The Frontal Cortex

I Love Paper

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.


  1. #1 Mark P
    August 29, 2007

    I don’t agree 100 percent. I personally can make more extensive edits far more easily at a keyboard than on papaer. But paper certainly has some advantages. For example, viewing text on a computer screen is a serial process for the most part. The exceptions, like splitting a document, usually don’t work all that well, although well enough in some cases. If you are editing a document and need to refer to a different section, a paper copy is usually easier to deal with.

  2. #2 HAMiller
    August 29, 2007

    I understand the benefits of paper but as someone whose organizing skills are poor, I can better organize electronic files than I can paper. My virtual office is mostly neat while my real office has stacks of paper that I can not seem to decide how to manage.

  3. #3 CRM-114
    August 29, 2007

    I cannot do math on a computer screen, which is why I have a dozen or so clipboards at the ready and a variety of pens and pencils. Even the simplest of things I first need to do on paper. (Years ago I had a really great slate chalkboard in my office, and I could do math on that, or on a whiteboard.)

    I can edit my own writing on the computer, but to edit someone else’s work I really do need it printed out, as I seem to need the untouched original in black and white, so that my scribbles are always distinct.

  4. #4 donviti
    August 30, 2007

    thanks for the link, very interesting read. I had a similar discussion with someone the other day about this subject.

  5. #5 blf
    August 30, 2007

    The comments about chalk/whiteboards reminds me of something that happens (to/with me) a fair amount at work. (When I have a job, that is; at the moment, I’m unemployed. If anyone has an open position for a software engineer, please look at my résumé. We now return you to normal babblings….)

    Discussions with colleagues, other than the debugging of code or demonstrations, tend to occur at whiteboards. Writing or drawing helps to ensure sometimes non-trivial points are communicated, and (perhaps especially?) when “brainstorming”, it’s far far easier to scribble on a whiteboard than it is to write/edit electronic documents and drawings. And if “something good” results, it’s nominally then copied down into a notebook (labbook), which is, of course, paper. (There are whiteboards which can print (at least) what is on them. They can be useful but are, I assume, expensive.)

    On the other hand, it always seems to be the case none of the whiteboard markers are working, or some idiot wrote on the whiteboard with a non-whiteboard-marker that won’t erase, or there’s a “don’t erase!” notice, or some other manifestation of Murphy’s Law.

    The advantages of whiteboards are not always appreciated. At one place I used to work, there weren’t any except for a few (small) ones in the manager’s offices (and conference rooms). It took many months (a year?) of complaining and asking and pleading to get one installed in a useful place. The usual response (as I now recall) was along the lines of “it’s not needed (end of discussion)”, blatantly ignoring that the ones which did exist were used. (There is a reason that company is no longer in business!)

    Contrawise, I’ve seen (but never worked in a place which used) office partitions which are whiteboards. The (few) I’ve seen are always heavily used. Amusingly, one use is as a surface on which to stick PostIt notes (paper)! Isn’t that what computer monitors are for?

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