Wednesday, December 05, 2007

But loosely bound celluose fibers make me so happy!

I read this article [PDF] linked to by Ezra with a lot of interest, and some disappointment, but overall I thought it was an excellent bit bullshit-calling on unreconstructed futurists, especially the "paperless office" crowd. The article is called "Shakespeare's Blackberry", and refers to something I'd never heard of before -- "Writing tables":
This was typically a pocket-sized, printed almanac bound with blank leaves of specially coated paper or parchment that could be written on with a stylus and erased with a sponge.... A busy sixteenth-century Londoner would carry his tables around during the day, jotting quick notes in them with the stylus and erasing them later. It was the period equivalent of our own Palm Pilots and Blackberries, and it remained popular for hundreds of years. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both owned an ivory version that was in vogue in their time.
Powers makes, I think, some excellent arguments about why paper hasn't been replaced by some digital alternative, and why it's not likely to be in the future. But he doesn't go where I would with it. He spends a lot of time talking about the way people interact with paper products vs. digital ones, which to me is a true but weak argument: Powers himself notes that technologies find different niches and are used in different ways -- notice the transformation of radio from originally a central organizing feature of a family home in the pre-war period, to basically an adjunct of the automobile today. What Powers doesn't dwell on here is how the technology of radio changed to make this happen -- the transistor and the invention of FM radio both made radio a) more portable and b) more clear, meaning that it was useful and enjoyable to have portable radio in a way that it wasn't before. I think if he had dwelled on this a moment, he might have written a different paper. (And yes, despite the fact that I read it as a 75-page PDF, we're going to call it a paper. And talk about "pages" in some non-archaic way.)

Why does paper persist? Well, to start with, it's incredibly cheap. For the Toronto Star to deliver 7 issues to my doorstep every week, they want a mere $2.95 (plus GST) a week. And they deliver so much information per day, that I could never possibly find that much time in the day to read a whole paper, end to end. Even if we assume that I recycle 2/3 of the paper that doesn't interest me without reading it, I'm paying pennies for incredibly useful stuff.

Compare this with my Internet connection, which costs something between $10-15 per week (3 to 5 times as much as the paper!) Sure, the Star doesn't home deliver movies and television and music the way the Internet connection does, but for the function that it serves, the Toronto Star is incredibly competitive.

There's also the point that more generically, paper has excellent display properties. People don't usually think about how difficult display is in an electronic world, but to put it plainly the printer connected to your computer is probably capable of a higher-resolution output than you've got your monitor set to right now. High-end graphics card developed mainly for games change this equation, but that's not the correct comparison -- it's impossible to play Quake 3 on your daily newspaper, and liquid-cooling isn't going to help matters. People read documents in the settings Windows gives you, which normally rate at under 100 pixels per inch. Most printers today easily print 300 dots per inch.

There are a bunch of potential technologies that might bring high-end display costs down to the point where they're competitive with paper, but it's still going to take someone who doesn't basically hate readers to design something as attractive, portable, and easy to use as a replacement to paper. And still, I think people need to drop the idea of a dedicated "e-book reader"... I just don't think it's going to happen. Rather, what I think is more likely is that laptops will become more portable and more useful as e-readers. Take two recent products: the Amazon Kindle and Asus' Eee PC. Both cost about $400. One -- the Kindle -- is basically designed by a bookseller to appeal to publishers, meaning that it treats readers as potential thieves. (Both large booksellers and book publishers basically regard customers with suspicion until money changes hands. Trust me on this.) The Asus Eee PC, on the other hand, is designed to be an almost-fully functional laptop at the lowest end -- capable of basic office apps, email, web surfing, and low-end games. If Asus had taken a page from the XO people and built a screen designed for e-book reading, they'd have made the Kindle obsolete in the same month it was released. It's simply not credible to believe that people would choose to spend an equal sum of money for a dramatically less functional device.

My point, here, is that there are real, measurable, tangible reasons why paper persists, and that talking about how people interact with paper, while noteworthy, misses a pretty basic point. Paper replaced papyrus because it was better in measurable ways, not because people liked it more. We haven't yet got something that is better than paper. (Powers basically comes to this point at the very end of his paper, but doesn't treat it with the weight I think it deserves.)

