Publishing Choices
Honesty In Government

The Permanence of Paper

I suppose that few bibliobloggers will take the time to read William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal.  It's long -- 20,000 words or so, plus bibliography and notes.  But it's one of the most illuminating things that I've read.

Powers' ostensible subject (this is an entry in the Discussion Paper Series of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy) is newspapers, but he spends most of his time discussing the nature of paper itself.  He points out that in all of the chatter about how soon digital media are going to completely eliminate paper, we rarely take the time to consider paper as a technology itself.   "...we don't ask the questions we routinely ask about other technologies: How does it work?  What are its strengths and weaknesses?  Is it easy and enjoyable to use?"

He points out that our experience of reading is, in part, determined by the technology that we are using for that communication, and that paper has certain qualities that are unique to it.  Media are more than just containers -- the experience of reading a paper newspaper and a digital newspaper with the same content are qualitatively different.

Much of the discussion about print books vs. e-books ignores that fact.  There is an assumption that the advantages of digital are such that, once the technology gets just a little better, people won't want to bother with print books anymore.  But Powers reminds us that print has its own advantages and that, in some cases, those advantages are, in fact, superior.  He talks about "supersession" -- what Paul Duguid refers to as "the idea that each new technological type vanquishes or subsumes its predecessors."  But, in fact, this very rarely actually happens.  New technologies create new opportunities; but the older technologies don't disappear, they find different niches.

It's never a case of either/or.  We're still in the very beginning stages of understanding what can be done with digital media.  With e-books, we're still at the stage that Gutenberg was when he tried to make a printed Bible adhere as closely as possible to a manuscript Bible.  Eventually, we will learn to discard those features that paper will always do better and focus on the features that are unique to digital.  "E-books" as a concept will disappear.  We won't think of them as a digital analog to a book -- they'll be something else entirely.

Whenever I hear a technophile going on about how once those readers get just a little better, or once electronic ink is fully perfected, we'll have digital media that will be just as good as paper, I think about my copy of Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan's novel in which each chapter is printed in a different color.  It's a perfect example of the medium being part of the content -- the printed book isn't just a container for the content of the novel -- it is inextricably part of that content.  One might be able to do a wonderful electronic rendition of that novel, but it won't be the same novel.  As we get better at understanding what digital media can do, we'll create amazing things.  And for many of the purposes that we now use print, we'll find those media to be superior.  But we'll always continue to use paper, because for certain purposes, it will always be the best thing.


David Rothman

"But we'll always continue to use paper, because for certain purposes, it will always be the best thing."


Though hopefully we'll use it more selectively and responsibly.


If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend Sven Birkert's "The Gutenberg Elegies" (1994). Writing before the Web and even e-mail were widespread, he saw the coming mania for all things digital.

It's the kind of thing you have to read on paper.

T Scott

I read it seven or eight years ago when I was designing a seminar course on intellectual property and the internet. I heartily agree with your recommendation, although I disagree with Birkerts in a number of areas. His Coda overstates the downside of the digital world, and his love for print is heavily laden with nostalgia and romanticism. However, he writes beautifully and anyone who wants to think seriously about the impact of digital information and the internet on culture needs to grapple with the issues that he raises.


Indeed--the book has flaws, the most troublesome of which are overly extended autobiographical digressions (although, to be fair, Birkerts warns readers that these are coming.)

In the 2006 afterword to the new edition, Birkerts takes a more nuanced view and recognizes how much he's become immersed--and is letting his children become immerses--in the very digital delights he decried in 1994. Reading that is well worth it; it takes the edge off the shrillness of the book itself.

T Scott

Oh, thanks! I hadn't realized that he'd done a new afterward. I'll have to look that up.

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