A paper vs. digital rant

Or, why I love (love!) paper

(Book Autopsies series, Brian Dettmer)

I write a blog.  A blog is short for “web log” and represents a unique forum in communication on the web’s agora.  I do not pay to maintain my blog and you do not pay to read it, but this free-of-cost illusion does not come cheaply.  The energy cost is not free.  The cost to the environment is not green.  And, the publication of the blog is not lasting.  It is convenient and contributes to a much higher output, but it is transient and only accessible via technology.

This post is a bit of rant, really, about the impermanence of our information, today, and it considers the paperless myth and the hidden costs to our society.  As a historian, my work depends on archives and libraries; as a teacher, adopting the Iroquois proverb about taking care unto the seventh generation, I want to see that future historians are able to continue to delve into the past, our past.  Speaking of the seventh generation, it really is a myth that the paper industry will destroy the planet’s green by wiping forests from the face of the earth–quite the opposite, in fact.  And, finally, shunning paper creates a real problem and inequity in our society–even cheap technology costs more to purchase and operate than paper!  Furthermore, our youth and society at large lose something when they do not slow down long enough to take the time to read and write with paper.  It effects our brain and our thinking.

Let me say that I am not a Luddite!  I love technology!!  I just don’t want it to replace my hands and my brain completely.  After all, I do write a blog and very much enjoy the blogs of others!  It is the best way for me to get headline news and stay up to date with many of my hobbies, such as sports, but I’d rather sit down and read a newspaper at the coffee shop to get the depth in coverage.  But, even as I revel in technology’s accessibility, I print out most things I am going to read that are longer than a few paragraphs.

Historians and paper.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

Historians need sources!  As a result, they need their paper!  You may well argue that just as methods for producing data evolve, so, too, will the methods of research with digital material.  Certainly, future historians will no doubt include technicians who can perform autopsies on obsolete 3×5 floppies, but nevertheless much will be lost before they have the opportunity.  How many people have sought to take their old Word Perfect files off their IBM 360?  If the files were not printed, they were probably not saved.

As the Paper Because campaign points out, paper just lasts longer!  The Gutenberg Bible still exists today!  Any document that was written out by hand on paper or a paper-like substance, such as velum or papyrus has a shot, because it could be saved.  How else we do we have the writings of Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, Japanese, etc.?

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

Our personal histories are being lost with each successive computer crash–we do not even print out our photographs anymore!  I was first acquainted with this concept when I met a grad student my freshman year of college in the library studies program who, in working with the university archive, remarked that such archives across the country were finding it increasingly difficult to keep records on college life because e-mail had already begun to replace letters.  This was in the fall of 1999.  I no longer have access to my college e-mails or instant messages.  The e-mails were lost  due to a fatal computer hacking of the college’s computer systems.  The only ones I have,  I printed and stored with my letters from my childhood.  This is everyone’s story.  Think of school assignments that are entirely lost (sometimes before they’ve been handed in) because of a computer glitch or crash.  Some of these not only reflect the student’s hard work, they include personal creations that can’t be recovered.  I won’t speak for others, but in my family we kept stories and projects because they were on paper and were stored in our file or brag book.

Humans will produce an exponentially greater amount of data than ever before (think of all those Tweets and text messages), but will save a negligent amount of it in the upcoming years.  It will distort our memory and legacy.

Print is Green.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

You are forgiven for thinking that avoiding paper-use saves trees–it is a very popular theory–but, you are wrong.  It is, in fact, quite the opposite.   The paper industry insures the health of forests.  Without the demand for paper, which is the least wasteful product produced from trees, forest land would be sold off to developers, leveled and become a construction site, confining forest land to preserves.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

As an industry and as a final product, paper also conserves energy.  Reading a book, writing a letter, painting a picture or developing a photograph (on paper) costs little or no energy once the bookstationary, and paper has been manufactured.  Furthermore, these industries are leaders in energy-efficiency and recycling.  So, be green!!  Do something good for the earth!  Use paper products!!  (Below, are sites devoted to this concept with cited information.  In fairness, many of them come from the paper industry, but their arguments and sources make for a compelling argument.)

