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.
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?
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.
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.
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?