereof on manual writing is not necessarily any different from that of his shipmates. – Mikkel May 28 '15 at 16:54
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First off, in all of the Star Trek shows and movies it seems that, even when technology is so advanced to allow interstellar travel and humans have close interaction with alien species, society as a whole is somehow stuck with values, views, behaviours, etc. almost identical to those of the western hemisphere of our time. Maybe that's why English is the universal language?

Handwriting could be learned in the Star Trek universe for the same reasons people learn Latin nowadays, to practice a skill long-lost, to read (or in this case write) material you couldn't otherwise, or they could just be nostalgic...

Who could've thought that by next year Finnish children won't have to learn cursive handwriting, but will learn typing instead?

  • It's my understanding that we don't know whether English is a Federation or even Terran universal language in Star Trek, since they're supposedly all wearing universal translators. The usage of English in the show might merely be a conceit for viewers. – jtheletter Jun 10 '17 at 23:14

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