The costs of abandoning paper.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

There are two main costs I want to consider: 1) the resulting divide between those who can afford technology and those who cannot; and, 2) the stunting affect excessive technology can have on brain development.  Both of these concepts represent a real loss to society in slightly different ways.

By reducing paper–particularly in the case of the government and its sundry departments–we reduce access for the portion of our population that cannot afford smart phones or computers, nor have access to such technology at school or work.  While libraries offer a slight reprieve, they are not equipped or funded to cover the entire demographic.  The internet is a great resource in democratic society, but when the IRS decides that its tax forms are no longer available at the post office, and that one must go online to get said forms, the internet becomes an unintended class weapon.  The paperless revolution takes on a eugenic-like quality where the poor are once again sacrificed in the name of progress in general and green progress in particular regardless of whether it is intended or accidental.

(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

But, there is more lost.  There is a diminishing return in the development of the young brains.  Sure, we do not experience the same astonishing development that Lynne Truss reported took place in New Zealand.  There, students were permitted to hand in class work and tests in what I like to call text-speak (Eats, Shoots and Leaves).  But, nonetheless, there is evidence to show that students’ brains learn something special when they are forced to do slow reading as opposed to exclusively internet-scanning.  And, again, brains develop more completely when forced to write by hand as opposed to typing everything.  We still, rightly, refer to written works created by the act of writing, whereas we never refer to typed materials or typing–just typos!   (Having said that, my sixth-grader spends useless computer lab hours toodling around on the internet and has yet to rise above chicken-pecking her assignments on the computer!  Surely, if they are going to be on the computers in school anyway, and are assigned large projects that must be typed at least several times a year, then they can take the time to teach them typing!!)

Handwriting has been linked time and again to cognitive development.  This thinking ability, the capability to make connections and to problem-solve, is something I have to guide my students through each semester in community college history classes.  It is frustrating to know that the seventh graders I taught at the all-boys private school were more literate and capable of cognitive thinking then the majority of my students at the college level.  Key practices and training are being missed at earlier levels, stunting development.

Today, students cannot typically process lengthy textual information–even at the collegiate level where they must.  By lengthy, I do not refer in my [collegiate teaching] experience to books or textbook chapters, but long articles.  They seem to struggle to focus on anything even that long.  This is in part symptomatic of little practice, and is exacerbated by confining themselves to reading texts, Tweets and internet pages and posts.

Not only does this inhibit youth development, it retards and diminishes adult brains as well.



(Book Autopsies series, by Brian Dettmer)

So, hail paper!  Hail books!  Hail slow reading!  Hail paper tax forms and ballots!  Hail writing with a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil!  Hail photographs printed and framed!  Hail watercolor paintings!  Hail the glorious tactile sensation of fondling a book you are about to savor!  Hail postcards!  Hail archives and primary sources!  Hail newspapers with articles longer than two paragraphs!  Hail printed journals!  Hail diaries!  Hail printed sheets of music and a group of people making music together!  Hail printers and book binders!  Hail memory and legacy!  Hail recycling and forests!  Hail the unhackable!  Hail note-taking!  Hail research papers, theses and dissertations printed and bound!  Hail paper!!

Recommend reading on this subject:

(Feel free to print stuff out and read it at your leisure!!)

Preserving history

This is not a new area of concern for libraries and archives.  In 2006, in an article, “Fragile digital data in danger of fading past history’s reach” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 7) reported on the problems encountered by the Library of Congress and the National Archive Records and Administration.  Contact the archive at your alma mater or make inquiries at any collection that maintains primary sources and get the scoop!  Librarians are not shy–they’ll tell you!

Keeping green

Start with these sites:

Paper Becausehttp://www.paperbecause.com/

Print Grows Trees: http://printgrowstrees.com/

Choose Printhttp://www.chooseprint.org/

Learning better

On slow reading I recommend, “The art of slow reading” and “Slow Reading: An antidote for a fast world?”.

On the link between handwriting and cognitive development I recommend, “How writing by hand makes kids smarter”, “How handwriting trains the brain” and “Writing by hand helps the brain”.



