“Paper? Ain’t that extinct?”

It comes as no surprise to anyone following the whole 43folders-style quest for life tweaks that there seems to be a resurgence in paper-based organisational products. See Merlin’s canonical Introducing the Hipster PDA (follow-up), my own DIY Planner, Scott “Jerry” Lawrence’s Hipster designs, Moleskine notebooks (link & link), and now Mark Berstein’s Tinderbox Cards (he would be the so-intelligent- he-must-be- an-alien-lifeform creator of Eastgate’s wonderful Tinderbox information management tool).

I have to wonder about what might be the reasons for the current infatuation with paper, especially those pieces of paper with semi-structured forms for inputting your information.

Is it portability? If you look at my Palm Tungsten E and at my DayRunner, you’ll know which is more portable. Even a pack of Hipster PDA index cards can’t compete with the size of a Palm.

Is it fear of technology? No, not for most. True, there are some people who have never jumped atop the digital bandwagon, but this new millenium is seeing most of them either dying out or reluctantly edging into modern technology. However, a majority of people who have recently taken up paper-based planning with a vengeance are those people for whom computers are a way of life.

Is it ease of sharing or storing information? Nope. You can’t “sync” paper, although you can always photocopy pages at your local library or office supply store. And have you ever had to “search” a full filing cabinet for that little stray snippet of text you need?

Is it a failure of technology to keep abreast of personal information? That would be far-fetched. There are a million-and-one ways to organise your data. PDAs, TabletPCs, Outlook, Evolution, iCal, groupware, wikis, Tinderbox, DevonThink, OneNote, or even Emacs can all categorise and structure almost any sort of data you can produce. If anything, there are too many options (hence the inherent and endless “tweakability” of solutions).

Is it cost? I don’t think so. A lot of people seem to have switched from PDAs and computers to paper, and frankly, you can get them dirt-cheap anyways. (I saw a base-level Palm at a local Wal-Mart the other day for about $55 USD.) DayRunners and Day Timers can be expensive, and buying paper, ink cartridges and other supplies can get a little pricey in the long run. Plus, people seem to be fascinated with purchasing $20-80 pens for their systems.

So what is it?

Pure and simple, I think the keyword is intimacy.

Try and curl up with a TabletPC, laptop or PDA for a few hours. Your eyes hurt, the hard shape is awkward, you’re constantly checking for remaining battery time (or juggling a cord), and –despite this day and age– it’s not easy to build any sort of bond or connection to a machine, especially ones so transitory and mass-produced.

However, pick up a nice little leather-bound journal, grab a smoothly-writing pen, and all of a sudden, things become sensual. There is no hunk of metal, plastic and wires acting as an intermediary, nor is there any intimation of data being temporary. What you write on paper is immediately there, forever, and the flow of thought and creativity knows no middle-man: the connection is personal, free-flowing, spontaneous, and free of modern-day digital “interpretation”. You write, sketch, doodle, draw lines and circles, add stars, and otherwise feel the flow of ink laid smooth upon the grain of the paper. It’s a throw-back to another time, and we might just as well be our great-grandparents writing by nib pen and inkwell alongside the dim glow of a candle. For once, we can abandon our reliance on modern technology, and experience a connection with our innermost spirit, letting it roam free upon a page. All of this, and much more, heightens our sense of intimacy with the paper before us.

I realise that this seems a little strange to most people recently immersed into the realm of computers, PDAs and PIMs. After all, aren’t we just doing things the old-fashioned, inefficient way? And then there are those folks for whom the digital domain is all-consuming, leaving no fuel nor inclination to pursue anything as backward as paper.

But –I think– there are many of us who have been forging technology to our sundry needs for years, and now realise that something is indeed missing. For a few of us, this something is as fundamentally simple as scribing our schedules, our ideas, our idle thoughts, our lists, our daily dramas and even our dreams upon pieces of paper. In the same we can feel more for a photograph than for an image on a screen, these intimate, well-worn and sometimes messy little scraps will be cherished long after the phosphor of our screens has faded.

