A Secular Age (6): Religion Today
GDC Pre-Mortem: This is Your Brain On Games

Paper Never Crashes

We are surrounded by electronic solutions to problems, but no matter what technology we develop I doubt we'll ever become a truly paperless society. Frankly, I don't think we would want to be. There is a mystique to the printed word that could be surpassed in convenience by electronic ink, perhaps, but the charm of books remains undiminished more than two thousand years after their invention.

For taking notes, I have rejected electronic devices. No interface is as easy to use as a pen on paper, no file management system is as intuitive as a notebook, and no digital bells and whistles can possibly compensate me for the single most useful aspect of paper: it never crashes. I can carry a sheet of paper in my back pocket through wind, rain and snow, and although it may wear, tear or stain, I can pretty much always read what I have written, and I never have to fear that a fatal software problem will rob me of my efforts, as has distressingly happened all too often with word processors in my life.

We are often so willing to believe in electronic tools as miraculous labour saving advances in technology that perhaps we sometimes forget that there are timeless solutions to everyday problems that surpass their digital equivalents in both their economy and their utility.


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It could be my imagination, but I think your post also serves as an analogy to the financial turbulence the world is going on.

Or are not banknotes, right now, much more reliable than their ethereal, stock market counterparts?

I've tried more digital note taking solutions than I care to remember, yet my everyday solution is the extra-large Moleskine plain cahier and fine, black, uniball "eye" pen.

If I had a scanner I'd almost certainly scan the journal pages for archiving otherwise I am resolutely analogue.

I felt this post deserved a comment.

I am a full time software engineer and designer, and I do the majority of my design work on paper (and whiteboards during discussions). Only once the objects, architecture, events, and general workflow is fully puzzled out do I jump back into the computer. Even when programming or writing xml, the notepad next to the computer works as a quick todo list or thought-pad.

And nothing beats it for doodles while you are waiting for your subconscious to sort out the rest of your unformed thoughts.

I think that those of us who work with or use computers for up to 16 hours a day don't believe in a magical digital-only world where paper and pens become completely outmoded. Not until there's a proper analog interface anyway (e-pens and digital e-paper is when things will really change).

That said, I use my iPhone extensively for shopping lists and general notes while out-on-the-town. I don't carry a pad of paper with me unless I have my backpack, so having an electronic note-taking device that is always with me is actually a godsend. However, this is a different (and clearly distinct) role.

Very good points.

I wouldn't want to argue that people should use technology for its own sake. The right tool for the job varies widely.

But for me, I find electronic note-taking much better. I can always read what I've written. (My handwriting is so poor that this isn't true, unless I write at a frustrating snail's pace.) I can find the notes I want in a very short space of time. (Paper gets misfiled, lost, and mislaid, or it's simply too much bother to hunt for the specific bit I want.) I can make notes much faster (I can touch-type at more than 100wpm; my handwriting is around 20wpm for semi-legible). And not only is it possible to keep good backups, I actually do it. (With paper, I could photocopy important stuff but I never do - and the filing problem just gets worse.) And it's very easy and quick to get copies of my notes to anyone who wants them.

It recalls the digital vs. traditional debate with artists: as with paper as a whole, some people irrationally feared wholesale replacement of oil and acrylic for an LCD and a tablet. But it's the same story--new methods can only hope to supplant or augment the status of tradition, rarely if ever completely surpassing. Even the best digitally-minded artists still have a scanner or break out the oils from time to time... it's silly to suppose something as basic as paper will ever really be replaced, nor would we want it to.

What happens when we develop electronic notepads on electronic paper? (that work well, current implementations arent very good)

Let's say its as physically flexible and portable as a paper notepad, you can write on it with a pen/stylus just like a normal notepad. And let's say we invented good OCR that can actually recognise your handwriting.

You can imagine some handy features it might have:

- Vast number of pages, much more than a real notepad of that size.

- You can write a title at the top of the page, and it will OCR it and index it for you.

- It will OCR your writing and allow you to do keyword searches.

- You can save your handwritten notes as text and images (such as a PDF). It might even be wirelessly networked, so you're backing up to your server, in case you lose the pad.

- For the artists, the stylus can emulate many different types of pen, pencil, paint, etc. Animation is also possible.


All of these features are imaginable, none of them are too sci-fi. When we develop such devices, can you honestly say that they wont replace paper notepads? Especially since later generations wont attach the same psychological mystique that we currently have to physical paper.

Heck, ever since I got a PDA, I havent read a single novel in paper form, and I havent looked back.

I'll sketch on a whiteboard then photograph the result with a digital camera. I'll take notes on paper (far easier to link two points with a rapid line) and curse my slow handwriting and inability to move blocks of text on the page, or take notes in electronic form and curse my inability to place text where I want it *now*. Tablet PCs are too low-res for me, unfortunately.

Either way, I'll try to get the notes into electronic form reasonably quickly. I lose paper notes regularly!

I agree these can be great alternatives...

Thanks for the comments everyone! It's interesting getting a wider perspective on this issue.

Jack: "new methods can only hope to supplant or augment the status of tradition, rarely if ever completely surpassing."

