Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Death and Future of Paper

I first heard about this William Powers article, "Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal" in an NPR story on the radio. The article celebrates the wonders of paper and fears its undoing by cold and cruel digital media devices like ebooks. Its ironic that I heard the piece on the radio since radio once faced the same types of arguments that are being made for paper relative to an encroaching new technology called TV.

Kirsten Reach wrote a nice summary of Power's article in the online version of the Kenyon Review, a traditional, paper-based literary journal. Her review is both sympathetic and fortunate. Fortunate because the original article is 75 pages long. Sympathetic I expect because of the paper legacy of the Kenyon Review. I wrote a comment which has not yet been accepted. I'm not sure if its because my comments were among the only in support of a future where both paper books and ebooks could co-exist. Here's what I tried to post.

"The most compelling argument I've heard for the evolution of paper towards digital/re-usable media is the environment. The amount of resources (wood, water, chemicals, etc.) we use for paper has an enormous negative impact on the environment. A significant percentage of the paper we use is paper we use for a only few minutes and then throw away.

So many arguments for or against a new technology hinge on an all or nothing world. But as is hinted in the radio example, older technologies don't have to go away for new ones to be valuable. I agree with Power's assertions that paper will be with us for many more years. He makes a great case for where paper is a valuable and ideal media. But that doesn't mean there might be a few places where an electronic book or medium might be good while also being much better for the environment. Many people who work in the corporate world have to read multiple reports... industry reports, sales reports, business plans, etc.. Most of these are printed, read or scanned quickly and then thrown out or put on a shelf never to be touched again. Couldn't some of these be consumed on an ebook for the benefit of the environment? Carrying 4 or 5 reports in an ebook format will leave extra room in your backpack for that paper copy of "Ulysses" you've been meaning to read all these years.

I love reading the Sunday New York Times. But I feel guilty about getting all that paper knowing I won't read it all. There is now a healthy movement across many cities in the US to replace plastic and paper bags at the supermarket with reusable bags. I feel good every time I do it and know that I'm reducing my environmental footprint.

If we all used less paper for our "disposable" content, there would be plenty of paper left for more permanent and important uses. As Powers also notes, there is plenty of content out there for paper, ebooks and computer screens to all be busy and useful for a long time to come."

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