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

9 responses to “A paper vs. digital rant

  1. olivia

    Right on! This craz for computer books is destroying an art form that deprives us of the beauty of books as well as the information. We learn in so many ways, with our eyes and our hands and other senses that can be brought together when we hold a book or a printed piece in our hands. The feel of the paper, the smell of an old book, the look of the gilt edges or letters, all plant the book and it’s contents more completely in the brain of the reader. A total mind-body experience not to be missed by future generations!

  2. Will

    I think much of the “dead tree medium” slander is a product of our age, and is being pushed by people out to make a buck. It’s obvious why Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs want us to believe that not only will we be reading and writing everything digitally shortly, but that you’re a bit of a Luddite if you disagree (or even if you merely don’t like that concept). And, of course, it’s always fun to be ahead of the curve and have things that others don’t, so we get lots of cool people asserting very loudly that anyone that doesn’t have or want an iPad or a Kindle or whatever is going to be left behind.

    But paper will always be with us, for the many reasons you outline. The august old book has been doing its work for at least 1,500 years. Track records like that don’t come into being by accident. Last time I checked longships, or even clippers, weren’t bringing tradegoods into port anymore, and we’re not communicating cross-country by the telegraph.

    If you believe the book is on its way out, you have to believe that digital media can entirely replace an object so elegantly and efficiently suited to its task that we simply haven’t bettered it.

    I’m sure Steve Jobs would say that I sound like the President of the Buggy Whips of America trade association, but… Oh well.

  3. Pingback: My Favorite Posts that don’t make the Top Ten | Brush off the dust! History now!

  4. I still prefer to have papers spread around me so I can see multiple things at once if I have to, instead of switching from tab to tab, or window to window. Besides…I can jot things down with paper and pen faster than I can type it using my iPod Touch.

    • I agree! There is something sensual about writing by hand that typing and touch screens fail to duplicate. I am a similarly visual person who also prefers the papers and the books at hand, rather than “at tab” when I am working on anything meaningful. I still edit by printing out what I type, scrawling all over it and I brainstorm much better on paper.

      • Oh totally! Brainstorming and editing are so much better/easier on paper. And you can do so much more with your hands and paper then you can on a computer….at least that’s the case for me. I recently bought a map of Belgium because I wanted to be able to see the entire country at once and to be able to mark where I’ve been so I can just visualize it. You can’t do that easily online (or rather, I can’t). Sure, if ever I was going to write a novel (not likely) I’d type it out because I can type at a computer faster than I can write, but for short notes, paper beats my iPod.

        Also, so that I don’t completely lose the skill of cursive writing, I am writing back and forth with a friend and I always use cursive. I even bought nice cream coloured paper and a couple of awesome black pens special for this.

      • I’m working on a book, actually, and whenever I am not typing I try to use my cursive so as not lose it either!

  5. I feel like a complete traitor because I love both. I have countless journals because not only do I love seeing my thoughts o. Paper that I can keep for my lifetime and beyond but also because I love the art of paper. I love printed books and will buy more than one of the same book if something is phenomenally different about one edition to another. I prefer reading print formats because it just feels like comfort food to me.

    On that same note I am a gadget freak so ihave the iPad, iPhone, and fancy hp laptop which I have dreams of upgrading to Mac. Why? Convenienceeneb though olive I. Perpetual fear of viruses and their cronies. I dread thinking about what I would lose if they were to crash and that’s why went on to get external backup. Without digital media I would not have the kind of exposure I now have with the world being so small.
    But one thing that this article has make me realize is that I do need to pay more attention to letters, photos and such momentos. There really is no substitute for hard print and I’m so glad books shops have become an integral spry of my kids activities.
    Apologies for the errors, my trusted iPad swon’t let me edit from a twitter link. 

    • Well, yes and I love my Android phone, Twitter, Facebook, etc. But, I don’t see me forgoing my library or pads of paper anytime soon. It is mind-boggling, though, to conceive what the future might look like if books and paper really do get supplanted. What happens to those large libraries? Do we replace book shelves with data storage? I hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, though I don’t know if my kid will care at all about such things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s