Last week, we discussed the differences between reading text printed on dead trees (paper) and reading on a computer screen. I confessed that I’m wedded to my laser printer, since I can only edit when I’ve got the tactile page in my hand.
It turns out I’m not alone. William Powers, the media critic for the National Journal, has written a wonderfully learned essay on the strange anachronistic endurance of paper. He covers everything from Gutenberg to Shakespeare to the much-hyped paperless office, which was actually a dismal failure. But I was most interested in this bit of research, by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper. They spent a few years studying how the employees of the International Monetary Fund managed the flow of information in their offices. Although these workers had access to the latest forms of communications technology – paper was no longer necessary – they still relied on paper to work through ideas and to facilitate interaction:
The study found that paper has inherent characteristics that make it useful. These are called “affordances” because they afford particular tasks. As it happens, many of paper’s affordances are rooted in its limitations – its physicality, the fact that it can only be in one place, etc. In other words, its
weaknesses are also its strengths. The IMF employees liked holding documents in their hands as they worked with them. They said that marking up and editing their work was easier and clearer on paper than on a screen. When working in face-to-face meetings with colleagues, they liked the way that paper documents could be conveniently passed around and discussed, something that’s harder to do with a computer screen, even the smallest, lightest kind. They even appreciated the fact that paper takes up space, explaining that the clutter of paper in their offices was not as random as it appeared. Rather, the stacks and piles helped in the “thinking and planning” department, by forming “a temporary holding pattern . . . that serves as a way of keeping available the inputs and ideas they might have use for in their current projects. This clutter also provides important contextual clues to remind them of where they were in their space of ideas.” That is, the paper served as a physical representation of what was going on in their minds, giving abstract thoughts and plans “a persistent presence” in their lives.
The researchers found that paper has four distinct characteristics that make it so useful: tangibility, tailorability (we can scribble in the margins), manipulability, and spatial flexibility. In other words, all technology aspires to being a blank sheet of paper. Nothing fits our brain quite as well.