Monday, February 7, 2022
What is it that paper has that the computer lacks?
The answer might be humility.
Paper doesn’t seek to consume and mediate all things — or at least the age in which it did so long ago fell to digital computers, databases, and networks between them.
Paper forms a part of the world computer, but in so many ways an almost forgotten part. Uncontested, or nearly so.
If it seemingly offers few features and little apparent leverage compared to software, then it also makes very few demands. It extracts little from the user’s autonomy and privacy, while remaining transferable, repurposable, cheap, generic, accessible. It’s not subject to platform degradation, malicious updates, DRM, new rents at vendor whim, or remote code execution vulnerabilities. There will probably never be a CVE issued for my favorite brand of paper, and I do not need to assume that three-letter agencies are automatically indexing its contents with the cooperation of its manufacturer.
What can be expressed on paper is vastly more constrained in many respects, but limited as it may be, it’s also open: To whatever can be expressed through ink, graphite, scissors, glue, binding, tape, staples, stitches, and filing. Paper can’t embed full motion video or execute complex instructions on my behalf, but neither are its possibilities bound by the hyper-elaborated techno-social systems that govern the display of media formats or the implementation of language runtimes.
There’s a line of thinking here that risks the kind of reductive rabbitholing on a tool fetish you so regularly get from people fixated on a process idea: People convinced that only plain text will serve as a format for any purpose. Zettelkasten devotees who will stringently insist that connecting notes remain grindingly manual. Angry holdouts lecturing mailing lists about the evils of HTML e-mail while the world conducts its business on Facebook and Slack. That sort of thing.
All the same, I think there’s something to it, just like there’s something vital that motivates a lot of hopeless impulses to digital minimalism and performative exercises in retrocomputing.
Here’s an age when the computer is the network and the network is a threat — simultaneously the only tool for thought and the thing that makes thought nearly impossible. It’s exhausting, enervating, periodically shattering. Its healthy effects are constantly overshadowed by its pathology. It’s owned by bad people and operated by a fundamentally compromised class of technocrats whose occasional glimmers of self-awareness can never overwhelm the home truth of who and what writes their paychecks.
Against this backdrop, other channels of thought can feel like an escape hatch, respite, a balm, a view of other paths that maybe aren’t entirely closed just yet. Opening a notebook, like going for a walk down by the river or messing around in a garden or sitting with friends around a campfire somewhere away from cell reception, can feel like sanity.
Of course paper is a technology, embedded in an industrial economy: And this, as usual, is to say that it is an ecological catastrophe. It consumes trees, soil, and landscapes. It poisons water and air, clogs transport networks and waste streams, facilitates consumption, and often assists in extending the control of computerized systems deep into the physical realm.
All the same, in the torrent of junk mail, grocery store fliers, BPA-coated thermal printer labels & receipts, redundant bills, bank notices, invoices, address change forms, fast food packages, and all the rest of it — well, the handful of notebooks and letters I spend in any given year feel comparatively benign.
(Drafted on paper.)