Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Paper Keeps Going (2023-06-12)
While rummaging happily around in the archives of no tech magazine, happening onto this 2006 paper by William Powers, which I had to drag out of the internet archive: Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal. It is part of a series of discussion papers emanating from the Joan Shorenstein centre on the press at harvard. As is to be expected, it is an essay starting from the wails of established newspapers, whose owners were annoyed that they couldn't sell nothing for something online any more than they could do it on paper. This led Powers into a morass of nonsense about the supposed primarily nostalgia valuation of paper as a general medium, because he had to get through the attempt at advertising newspapers to catch this supposed nostalgia as a means to maintain and boost sales. Once he thrashed his way through all of that, he actually looked at the ways in which paper was brought to europe, and how its usage developed there, having run hurriedly away from the deeper traditions further east and north that most europeans who could started out by imitating. He does take note of how the lower cost of paper made it a more accessible medium and tool for the broader population, and even spends some time exploring the technology behind Hamlet's tablets, so that he can get back to the united states, which is what he is apparently most comfortable speaking about. This is something of a shame, because one of the best sections he wrote dealt with what today are the lesser known intellectual connections between many of the people who wrote for and even ran their own printing presses in the united states and their contemporaries in england and france – and that is only a start. My perspective is certainly reflective of my interest in history, but also of my wish to better understand the united states. Marketing hype hides more than it reveals, and makes bizarre implications like somehow only the united states had a vigorous newspaper reading culture and that only newspaper and magazine publishers care what happens to publishing on paper. Well, no. Understandably magazine and newspaper publishers are very interested in trying to maximize their profits from the ways they publish and distribute their wares, but that makes them a sideshow to the real questions about he future of paper. And actually, there were multiple vigorous cultures of newspaper reading which the united states' own regional cultures could and did overlap with. I did some minimal digging on the question, and there are definitely many promising research rabbit holes, among them many that get away from suggesting the united states has always been some sort of completely unified hayseed ignoring the rest of the world.
When it comes to digital publishing, Powers touches briefly on that vexing and uncomfortable question of dishonest changes after the fact. I don't feel too much sympathy with the people who like to make a fuss over Stalin's minions airbrushing out people he decided he didn't like, because they don't call out such yes dishonest behaviour wherever it occurs. It is hardly new either, we can find variants of it in the context of every form of publishing over time out there, including ancient inscriptions. That it is now far easier to carry out such dishonest changes on digital versions is a serious question that nobody has really grappled with, although at least the people at the internet archive have written on their blog about how they maintain paper copies in part to be able to check the digital against the much harder to change paper version. Unlike the digital one, they can account for access to each item if they need to, and of course, books can withstand the power going out and a surprising amount of sheer havoc and disaster. This is not something to be taken for granted, but it means a lot. Still, important as this topic is, I don't think it is really about paper so much as it is about specific obnoxious and dangerous habits that people who think they should be able to control what others thing and know, and how to effectively oppose them. (Hint: consistency does help. So do independent back ups!)
To me the real questions about paper are the ones Powers does finally make his way to, the way that each of us from day to day use paper, and not just paper with something already printed on it, but blank paper. It is not true that paper and writing were invented because "human memory is weak." Untrained and undisciplined human memory is certainly weak, and in fact we humans have a penchant for developing and applying ways of training and disciplining our memories to keep track of what we care about. At the moment this often not done formally, although if you have encountered a rabid baseball fan who can regale you for hours with the line ups of the team or teams they follow, you are likely sharing in the fruits of their independently reinvented method of locii based on positions on the field and dugout. The effectiveness of memory systems when consciously developed and maintained is quite extraordinary, and those looking for a not too technical introduction may try reading Lynne Kelly's books The Memory Code and the more recent Memory Craft. Paper can help with encoding and reinforcing already encoded information we may have in memory, and there is reasonable evidence for that in the past. Most of us of at least a certain age are familiar with how well paper can serve as a means to get ideas from their first glimmer to their ultimate expression as the most diverse things, from yes books and articles to clothes and buildings.
Paper is remarkably useful for lots of other tasks besides, as the paper bag maker whose image is featured above reminds us. But there is still more to paper as a tool and a medium. Its increased availability made it into something that anyone who could manage to get some and some sensible writing tools could use to record their own thoughts and ideas, whether or not they wanted to keep them forever. It remains true that using ordinary pen, pencil, or whatever and paper is something we can still do profoundly for ourselves, without some form of snooping or spying in our current period of obsessive spying by corporations and governments alike. There is a reason that even the cheapest notepaper and pencils have begun proliferating again, and a reason that people generally do not consider it a positive that so many children at the moment lack the dexterity and hand strength to use a pencil in the early grades. To be able to write and read on your own, without an electronic gadget intervening, is a genuine individual superpower that should not be surrendered without a fight, and children shouldn't be angled into surrendering it when they have no way to make a choice. Let alone the issue that so many children are not playing with toys where they may build hand-eye coordination and fine-scale hand dexterity in other ways.
The tougher question about paper it seems to me, is not whether it will continue to be used and useful into the future: clearly it will. The tougher question is whether the sociopathic subset of boosters who want to take away a key means of expressing independent thought and planning from what they can exploit and pretend to control will be allowed to remove access to it in future.