Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Paperless World?

Are we Pushing Paper Out the Door, as a recent New York Times article suggests? Hannah Fairfield explains how Chris Uhlik, engineering director at Google, is raising his young family in a 'practically paper-free' home. It seems that, although most offices are still a long way from being paperless, the Paperless Home is fast becoming the norm.

Fairfield quotes Brewster Kahle, the founder and director of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library: 'Paper is no longer the master copy; the digital version is.' In fact, Kahle believes that paper 'has been dealt a complete deathblow.'


As an environmentalist, I'm not disputing the fact that technology provides benefits to the environment in that it uses less paper (although as Fairfield points out, it uses heaps of energy), but the thought of a paperless world makes me sad. Is a paperless world inevitable? Are paper books destined to be archived, or displayed as rare items, in museums rather than libraries?

One book-seller suggests books are 'being edged and nudged out of a position of being noble, to the level of being basic rags i.e.; read and then discarded.' From riches to rags; such a sad state of affairs. However, he seems to endorse such a dorogatory view of books: 'The future is for digital readers that are convenient enough and light enough, that it would be silly to actually have a paper book anymore. Of course the paper lovers will flourish like the record lovers do, and books on paper will become a collectable relic of the past.' (Silly? Collectable relics of the past? Surely not?)

But even Brad Templeton prefers reading a paper book. Founder of an internet newspaper and a software company, and the chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Templeton says he is a 'digital pack rat' and has bills from 1983, all efficiently scanned into his computer. He typically reads e-books when he is delayed somewhere, but says it's 'not as pleasant as reading a paper book.' The Seattle Post's columinist Bill Virgin agrees. In his article about the paper industry, he claims paper books are 'comforting' and 'more fixed in the mind.'

At 43Folders, wood.tang, Merlin and Joe have all written on the subject of a paperless world. Sadly, for some reason, I can't access Merlin's 'Making Friends With Paper' (it wouldn't be a problem, of course, if I had printed it out onto paper) but in 'NYT in a Paperless World' wood.tang quotes Merlin: 'When we rely on a paper document as the final, unique destination for information, we create physical and cognitive limitations that seem crazy once you’ve spent a chunk of your life living on Google. No one disputes that.'

Although wood.tang and Merlin can see value in paper as a temporary resource, they believe it has limited usefulness: 'The value that all of us have found in paper isn’t as the permanent storage medium to which the Times is delivering last rites; rather, it’s in that Platonic scratchpad we all need sometimes to shake out a good idea. As Merlin said, “As an intermediary medium between thinking and a final draft, I still just love what you can do with a stack of index cards and a little spare time.” Even when used as part of a trusted system, paper works best when its data storage duties have a limited life span.'

The quest for a paperless world is supported by Ajeet Khurana, in Dwelling in a Paperless World: 'The paperless world is coming.' However the evidence for this is limited within the article to the use of e-statements: 'The evidence is easily visible in the way in which offices are quickly becoming paperless. Bank statements, for instance, are available over the Internet. E-statements are the order of the day. [...] Where does that leave us? The answer is: With fewer and fewer heaps of paper. Even though there may not be a conscious effort to become paperless, people are opting for a paper-free world. After all, the world of today relies on speed. Paper tends to make life slower, and we do not have the time for sloth. Everything must be completed with great rapidity. Deadlines must be met yesterday. In such a world, paper has no chance against the power of the Internet. In its attempt to rule sovereign over the whole world, the Internet is making its presence felt in all aspects of modern life.'
Certainly, I would agree that there are immense benefits to e-banking, and to storing old documents or photographs for example, on a computer. But while technology may be suited to admin and record-keeping, I would disagree that it can replace paper in the world of creativity, that 'Platonic scratchpad we all need sometimes.'
Joe, from 43Folders, highlights another concern about a paperless world. He fears not being able to access documents because he has been unable to upgrade the necessary software: 'I’m still paying for upgrades for certain software titles mostly because I want access to my files should I desire to, not because I’m still actively using the software. What happens when you keep current on your OS upgrades, only to discover one day that it no longer runs those older versions of apps that you decided not to upgrade? I start to twitch when I consider all of the time I spend creating and grooming all of those digital files and how I’ll feel if someday I wish I had made paper copies of them all.' There are many dangers associated with a paperless world: 'The certainties of a paper-based world are now a thing of the past.'

