Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Long Live Paper!

On The Media
Long Live Paper!

BOB GARFIELD:People have been predicting the death of print and paper for decades now. Here's Dr. Egon Spangler's take in Ghostbusters almost a quarter-century ago.

I bet you like to read a lot, too.

Print is dead.

WOMAN: Oh. That's very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. I also play racquetball.


BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Spangler was a little ahead of his time, but now with the Internet, E-readers and E-Ink technology, his prediction should be coming true. Right? Not according to National Journal Media critic William Powers. In the fall of 2006, as a fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, Powers wrote a paper called Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper is Eternal. He says that paper does a lot more than just fold up nicely.

WILLIAM POWERS: When you're holding a book with your hands and you're turning that page, the hands are doing a lot of work that the eyes don't have to do. The hands are telling the brain where you are, how much further you have to go, and so forth.
When you're working with a screen, your brain has to keep figuring out where you are in the text because it's not physically evident to any other part of your body. It's a very different experience, and in many ways less helpful to the brain.

BOB GARFIELD: So, even cognition is different between reading something on a screen, as I am right this second, and reading it on a printed page.

WILLIAM POWERS: Exactly - I mean, what I basically argue in my essay is that paper isn't just a container for content. It actually becomes part of the content. It affects the content because of the way it interacts with the brain. It's a technology, although we don't usually think of it as a technology.

And the one attribute that these new inventions bring to the table is refreshability, the idea that they're wired to the Web. But I actually think that that quality is in some ways a downside. I think there is something about paper's disconnection from the Web that is very appealing to people, the idea that you can't click away to another site, to an email, to something you need to check, that when you have a piece of paper in front of you, a paper medium, you are focused on just that.

BOB GARFIELD: Is the allure of turning the printed pulp-based [LAUGHS] page something intrinsic to the experience, or is it more that we're just habituated to it?

WILLIAM POWERS: You know, it may happen - I mean, it's true. This is what our brains and our bodies are used to using. However, there are many old-fashioned devices that people have been predicting would go away for generations. I cite a professor from California named Paul Duguid who talks about the hinge. Futurists have been predicting the death of the hinge for generations.


WILLIAM POWERS: Science-fiction movies since time immemorial, and stories, have always had sliding doors, doors that disappear into walls.



BOB GARFIELD: Shoo-shoom! Yeah.

WILLIAM POWERS: Hinges are old-fashioned. Doors that are hinges take up space needlessly and so forth. And yet the hinge lives on because hinged doors do things for people that they like. They are expressive. You can slam doors. You can use doors to send messages. There's something about hinges that continue to work for us.
And I argue in the paper - and I know many other people sort of feel this, I think, in their guts when they use paper - there is something about paper that really, really works that has worked for 2,000 years and it's going to be very hard to replace it.

BOB GARFIELD: Couldn't this all come down just to the mundane issue of cost, that it's just a lot cheaper to do things digitally than to deforest the landscape?

WILLIAM POWERS: Yes. That could well kill off paper. I think it is already killing off certain kinds of paper media. And, in fact, I get into this in the essay. There are kinds of content that don't require paper. And I actually think that most of what newspapers do, the breaking news function, is much better suited to digital media. And this is why people have migrated to the Web for breaking news, and are moving away from newspapers. That intuitively makes perfect sense to me.
The one thing that newspapers do that doesn't work as well in digital media is the longer form kind of journalism - features stories, longer investigative pieces.

BOB GARFIELD: But magazines, you think, have a better chance of surviving in their non-digital form, and books as well, I suppose. Is the future of books on pulp-based products indefinitely?

WILLIAM POWERS: I think books have the greatest chance of surviving on paper, some kind of paper - maybe not pulp-based. And there are green papers that I have used, that are almost a kind of plastic, that are wonderful and that really work and that could be, if paper is staying with us, could be the future of paper.
You know, all these E-books and E-readers that are being developed, what they're all trying to do is what a book already does. And whereas where I think magazines might one day find a vehicle online that matches the paper version, I really have doubts about books.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So you wrote this piece, which, I'm sorry to report, I read on a computer screen.

And it makes some pretty interesting assertions about our relationship to paper and its future. What has been the reaction?

WILLIAM POWERS: The reaction was surprising to me in that a lot more people were interested in this paper than I expected. And I continue to get email from fans of paper. Almost everybody who writes me says, thank you, you know, I've been waiting for someone to weigh in on paper.

BOB GARFIELD: And let me ask you a question. Have any of the congratulations come in the form of nice notes on stationery?

WILLIAM POWERS: Yes. Some people have written me on very nice pieces of paper. I must also say a lot of the people who email me make a point of telling me that after downloading the PDF they printed it out before reading it. I love that.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Bill, it's always a pleasure. Thank you so much.

WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Bob. I enjoyed it.

BOB GARFIELD: William Powers wrote Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper is Eternal as a fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

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