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December 05, 2007

In Praise of Paper

I don't quite remember if I ever recommended William Powers' discussion paper Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal. If I didn't, I am now. It's an interesting, thoughtful meditation on what actually sets paper apart as a medium, what it's unique virtues are, and which elements are likely to survive as we move forward. I don't agree with all of it but it's much more interesting than the normal nostalgia/tech triumphalism that tends to infect these debates.

December 5, 2007 | Permalink


thank you, ezra, for inviting us to think about this.
in celebration of paper

paper is also a tactile experience, and also loves saturation of color with its own unique retention.
how could odilon redon have created his phosphorescent pastels without paper, or zen masters their spare chrysanthemums?
paper is initself an artform.
there is something inimitable in the glide of a sable brush on paper, the first word struck on a blank, white world like a footstep in snow, or the turning of a page to invite whatever comes next.

there is also nothing akin to the scribble of a random thought, discovered years later, on a paper that appears from nowhere.
a newspaper clipping turned like an autumn leaf in an old family scrapbook, rediscovered...
an ancient magazine snippet from thirty years ago, on how to prepare an apple pie in the leaves of a recipe book
or a pristine watercolor tablet, and the first brushtroke of watercolor, magically reinventing the world.

paper is akin to leaves on a tree and hallowed animal skins. a connection with nature that we transform.

Posted by: jacqueline | Dec 5, 2007 9:12:05 AM

Seventy five pages (including footnotes) on the romance of paper... that I read as a pdf. I dunno... I'm thinking technology is still winning...

Posted by: weboy | Dec 5, 2007 9:42:22 AM

Limitless paper in a paperless world.

Posted by: spike | Dec 5, 2007 10:22:21 AM

Argharghargh. Maybe I'm in an impatient mood this morning or maybe reading and writing for newspapers and on blogs has spoiled me for academic papers, but damn, that sure was painfully longwinded and rambling.

But I agree, it makes some good points. A lot of space is devoted to talking about the physical experience of reading, which isn't exactly nostalgia but seems pretty similar. But the most important part, at least to me, seemed to begin on page 33.

In a digital world, paper actually has quite a few limitations: (1) It takes up physical space; (2) It can only be in one place at a time (virtual media can be accessed from anywhere); (3) It is difficult to alter or edit; (4) It does not play moving images or sound; and (5) It cannot network or connect to other media. The mystery is why a medium with so many disadvantages is still all around us.

The important thing is that those limitations are virtues in some contexts. (1) is true but a little misleading; you could store the content of a hundred books or newspapers or magazines on a laptop, but if you just need one book at a time, and you want to not just move it around but also read or use it, it takes up a lot less space than a laptop or most other digital media. (3) is a disadvantage with a paper or article you're writing, but it's a great advantage with anything that you want or need a reliable record of like legal documents or anything meant to last long enough that its storage technology might become obsolete. The article says that flash drives might go the way of floppy disks; that seems unlikely in the near future now that USB ports have become, er, universal, but you never know. And (4), as the article says later, is very bad for information transfer but very good for information absorption. If I want to know what was said in an interview, the video or audio will be available before the transcript, but if I want to pause and think every so often or review one part in light of something later, it's much easier to do that in written text than in audio or video.

Or, an even pithier summary of those 75 pages: use digital media for (a) something you want to spend more than, say, half an hour at a time with, and (b) for information you want to keep for more than a week but not necessarily longer than five years. For everything else, use paper.

And yet, I have to wonder how much of this is inherent in people and how much of this is learned. It reminds me of how the QWERTY keyboard was originally designed to actually slow typing down so manual typewriters wouldn't get jammed, and by the time a more effective design was invented, people were so familiar with QWERTY that they could do it faster than the "better" system. That is, inertia is a powerful force. The article asserts that people absorb knowledge and give it context better on paper, but how much of that is because writing you can interact with manually fits into some neurological process better and how much of it is just because writing you can interact with is what we're familiar with?

Posted by: Cyrus | Dec 5, 2007 11:01:09 AM


i think all of the things you wrote were very interesting. especially the last lines.
maybe the last generation to grow up learning to think and write entirely with pen and paper is somehow "wired" differently.
i think that writing with a pen on paper, you may see thoughts in images, in a different way, than in the lightning speed of a computer, where sentences and thoughts are quick and lean.

it would be interesting to understand the different neurological and motor process that happen with commiting something to paper, as opposed to tapping it out on the computer.
the brevity with which it can happen on the computer feels so different.
...i think of working on paper as a kind of artform in itself. a person's handwriting is revealing. what happens in the margins of paper...but all of that takes time. which either detracts from the thought process or contributes to it.
there still seems to be nothing quite like running your hand over a piece of vellum paper with nothing on it.
it does remind me of a field of snow without a footprint!

Posted by: jacqueline | Dec 5, 2007 11:46:02 AM

Meh. I stopped reading once the piece conceded that digital is better for storage. That isn't so. The National Archives still (AFAIK) refuses to take digital archives because of format creep. There is a lot of unreadable stuff in digital form these days.

If William Powers doesn't do his homework, why should I bother reading 75 pages?

Posted by: Joe S. | Dec 5, 2007 1:38:22 PM

I don't understand why no one -- whether the Library of Congress, some other government agency, a private business, a non-profit, whatever -- is engaged in a systematic program to insure the accessibility of material in older formats, and, I guess (no techie here) the ability to translate them into contemporary formats. It seems to me that an effort of this kind should be a routine part of the whole world of information technology and management.

Posted by: Martin | Dec 5, 2007 2:58:54 PM

Meh. I stopped reading once the piece conceded that digital is better for storage. That isn't so.

Well, yes and no. Paper is better for storing stuff long-term, and for storing stuff that needs to be authenticated. But the amount of information that can be stored digitally in a very small physical space is better for some purposes.

maybe the last generation to grow up learning to think and write entirely with pen and paper is somehow "wired" differently.

Well, sure, but when will that last generation come? I don't have any kids of my own so I'm not up-to-date on the latest toys, but I'm pretty sure the three-year-olds and five-year-olds in my extended family still draw with crayons and read picture books. Less than I did, maybe, but still probably enough to shape how they think. Maybe the paperless mind is something we can't get to from here.

Posted by: Cyrus | Dec 6, 2007 8:47:34 AM


what i meant was that when i grew up, there were no computers in homes, and typewriters were not commonly used until one was older.
so any writing or artwork done by a young person, was done with one's hand to the paper. the experiences are not the same for young people now.
i just was wondering about the effects and differences.

Posted by: jacqueline | Dec 6, 2007 8:36:21 PM

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