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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.

xfrosch's picture

digital masters are not permanent

Digital media are not permanent. Even if means to recover assets from obsolete media are maintained, the media themselves are subject to loss or damage over time. Preservation of digital media depends on making and sustaining multiple copies of the asset, and making the social commitment to propagate the copying process into the future.

In twenty years, there will be few facilities capable of reading CD-ROMs. In order to be widely available in the future, today's assets will have to be transferred to a medium current at the time in which the user lives.

Digital assets will be available only if, and for only as long as, society maintains its commitment to the transfer process. The convenient and remarkable thing about paper documents, as well as about the stone and animal hide documents that preceded them, is that they can be read by the unaided human eye for as long as the document medium exists. This will not generally be true for the digital assets of the future.




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