Amazon is selling more digital books than hardcover books. This summer's announcement, 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 experience.
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.