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Making friends with paper (again)

Information R/evolution

I really enjoyed this video presentation by Michael Wesch on how we make, find, and share information in a world where we've shed the idea of paper as our sole medium for storage and communication -- where ideas can munge and mix freely, thanks to digital collaboration.


Now, of course, as a fan of paper for certain kinds of work, I always feel like jumping in at this point to defend our pulpy little friend from what sometimes turns into a blanket party.

See, the key is to use paper for what it's great at and to avoid relying on it for what it famously sucks at -- the second part of which I think this video does handsomely.

Still, for thinking, capture, and live collaboration, paper is one of the best friends you'll ever have. And as long as we use it properly, it's going to continue to enhance the creation of all downstream media. Even the shiny, embeddable, Web 2.0 kind.

Danny and I did a column about this topic for MAKE a while back, and I still feel like it's a point worth underscoring (again).

Friends, we’re here today to unveil the august secret that we hope will save potentially dozens of Important Technology Writers from needing to produce another wide-eyed report on how very odd it is that all these geeks seem to love paper so much. The trick is that there is no paradox, no more so than suggesting that people who buy screwdrivers must necessarily hate drills.

Geeks rely on paper for the same reason that the normals do: paper — along with conceptual cousins like whiteboards and magnets — is simply the most efficient tool for completing certain kinds of cognitive work. And no amount of enhanced technology will likely diminish this anytime soon.

And, I have to say, I still love that line I'd quoted from Malcolm Gladwell's The Social Life of Paper. Wraps the central point up with a bow:

It is only if paper's usefulness is in the information written directly on it that it must be stored. If its usefulness lies in the promotion of ongoing creative thinking, then, once that thinking is finished, the paper becomes superfluous. The solution to our paper problem, they write, is not to use less paper but to keep less paper. Why bother filing at all?

And ain't that really the heart of the matter?

When we rely on a paper document as the final, unique destination for information, we create physical and cognitive limitations that seem crazy once you've spent a chunk of your life living on Google. No one disputes that.

But as an intermediary medium between thinking and a final draft, I still just love what you can do with a stack of index cards and a little spare time.

No content types. No taxonomy. No typefaces. Just you and your ideas -- in a bunch of little piles that make sense to you.

Final funny thing: As the putative "inventor" of The Hipster PDA, I still get the odd phone call from some doofus journalist who wants to write yet another penetrating piece on how people decide between paper and digital as The Way to run their world.

And somehow a special irony is almost always lost on these folks. Who use a mobile phone to call me. To ask about paper fandom. Who record our conversation to a digital device. While taking notes on a sheet of paper. Who then type the draft into a PC. And then proof a paper print-out before deadline. Who then submit their completed story to a multi-bajillion-dollar networked CMS. And who then finally get to read their clever work the next day at Starbucks -- thanks to the papery dead-tree edition that has filled newspaper boxes throughout their city.

I'd call that a blended approach to media that -- while showing much potential for streamlining and improvement -- perfectly illustrates how paper spackles the cracks between cognition and creation and dissemination.

Paper's not perfect, but it's perfect for what it does.

[video link via Boing Boing]

Metatone's picture

I have to recommend...

"The Myth of the Paperless Office" by Sellen and Harper to just about everyone involved in self-organisation and I'd recommend it to every sodding "productivity" software and hardware developer too. It's not that I believe paper is irreplaceable, but once you see things through the lens of the book's concept of "affordances" you see just how limited our technology still is in various ways.

Merlin is absolutely right that it's all about blending, but I have to say that I'm not completely convinced about the storage argument. Hard drives just aren't archival and backups aren't that convenient. And once you go to burning things to CD you're back in the realm of the library catalogue...

And "read only" isn't always as easy to implement as it should be. I do lose bits of paper and things mailed to me, occasionally. But it's a lot more frequent that I accidentally delete an email that I had intended to keep.

Oh, and while I'm ranting... Google is nice, but it's amazing how much easier it can be to work with a set of information that has search and categories and a hierarchy to help you navigate with. Tags are categories without the hierarchy, which is nice, but tends to be dependent on volume usage to make them work. That's why flickr and delicious (for example) are so popular, when you have to tag your own stuff you'll find the less easily tagged stuff just doesn't accumulate categories beyond the immediate "aide memoire" ones.




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