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Write of Passage – Paper V/s Digital


A very famous man once wrote that the entirety of human history can be thought of as the history of class struggles–– the fight between the haves and the have-nots. Others have posited that war–– conflict between entire civilisations and between countries–– is the only foundation that all societies are built upon. Today, domestically and internationally, we see increasingly divided political factions, who seem to grow more polarised by the day. Where would human nature and culture be today without debates? Perhaps the greatest debate was Lincoln vs. Douglas, maybe it was Biggie vs. Tupac or the clash between the Romans and Germanic tribes leading to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476. Or maybe (read: most definitely) the most monumental clash of our day is this: digital versus paper.

It’s only fitting, then, that we delve deep into the digital versus paper debate through the lens of clashes. This is the story of paper and pen loyalists versus digital stylist lovers, between diary keepers and Word users–– a debate seemingly mundane upon first glance, yet one that involves considerations on history and tradition, on science and technology, and on human psychology and values.

The first clash that has risen out of the contest between paper and digital: science fiction versus science.

The digital revolution is here! Goodbye forever, paper–– ink is the stain of yesterday! This is the message of paper oppositionists, those who envision a world that we dare to call a Paperless Utopia. Perhaps one of the most potent examples of this idea was the concept of the “paperless office” which first emerged in the 1970s. A 1975 headline out of NewsWeek called the paperless office “The Office of the Future,” making predictions that paper would be completely eliminated from the workplace by the 1990s. It was a time when personal computers were on the rise, becoming more accessible to businesses and individuals for the first time. Management philosophies encouraged the complete elimination of paper for office memos and communication, vilifying paper as an inefficient and disorganised way to run a business. Others imagined the elimination of paper in schools, riding on the promise of a world where word processors reigned supreme. We’re not anti-technology, but we do argue that such ideas are examples of us getting ahead of ourselves. But that’s the job of science fiction, isn’t it?

Real science encourages a starkly different future. Dear reader, through what medium are you reading this article–– in print or digitally? You may not think this is an important question, only caring about the content and the quality of the article you’re reading. Recent research out of developmental and cognitive psychology as well as neuroscience begs to differ. Numerous studies in this area have caused this scientific community to come to a consensus that reading on printed paper trumps reading from a screen. (Sorry, online readers!) Researchers stand by paper mainly due to the cognitive and neurological processes that naturally occur when a person is engaging in each activity.

Reading comprehension is one focus area in which print has shown superiority to digital mediums. A 2016 study examined the reading comprehension of two groups of undergraduates–– both reading the same article, but with one group via print and the other via a screen. While both groups were able to identify the main idea of the text, the print group was able to go into much more detail about key points and details which those in the digital group missed. Other research suggests that this is due to the differing areas in the brain that print versus digital reading activate. One study that focused on advertisements found that print materials were more likely to activate the medial prefrontal cortex and the cingulate cortex, which are involved in processing emotions, as well as the parietal cortex, which deals with visual and spatial processing. This means that print is more likely to enhance our comprehension precisely because it evokes feelings within us and engages our sensorimotor cues (i.e. through physically turning the page in a magazine or book). On the other hand, reading digital materials, which involves the act of scrolling on a screen, puts much more of a load on our limited capacity of working memory, with an added risk of eye strain and distraction.

Another key research area in this space has focused on writing on paper versus using digital instruments or keyboards. We all remember learning to cross our T’s and dot our I’s–– literally–– in our primary school classrooms for cursive lessons. In recent years, some educational groups have attacked the teaching of handwriting in schools, making the argument that it is archaic and much more practical to solely focus on teaching typing and computer skills. With computers now being a part of our everyday lives–– sometimes even seeming like an extension of our being–– this argument makes a lot of sense on the surface. But, yet again, science tells us otherwise. Developmental psychologists urge for handwriting and cursive to remain a part of the education system because of the motor skills it allows children to acquire. Professors would be pleased to hear that in a study of more than 300 students at Princeton and UCLA, students who took notes by hand were better able to answer questions (and perform better on exams!) than those who used computers.

Beyond utopia versus science, we come to our second clash, one concerned with the physical sensations of writing on paper versus typing or using a digital instrument. This conflict we call: pleasure and personalisation versus expediency and efficiency.

When Ernest Hemingway once frequented the cafés of Paris each day to write what would become some of the most influential novels of our time, he most definitely did not bring a word processor with him. All he carried were two blue-backed notebooks and a pen; he said these (along with a little whiskey and… a rabbit’s foot?) are all one needs to be a good writer. J.K. Rowling is notorious for having first drafted the infinite worlds of Harry Potter entirely on paper. Stephen King once said that the “finest word processor” is a Waterman cartridge fountain pen. Numerous contemporary writers–– living in a world fueled by technology–– stand by paper and pen as the best tools of their craft.

We have to wonder, then, what’s so special about writing on paper? First, history. From the invention of the first paper-like sheet, papyrus, in Egypt in the 4th Century BC to the invention of paper in 105 AD China to the first recorded instance of a modern personal diary in London in 1660, you are making your mark amongst a thousand-year-old practice. Second, writing with pen and paper can feel much more personal than using something like a word processor. A blank piece of paper is just that–– a blank slate. With no blinking cursor staring back at you, no formatting restrictions, and no need to worry about battery, you are given full reign to scribble in the margins, to see tangible evidence of your editing process by physically crossing things out, to insert your own unique handwriting, and to take joy in writing with a good instrument. Sure, it might be easier to have the copy-paste and command-F functions at your disposal. But what’s the fun in that?

It’s time we address the elephant in the room. The elephant being the fact that we are indeed a (sustainable) paper company. It’s fair to say that paper staying in business and in favour is in our best interest. But, who cares what we think? Take it from science, from history, from humanity’s greatest writers. We hope you see a clear winner.

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