Thankfully, reassuringly, there are many who disagree that a Paperless World is inevitable. Bill Virgin insists that Paper is Still King: 'The prospects of a paperless society have about as much chance of being realized, at least in our lifetimes, as the wheelless society.' The myth of the paperless world has been debunked by researchers at the University of Surrey: 'Physical properties of letters play a key part in communication.' Letters are moved around the home and shared, while emails are limited in place and are private. Emails at work are restricted to casual communications, letters are always used in more serious matters.

Letters and emails are a good example of how technology has led us towards a paperless society. While I agree there is a place for email communications, and there's no denying that the speed of an email delivery is often very helpful, I think it's a shame that the art of letter-writing is disappearing. A beautiful art, beautifully described by Lou Marinoff in The Big Questions:

'Imagine what it used to be like, say in the nineteenth century, to engage in a correspondence between New York and London. First, you would sit at an exquisite hand-crafted writing desk, with beautiful hand-made paper and matching envelopes, your favourite hues in ink, your crystal or cut-glass inkwell, your treasured collection of nib pens, and perhaps your personal seal and sealing wax. You'd collect yourself, write a thoughtful letter in a practiced hand, sign it, and seal it. Your letter would sail to London on a ship, when it arrived it would be the subject of much excitement and speculation, even before it was opened. Then it would be carefully opened with a letter opener, minutely read and reread, and perhaps mulled over for several days before a reply was similarly fashioned. Months might elapse between the time you sent your letter and a reply finally arrived. Yet no one but would be fretting or fuming in the interim. There was plenty of time to breathe (and good air to breathe), and many other tasks to accomplish, at a similar methodical pace. Correspondence of this kind was an art, at its best a fine art, and was enabled by the works of a great many artisans. The average correspondents not only had better reading and writing skills than most university graduates of today, but also manifested important virtues like patience.' (page 237)

Marinoff believes the technological age has increased our expectations of immediacy, leading to chronic, pervasive stress:

'More and more people in the developed world are suffering from machine-induced dis-eases like road rage, as well as macine-induced diseases like carpal tunnel syndrome. Burnout is rampant, as people find it increasingly difficult to juggle multiple identities, responsibilities and interests. Chronic fatigue syndrome abounds. All kinds of anxieties and undiagnosed ailments emerge, and on one eally knows what causes them. It seems to me that many of these general malaises and specific problems are a result of the mechanization of humanity and the dehumanization it entails.' (page 234-5)

Making marks has been a sign of humanity since humanity began. From the first marks, perhaps a simple cut in the bark of a tree to remember a certain route travelled, or a drawing in the earth with a stick to communicate strategy while hunting, through the painting of caves, scratches on papyrus parchment, loose leaves and folios, the printing press and the personal computer, humans have discovered new ways to make their marks, to communicate their perspective, to record their existence. Perhaps the tehcnological, paperless world is simply the next step in the evolution of written expression?

I expect that most of us living in the Western world now use a combination of paper and technology to write, in a variety of combinations. We make choices every day about where and how we write, what information we store, when and how we share it with others.

Is writing a journal more pleasurable than publishing a post on a weblog? While writing a journal is a very private thing, I find it much scarier than blogging. It seems more permanent, somehow. I can edit in blogger; anything I write can be edited to (hopefully) make it something that makes sense and reads well. I tend to ramble, to go off on tangents and to repeat myself. I'm always unhappy with my journal writing. I really enjoy the community aspect of blogging, the sharing and supporting, the sense of real communication. But I love the fact that a journal is such a beautifully tactile and sensual thing. Writing a blog is making a mark to share with others, about the communication rather than the writing itself. Writing in a journal is more about the act of making a mark. The art of expression, but the art itself. The expression itself, not necessarily (not usually?) expression to an audience.