I agree with this sentiment whole-heartedly!

zeech: "When we develop such devices, can you honestly say that they wont replace paper notepads?"

I don't know zeech, you haven't answered my most important question: what happens when they crash? ;) Or for that matter: what happens when the batteries run out?

I imagine there will be a generation to come (somewhen) for whom digital ink is the de facto notetaking solution, just as I don't doubt that using corks to stopper wine bottles will become less and less common. I just don't believe that this means we will ever reach a time when *no* wine bottles use corks, nor when there is no paper manufactured.

We overvalue energy-expensive solutions in our industrial societies, and we often don't fully appreciate the value of solutions that are low in energy use. Manufacturing digital ink is always likely to be more resource-intensive than making paper - it will use metals and expensive battery components. Paper is just tree pulp.

I believe paper will be with us far longer than you or I.

Best wishes everyone!

Well, when my PDA crashes I just reboot it. It seems to do most of its stuff in some sort of nonvolatile memory so I usually dont lose any work.

Running out of batteries is a pain, but it's the same with the phone and all that. You just learn to charge it every night.

Digital ink displays are apparently more energy efficient than LCD displays, so hopefully they have better battery lifetimes than my PDA does.

As for "energy expensive solutions", I dunno, aesthetically I prefer a reusable solution rather than a disposable one.

(eg. wash & wipe rather than toilet paper, etc)

And dont forget the many pens and pencils you're going through too.
I have no idea how it sums up in the end. Let's say a digital ink notepad, when the tech becomes mature, lasts for 10 years or so. For an average user, how does 8 or so digital notepads stack up against a lifetime of paper and pens? Energy use, waste produced, trees killed etc. I suspect paper would still win, but it might not be by a huge amount.

I suppose if we wanted reusable AND low energy to produce, we'd end up using wax tablets or something :)

Oh, note taking aside, if everyone had a digital notepad they'd presumably be reading their books, newspapers and magazines on it.

-That- would result in -huge- savings of paper, waste, and energy.

Sadly, my paper crashes all the time. As I steadily get more and more disorganised in my old age, the sheets of note paper I write important notes on for work, gaming and all else get lost, tossed and otherwise fail to function. Crash!
I find it difficult to believe that I will ever find a more effective medium though, for quickly jotting ideas and sketching diagrams to explain a concept. I've been wrong before. :)

zeech: "if everyone had a digital notepad they'd presumably be reading their books, newspapers and magazines on it. -That- would result in -huge- savings of paper, waste, and energy."

Yes, I'm open to this argument: the hidden cost of pen and paper is the fuel to ship it out. If content were delivered digitally the energy savings could be phenomenal.

But I still wonder about the environmental costs involved in manufacturing batteries and electronics versus the environmental benefits to maintaining soft wood plantations to make paper.

It turns out to be quite an interesting non-trivial issue! :)

Incorrectness: can it be my good Lord Incorrectness has deigned to drop by my humble blog? I am truly honoured! ;)

I find the secret to keeping paper organised is the humble document wallet - I get through hundreds of them. There aren't enough colours for me to extend the colour coding scheme adequately. :) Alas for you, they don't seem to sell them on your side of the Atlantic.

Give my love to your family!

if everyone had a digital notepad they'd presumably be reading their books, newspapers and magazines on it

Given a sufficiently bright, high-contrast, sharp, high-resolution screen, yes please. It needs to be at least as high-contrast as a paperback book, at least 300 dpi, and at least A5 / paperback sized (but preferably A4 / letter, or there are things I couldn't use it for). I'd settle for 300dpi black and white, but would prefer colour. It also needs to have a sufficiently fast response that I can rapidly flick through pages / scroll to find the section that I previously noted - I remember sections of documents by how they look, not what text they contain. Ideally I'd be able to scrawl notes on it using an intuitive instrument, such as a stylus, with at least 100dpi positional resolution and preferably 150-200dpi. Finally, it needs to be sharp enough that I don't get eyestrain - the change from CRTs to LCDs, with sharp rather than fuzzy pixel edges, has reduced my headaches by a large factor.

Got one? If not, I'll stick with print.

Well, one benefit I've found with reading novels on my PDA is, that I can scale the font to whatever size I want. If my eyes are tired, I often scale the text up a bit, (even if it means I can only fit 1 paragraph onscreen).

Being able to make the text physically bigger than the print in a book has been a big eye saver for me. Being backlit also helps me, since I often read at night with poor lighting, but I can imagine a backlit LCD being less comfortable than paper for most other people.

Peter: sign me up for one of your fantasy ebook readers, please! :D

sign me up for one of your fantasy ebook readers, please!

Sure! How large a donation to the research would you like to make? We start at $1bn...

Actually that's not *quite* true. Such a device could just about be made with current technology. It would merely be horribly expensive due to the reject rate on the screens, and the battery life would probably suck.

I wouldnt like it if it was A4/A5 sized. My PDA fits into my pocket, and I wouldnt want it any bigger than that really.

Ideally we'd have a flexible screen, and it rolls or folds up into a tiny package :)

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