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On Paper

Ian Sansom has written a new book about paper, and the Guardian is running an excerpt from it [1]. A characteristic anecdote:

Ephemeral, it reminds us eternally of the eternal. It is unsurpassed as a spiritual technology – the perfect multi-faith, multi-purpose platform for almost any religious event and occasion. Whether protecting ourselves with paper amulets, making offerings of votive slips, or nailing it to Wittenberg church doors, paper has the advantage over other popular spiritual technologies – such as, say, blood, animal carcasses, crystals, hairshirts, metal cilices, or Scientology E-meters – of being light, flexible, inflammable, capable of being decorated and inscribed, and not requiring batteries. Perhaps the purest expression of paper’s otherworldly aspects are Tibetan lungta papers (lung meaning “wind” and ta meaning “horse”), those beautiful, small, square pieces of thin paper that are thrown up into the air to carry prayers, to bless a journey, or just for good luck. Shide, white paper strips, are hung on ropes at Shinto shrines to mark the division between the sacred and profane. Hongbao – little red envelopes containing “lucky money” – are presented as a gift at weddings and at Chinese new year. Joss paper, or ghost money, is burned as an offering at funerals and at anniversaries, so that one’s ancestors might live prosperously and in peace.

In another passage he describes the vast amount of paper used by the artists of Pixar, though the examples he cites are a bit out of date, making me wonder whether the company has remained as attached to the pulpy stuff as it was.

The most popular drawing app for the iPad is called Paper [2], and it’s great — I use it a lot, just for fun — but of course paper is the one thing it can’t reproduce the look and feel of. Its pencil tool makes marks just like a pencil, its highlighting tool works just like a highlighter, but a slick, shiny glass screen is nothing like a piece of paper.

Paper — interestingly textured and colored paper — is the thing I find myself missing as I move more and more into a digital world: not writing on it with a pen (which is important to so many people) or seeing the look of type on it, but the paper itself. I wonder whether our genius engineers will ever manage, or indeed will ever try, to reproduce its most appealing features.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "On Paper"

#1 Comment By David Ryan On November 9, 2012 @ 9:44 am

The most frustating thing to me about my iphone is that the “buttons” only share two characteristics with real buttons, but those two characteristics constantly fool me into treating them like buttons in ways that cause my phone to do the exact opposite of what I want it to do.

#2 Comment By Lulu On November 9, 2012 @ 10:23 am

Wait–paper is inflammable?

#3 Comment By Alan Jacobs On November 9, 2012 @ 11:07 am

“Inflammable” originally meant, and technically still means, something that will burn. But [3].

#4 Comment By PDGM On November 9, 2012 @ 11:14 am

I don’t really understand the supplantation of paper for certain uses, particularly in drawing software. To me, it just makes no sense there; why not draw on paper, then scan if you need iterations of the drawing?

Of course, I’m utterly addicted to paper. Late last night, I realized that I’d left my notebook at school, and am now many miles away, and won’t be able to get at it until Monday or Tuesday. This makes me vaguely-to-quite uncomfortable; the notebooks act as a record of what I’ve read, what I’ve thought, and what I’ve done to a secondary degree. I guess I’ll have to write for a few days elsewhere and transfer in, my compulsion is that bad. Plus, a month or so ago, I discovered that the French manufacturer of the artist’s notebooks I’ve been using for years (from Exacompta) has ceased production of “my” specific one which is unlined (I dislike lines, too); this also begets discomfort, as I’ve years’ worth of such journals; and the paper is archival (a vanity) and takes liquid ink very, very well. I’m thinking of moving over to something German by Kunst und Papier; but they won’t be the same; or else the Fabriano Artist’s Journal. Ah, well, change can be good!

I really don’t think that digital technology can ever replicate the value paper has. Platforms and languages change in the digital realm all the time. Languages change in the human realm, but the deciphering of shapes remains possible if something is on paper (or of course on metal tablets, ivory tablets, stone, or vellum sheepskin as well–but those all have big disadvantages). The same is not true of digital information.

I have a computer nerd friend who has a garage full of long-ago outmoded computer hardware, because he is paid, by the manufacturers of industrial equipment, to keep blueprints translated into something modern computers can still read, due to legal requirements in certain industries (valves for nuclear power plants, for example). Were they just available in archival paper copies, his hardware and expertise would not be needed. This reveals in miniature why I think paper is unmatchable.

And to go further, I actually believe the act of writing on paper helps one digest content in a much superior way to the same writing done on a keyboard. It –they–the physical act of writing, the physical paper, the physical result–meets the complex, incarnate nature and needs of being human in a way that the computer keyboard cannot.

#5 Comment By Dan Davis On November 9, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

I just learned a new word in the last day or so: skeuomorphism, or the digital mimicry of a “real” object, such as buttons. Or possibly paper. Evidently it is roiling up the design world, and is one of the reasons behind the recent shake-up at Apple: [4]

#6 Comment By Lulu On November 10, 2012 @ 3:50 am

I just learned two new words today, Dan–inflammable, and, um, your word.

#7 Comment By Lulu On November 10, 2012 @ 9:32 am

Ok, perhaps I’m being too literal, but how does the property of inflammability distinguish paper from the “other popular spiritual technologies”? Don’t they all burn?

#8 Comment By Lulu On November 10, 2012 @ 9:36 am

And why is it good for a spiritual technology to burn?

I can’t see the (flammable) forest for the (inflammable) trees when I get like this!

#9 Comment By Joanna On November 14, 2012 @ 10:26 am

And the Kindle Paperwhite’s surface is meant to replicate not only the look but the feel (and does a reasonable job) of dead tree pulp.