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18 Responses to “Paper? Ain’t that extinct?”

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  4. Is it ease of sharing and storing information? yes. While the examples of searching and syncing that you provide are good ones, It’s just too hard to take meaningful notes fast with an electronic device (well, post-Newton, anyway.) The kinds of information that I resort to paper for are not sync candidates, and don’t need searched. For those things that do, they’ll eventually find their way into digital form during a review.

  5. I prefer paper because it’s easier to manipulate, draw things and it doesn’t require recharging.

    We learn to write first and it’s more natural than using a PDA.

  6. I use paper for speed. Despite being on my 10th handheld, I am using a paper planner (including your inserts – thanks!) because despite my speed with Graffiti (etc) nothing compares to jotting thoughts on paper.

    I also keep a bundle of out-of-date business cards with my Fisher Space pen in my back pocket at all times. I can whip out a card, and jot something down in the time that it would take to start up my Palm, pull out the stylus and navigate to a new note, let alone enter it in.

  7. intimacy yes.. but i’m also tired of having to rewrite information everytime there is an upgrade or a crash… being a little less than tech savvy. there’s a place for both.. but from now on my inventory goes in paper along with a sensually bound journal for inspirations, doodling (sp?) and dreaming…

    will stick to the ‘puter for any other editing and writing. I still have the painful memory of losing sleep in the late 80′s from re-typing pages filled with typo, gunky liquid paper, and a deadline for a paper the next morning.

    Now when I lose sleep it’s for good reason.

    I wish palm would bring back dietlog though… that was truly useful (and one of the things I lost when the last one gave out. okay rain water got in the works. but to be fair that could happen to paper too.)

  8. I go back and forth with PDA and paper. I’ve had 2-3 serious crashes with my PDA and I’m now leery to trust it 100% I love paper, too, so may have to use my PDA for file storage puposes only!

  9. I agree with what you say here, but I think you might underestimate what paper/book technology can do. When I use a pda, I feel like I’m trying to take in a landscape through a keyhole. Paper just affords more visibility and quick indexing. Flipping among pages is way easier and more visible than navigating through software. It’s possible that someday we might have planners of smart paper (so that you can get rid of an item without scratching it out and making such a mess), but until then, paper still has its own advantages.

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  13. You got the point Mr. Johnston.

    Personally it’s a way to get rid of computers. Your brain work differently when you are writing with your hands on paper (more senses are trigged, then ideas that came at that time are probably different).

    When I’m starting to model a software component, I always start with a brainstorming on paper. I don’t open Visio or Enterprise Architect right now. No. I get a pen, some sheets of paper and I draw some models; I underline; I strike; I bold my ideas on these sheets. If the model is scrappy? I didn’t throw my computer by the window, it’s too expensive. No, I make a little ball with my paper model and I throw it through the window (less expensive and better to let go the frustration).

    I use computers many hours a day… sometimes I think that it’s too many hours… So it’s why I need analog technologies, to trigger others senses while I’m working.

  14. I totally agree, but there’s more. On the purely pragmatic side, yes, it’s hard to search or backup my paper planner. On the other hand, 90% of my use (both input and output) happens in the current week’s view, which I keep open in front of me most of the time. I have about 50 square inches to view this, as opposed to the – what, 15? – of a PDA. To enter or read data from this “screen” takes little time, no navigation, no funky handwriting. But most of all, as you’ve already said, it just feels good.

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  17. What a beautiful post, and so true. Sometimes when I am experiencing a slight case of “writer’s block” (I hate that term), I will walk away from the computer, grab a nice pen and a fresh pad of white paper, and ensconce myself in another room. The change of scenery, combined with the change in medium, seems to help boost creativity.

  18. Paper has another advantage besides intimacy. It slows one down. Or rather, it removes one’s ability to attend to the flood of information in modern life. And that disabling seems to have value. Consider: Shakespeare used paper.

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