Amazon is selling more digital books than hardcover books. This
makes one wonder if this is the beginning of the end of paper. While the sales of newspapers plummet and news
magazines get thinner by the day, the eulogies for paper might still be
premature. I came across an interesting paper published by Harvard called “Hamlet’s
Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal” which offers an insight into why paper
won’t disappear overnight. The author, William Powers successfully argues that
paper has several distinct advantages over digital representation–as follows:
• Tangibility: You can touch
the document and see how long it, you can flip through it.
• Spatial flexibility: You can
spread documents out on a table and work with them.
• Tailorability: You can underline
and annotate easily.
• Manipulability: You can
move paper around, putting one page aside to concentrate on another.
While all these properties may not be important for reading
a novel, they are important for many other instances, such as working on
a project, or writing a business paper that incorporates information from text documents
and spreadsheets. In such cases, where
deep thought is required or where it is necessary to reference several
different sources, it is still easier to pick up pieces of paper than it is to
toggle between windows on a screen. Nicholas Carr addresses the impact that such “context switches” have on our ability to focus on tasks that require deep
thought in his recent book, The
Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr concludes that reading
documents with hyperlinks interfere with our ability to think deeply, whether
we click on the links or not.
Is this a generational thing? Is the ‘paper generation’ just
finding it hard to adapt to a new medium? I don’t think so. Both Powers and
Carr seem to say the differences between digital and paper media are more
fundamental than our reluctance to adopt a new technology. The cognitive
processes required for deep thinking are
inherently incompatible with the frequent context switches built-in to the digital
So what does that mean for the future of paper? For many
uses, paper will remain in place for a long time. Case in point, the amount of paper used in offices
is still increasing. At the same time, we will see some interesting experiments
around creating a new digital experience. One exciting project is “The Dark Series,” which combines thriller novels
with a series of digital experiences when viewed in ebook format.
No doubt about it, digital medium possesses some enormous advantages
over paper–it is always “up to date,” it is searchable, its cost of
distribution is basically zero, and it weighs nothing, so you can tote an
limitless amount of information around in your pocket. On the other hand, there
are some things that the current implementations of digital text don’t do well.
Like all new technologies, it will take time to figure out how to best take
advantage of the digital medium’s potential. Until then, don’t throw out your printer.