Are paper books or e-books better? I have enjoyed reading a few e-books recently, and have found it helpful to have them on my laptop as useful resources I can refer to quickly. But they were relatively short, certainly succinct, non-fiction books. I really couldn't imagine reading a novel as an e-book. I could never consider an ebook comforting, or snuggly, and falling asleep on a laptop is very uncomfortable. Plus I enjoy making notes in the margins, favourite pages folded over, or marked by 'love notes' from my gorgeous girls.
I much prefer thumbing my way through a dictionary, especially the huge volumes with barely-there, gossamer pages. But it's not simply the feel of a paper book in my hands that I find so pleasurable, it's the whole sensual experience. The smell of paper (old or new), the way a book looks, the sound of a page turning, or a book shutting. And books are more than simply something to read. They are ornaments, treasures, statements, mementos, and keepers of our heritage.

I will concede that, while probably inferior in every other way, e-books do have the advantages of speed and space. I understand that libraries becoming more digital is a postive move, that Open Access will benefit everyone, but I worry that one day libraries will simply be online information depositories. Where will anyone be able to experience the thrill of walking into a library, whether to encounter the stillness and hush of an academic library, or the vibrant atmosphere of a community library? What about all those towering shelves of books, a tumble of colour and shape, an awesome array of titles and subjects, the smell of books, the worn covers handled by so many different people ... am I the only person who find libraries exciting?

Am I the only person who sees research as an adventure? I can't deny the huge benefits of immediate access to so much material available online. But doesn't it mean more, isn't it a more enjoyable experience, to indulge in the whole experience of visiting archives in person?

And what about bookshops? Can clicking on a small picture ever really compare to handling books; turning them over in our hands, discovering how they feel, their weight and balance, flipping pages and dipping into them, before we finally choose one to buy? Can browsing online ever be such an all-encompassing pleasure as browsing in a favourite bookshop?

Online newpapers and magazines are a useful resource, and I often visit them. But I couldn't replace my Saturday morning session with the Guardian spread around me and a pair of scissors in my hand.

Not forgetting the paper used for writing rather than reading. Is writing by hand or typing onto a computer more creative or productive? Writing on the computer has the advantage of being easier to edit, and is probably quicker. Or at least more legible. But I have to print drafts off at regular intervals, then make any decisions about editing with a pencil onto the paper, before returning to the computer to physically make the changes. I need the whole document, or at least a large portion of it, visible in front of me.
I'm sure technology will never provide such beautiful writing spaces as Lane's notebooks. What about scribblings and doodlings? And isn't a gorgeous diary more of an incentive to be organised than a computer keyboard? Would I get the same sense of belonging, reading my grandmother's journal online, as I would curled up in a favourite place with her hand-written messages? Will paperless documents ever become ancient, treasured texts, like those we cherish now?
I realise this is a very long post (even after editing!) If any of you are still reading, I'd love to hear what you think!
The Big Questions by Lou Marinoff (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003)



Annieye said...

There's nothing like a blank sheet of paper to write on and nothing like a brand new book to open.

I don't think you'll ever replace that. On the other hand, whatever did we do before mobile phones and e-mails?

HelenMH said...

Some things need to be on paper - they just do!

aliqot said...

I much prefer writing on computer, even for journal and notes. However, I prefer reading on paper, especialy if the text is long - I can't imagine reading a book, or even a long chapter, on screen.

There is a lot to be siad for having something in someone's hand-writing, but even then - as some one said ;-) 'Things are only things'. Even books and letters.

aliqot said...

memo to self : Proofread before posting! Grr...even on screen...

Gonna be a writer said...

I agree with everything that's already been said.
There's just something about the way that words form across a blank sheet of paper. Plus there are always fewer mistakes when I am writing with a pen than when I'm using a keyboard.
Some things just do - it's like sometimes you really need to take a carrier bag.
I hate reading long pieces of prose on a computer screen - my eyes go funny.

Moondreamer said...

Annieye, yes it's strange to think how far we have come technology-wise, how quickly we have come to take things for granted.

I'd be lost without my laptop and mobile phone!


I agree Helen! They really do, and I hope they always will!


Aliqot, yes, I need reminding sometimes! ;o)

Hand-writing is such an interesting subject in itself, I find it fascinating that so much can be given away by a person's hand-writing.

And thank you for the perfectly-timed and very appropriate example of the problem with posting comments! ;o)


Gonna Be, I think I've spent too long reading things on the computer today ... I read that as "my eyes go runny!"

I can write all day on the computer, but reading has to be in small chunks or it stops making sense.