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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

NYT on a Paperless World

Pushing Paper Out the Door - New York Times

Is it just me, or is the Times tossing softballs for organizational nerds on purpose? Today's story on the ways people are purging paper from their lives gives lots of ink (digital, of course) to our friend, the Fujitsu ScanSnap, and comes with the kind of grand statements that no trend piece should be without:

[M]any families may be closer to entering a paperless world than they realize. Paper-reducing technologies have crept into homes and offices, perhaps more for efficiency than for environmentalism; few people will dispute the convenience of online bill-paying and airline e-tickets.

Not that I disagree. I like the way Brewster Kahle, who knows a thing or two about digital archiving, puts it: "Paper is no longer the master copy; the digital version is." That isn't too far removed from what Merlin wrote back in October:

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.

Those statements by themselves may make some of you index card shufflers sweaty, but the value that all of us have found in paper isn't as the permanent storage medium to which the Times is delivering last rites; rather, it's in that Platonic scratchpad we all need sometimes to shake out a good idea. As Merlin said, "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." Even when used as part of a trusted system, paper works best when its data storage duties have a limited life span.

mdl's picture

No books?

I noticed that there were no books in the paperless house of the future. For me, books make the home. A house without books is like a body without a soul.

For complex, rich thinking and creativity, paper remains the "ultimate destination" of choice. Digital media have yet to surpass books both for permanence and quality of thinking. It is impossible to achieve sustained attention and engagement while reading on a screen--at least not the type of sustained attention that is demanded by a good book. A novel or work of serious non-fiction takes time to read and digest. Searching for snippets and quotes on a computer will yield little of value if you haven't already read the book.

I'm afraid the digital revolution will produce a technocratic elite that is functionally illiterate--an elite that knows how to skim the surface of everything but understands nothing in depth.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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