Then there's the part of Powers' paper that really bugged me. That's where he complains that the migration of newspapers from print to electronic formats is ruining the experience:
As an institution, the newspaper is not just a source of information, a mere content provider. For centuries, it has been one of the few places outside the government where a democratic society could collectively talk to itself, seek the truth and try to decide what is right. That work, the epitome of a public good, relies on both sides of the institutions brain, and the readers. Pure news is meaningless without understanding, and true understanding is impossible without accurate information about the world. The two came together on paper, which, for a very long time was the best available medium for sending and receiving both kinds of "messages".... [p. 52]
I agree so much with this it's not even funny.
The various properties, from the physical to the philosophical, that paper brings to the media transaction are absent when one is reading a newspaper online. Common sense suggests this shouldn't matter. Who cares how content arrives as long as it arrives? [p.54]
The part in bold just confuses the hell out of me. People in democracies no longer use newspapers to "talk to themselves" about what matters? If true, it certainly isn't the web's fault -- newspapers were supplanted by TV decades before the web came along. But fundamentally, I just don't think it's true. The New York Times and Washington Post are no less influential because of their presence on the Web. Instead, people use the web to talk about those two papers more, because of (among other things) the prevalence of blogs. And that's all that's happened. Because of the Internet, the public sphere has moved from the letters to the editor and the Op-ed page to the posts and comment threads of Atrios and DailyKos. I have yet to understand why this causes such anxiety in people.

Anyway, I really liked Powers' article, and would reccomend reading it. If you must -- sigh -- print it out.


Catelli said...

I'm an IT guy who (used to, before kids) read 3,4 novels a week. I always prefer the printed medium. Blogging has caused me to read more electronic media. But I still prefer printed material.

It isn't so much the cost, or the portability. I think an aspect is how we read or interact with printed materials. (Feel free to point out if someone else has made this argument before).

With a computer, the screen is usually at a fixed distance, mounted on your desk or attached to a clunky laptop.

But if you watch people read newspapers, books, whatever you'll see that the distance between eyes and media changes constantly. Also reading angle changes, the pages are turned, angled, bent whatever.

Anytime we have a meeting in the IT department to discuss strategy, supporting digital documents are always printed off and distributed. Each meeting participant moves the paper closer and further away, we squint at particular sentences as we ponder the meaning or impact. We underline sentences with fingers as we sound out with our lips. We flap and bend and manipulate the pages.

We've tried having monitors strategically displayed so participants can read off the screen, but we always go back to printed format. I submit we subconsciously manipulate paper to help us understand the message in the text. To read online we have to retrain our minds to absorb information without the physical manipulations of the data. It takes work and effort to do that.

Two ironies:
1) Most of our meetings lately surround our electronic data management project. These meetings involve printing off electronic documentation so we can discuss how to archive, index and store our electronic data.....

2) Handwriting is a disappearing skill. In IT especially, we can't write 3 lines of notes without our fingers and wrists cramping up. But we can type all day. So we prefer to enter information electronically, and then print it out to read it.

On a related note, IT people can't draw either. We all have the same white boarding skills, where circles, lines, squares and text are all barely comprehensible. I used to be ashamed of my penmanship during meetings, but in a group of my peers I am well in the normal skill range.

NonyNony said...

Besides the cost and the display properties, paper has some other aspects that no electronic format can compete with today - portability and reliability. If I carry a paperback book with me on an airplane, I know that no matter how long the flight is I will be able to open that book up to any page and start reading at any point. If I carry an eBook reader loaded with my library, well, I hope the battery life in the reader is longer than the flight. And if I spill my coffee on my paperback it'll dry and I can still read it. If I spill my coffee on my eBook reader it's a crapshoot as to whether it will continue to function or not.

Chet Scoville said...

I actually own a pair of tables like the ones described.

I am a medieval IT geek.

Niles said...

Does anyone have better (and accessible) online sources for the writing tables? I was hard put to find things until I clued in to 'erasable'. I'd like to know more if possible. Sounds like something that should be given a modern variation. Think of the cutting down on recycling.

This was one site I finally discovered.

Niles said...

Is this the book being referenced in Ezra's link, or another? I can't open the link to the article there.,M1

The chapter 2 is very helpful. Thanks kindly for putting attention on this.