Can we replace paper?

Paper beats rock and scissors. Always. Because one of the few inventions greater than writing itself, is writing on paper. Paper writings are absolute, self-contained and transferable units of knowledge, which after publishing become and stay available and accessible for hundreds of years or more.

Don’t take my word for it, there is this great quote by J.C.R. Licklider found in Libraries of the Future and brought to my attention by Walter Isaacson in The Innovators.

Message and medium

Take da Vinci’s work. We are able to witness and experience and read the exact paper he put his thoughts on some 500 years ago. Our language may have changed but the medium and therefore message survived. You can pick it up, look at it, and see exactly what he saw (if you can afford it).

And in the same vein, I can easily pick up a book, written and printed 100 years ago, and read it. Or nearer by, I can open any textbook I used in college from my bookshelf and read it. And my class notes just sit in a box, unchanged, ready to be read. All I need are my eyeballs. But my 3.5 inch floppies from that era, I can no longer access those (with ease). And the CD-ROMs, I wonder if they would even work. And when the medium becomes inaccessible the message is lost.

Part of my bookshelf

The internet

So as I am typing this on an electronic digital device, that translates key presses into binary numbers which are stored on a solid state disk on another computer somewhere else, which is connected with my device through countless other specialised electronic devices and protocols, I can’t help but wonder about what will be left in 100 years — or more — from what is written everyday on the internet.

The internet is right up there with the written word as one of our greatest inventions, but it is much more fragile and dependant on many layers (i.e. electricity, storage, network, specialised devices, formats) that all interact with one another.

We have accumulated large parts of human knowledge in millions of paper books over the past millennium, but most written text nowadays is digital. And digital formats and transfer methods change. Fast and often. So I wonder how we can best preserve our written thoughts for the next millennium: self-contained and transferable. But I can’t come up with anything better than paper?


Originally published at Jan van den Berg.