The other day I was sitting in the bank watching a clerk copy information off a paper bank transfer to initiate a new wire transfer. Being a busy person I hate inefficiencies, and this was just plain bad. When I asked why the bank didn't use an electronic copy to speed up the process, the clerk replied that using an electronic copy can create mistakes and cause liability for the bank. In the same way that people are mistrustful of electronic elections, they believe that a human being copying from a piece of paper is less prone to make mistakes than doing the same thing electronically.
I smiled when I heard that, because I know it isn't going to last.
According to Wikipedia, papermaking was developed in China during the early 2nd century. Since becoming the de facto medium for recording knowledge, paper has evolved to also become the medium of transferring information in the modern world. Now, however, paper is being surrounded by an increasing number of digital rivals. We can debate how long it will be before the next generation of e-book readers kills printed books, but the days of paper as an information storage medium are almost over. In this post we look at the role of paper in our information-rich lives, from books and newspapers, to receipts and office documents.
Paper as an Information Storage Medium
The power of persistent information is awesome. If you have never contemplated what it would be like without it, just take a moment now to think about it. In a world where passing information is only done orally, information transfer is very limited and inefficient. The invention of paper and writing was perhaps as important and critical in the development of modern humans as the invention of language. Persistent information is responsible for both the rise of living organisms (DNA), and the rise of civilization.
Most of the knowledge that we gain comes to us via the written word. The burning of the library at Alexandria by Julius Casesar is considered to be one of the greatest losses of knowledge of all times. Understandably so, because books used to be a precious commodity in the ancient times, accessible to an extremely limited number of people. With the invention of the printing press, books took off, followed soon after by newspapers. Then, suddenly paper was not only the preferred method of storing knowledge, but also the best way to record and transfer information.
Paper as an Information Transfer Medium
While nobody (yet) minds books, people are increasingly being fed up with receipts, envelopes, bank statements, and other forms of paper as an information transfer medium. We cringe at the lengthy receipts we get after a shopping trip to Costco and at stupid credit card statements like the one below. It is the moments when we see things like this that we realize: this is wrong and this has to go. Once again, Apple has it right before anyone else. At Apple stores, after paying by credit card you're asked for your email address and your reciept is sent to you electronically.
With online banking becoming so ubiquitous we now let out a sigh every time we have to actually write a check. Not only are we annoyed with paper, we are annoyed with the process of hand writing - typing is so much more elegant and cleaner. And the change is not just happening at home, it is also quite visible at work. Yes, we still have a ton of paper around the office - but it is increasingly less. More people are now used to reading off the computer screen without having to print first. PDF is now the official means of corporate bureaucracy.
As mobile devices get smarter, the days of paper as an information transfer medium are nearing an end. In the next decade, we will get rid of receipts, doctors will not be hand writing us referrals, and banking will be done only online. The replacement of paper is not an accident, but a trend. Paper is bulkier, dirtier, less safe and not as good for the environment as its digital competition. Part of the bigger trend towards turning physical things into digital, paper is finally giving in after centuries of reign.
Digital vs. Physical
Whatever can be digitized will be digitized. Hardware can not compete with software in elegance, simplicity, and cost. From the iPhone to online banking, digital things are superior to physical. Soon the clerk in the bank is not going to be retyping the wire transfer from a piece of paper. Soon we will be electing the president of the United States via electronic voting.
The phobia of digital things belongs to an older generation. The demographic that is growing up on Facebook won't think twice about keying their credit card number into a computer or checking a box and pressing the okay button to vote. But even the older generation is not as technophobic as we think. My mother in law learned to look at pictures of her grandkids on Flickr, and only rarely asks to print the photos. She recognizes the simplicity of digital without fully understanding it.
The Future of Books, Newspapers, and Magazines
But not all paper is made equal. Books are not going away as fast as other forms of print. While physical newspapers and magazines are visibly declining, books are still holding strong. The reason for this is that the experience of reading a digital book is still inferior to physical. Books are not dirty, but magical. We love the way they feel, we love to flip through the pages. Wandering through books in the bookstore is an adventure, while ordering a book on Amazon is still quite dry.
Newspapers, on the other hand, are clearly out of tricks. Online versions are superior, easier to read, quicker to get news out, and more interesting. Magazines are also struggling to reinvent themselves by including more pictures, changing editorial formats, and also rushing to engage their audience online.
The real question is just how important are our physical experiences with paper? Increasingly, they are less and less important. We are open to new ways of consuming information and interacting with it. Amazon's Kindle is an early example of how a digital device can deliver a more valuable reading experience.
E-Paper: Will Paper Have the Last Laugh?
And yet, in the end, paper just might have its revenge. E-Paper (Electronic Paper) holds a promise of combining the flexibility of digital with the feel of physical. It is easy to imagine leaving an e-paper based newspaper next to your computer each evening and waking up to a fresh copy of New York Times transmitted via a wireless connection. The newspaper itself would have the physical feel of a traditional printed newspaper, but would also take advantage of the possibilities of digital. You would be able to interact with the information in the newspaper much like you do now on the iPhone.
A bigger question is - given that we already have the iPhone do we even need e-paper? This is something that only time will tell. If people find newspapers, magazines, and books made out of e-paper interesting then the competition will heat up. But if people will just accept new ways of consuming the information, then the devices we already have today will take over.
After serving civilization for centuries, paper is receding and giving in to new, digital forms of persisting and transfering information. We feel both sentimental and relieved because of our love-hate relationship with paper. The increasing shift towards digitization is visible across industries and sectors. From banks, to grocery stores, to offices and homes, paper objects are losing their status quo as an information medium. Personally, I am happy to see paper go. What about you?