Froma Harrop | The Future of Paper

All through the long winter night, my digital gadgets lay snug in their recharging docks as Enya crooned on the iPod. It was on such a wintertide eve last December that I resolved to figure out all the things these wonderful devices could do — other than have me tend to their ravenous energy needs and update their programs. Some of them seemed to be taking advantage of my gentle nature.

The months passed, and I did discover many clever features on my digital camera, iPhone, DVR player, GPS device, Flip camcorder and automatic bread machine. New apps entered my life. I even added to my family of digital appliances. There came another camera, a Pulse Smartpen and, get this, a battery backup — a big battery that will keep the other gadgets’ batteries charged in the event of a blackout.

Face it, I’m a gearhead. But my New Year’s resolution for 2010 will be very different from 2009’s. This will be the year to rediscover paper — that is, honestly face up to the truth that, for some jobs, paper and pen work better than electronics.

I mean, did I really need a program for keeping track of the bottles on my two wine racks? Wouldn’t it have been easier to write them down on a piece of paper, then draw a line through the items that were consumed? I could have folded the paper and tucked it under one bottle. Instead, I had to activate my computer every time I wanted to change something (at which point I’d be asked whether I wanted to update six unrelated programs).

I’ve just bought an old-fashioned appointment book for 2010. What drove me to paper was the frustration of trying to find out the day’s appointments via the iCal app on an iPhone. To reach the December calendar on the small screen, my fingers had to do three taps. Any imprecision opened Urbanspoon or YouTube by mistake.

The December grid showed a little dot on any date with a scheduled event. There was no way to know whether a dot signified a session with the hairdresser, a lunch date or a tax deadline. For that, I had to touch the square with the dot. If I put the phone down for two minutes, the energy-saving feature would dim the iPhone’s screen, and I’d have to tap it again to reactivate the light.

The paper diary simply opens to the day. And it does not come with a “spell check” asking me if I meant to write “tote” when I purposely wrote “tite.”

If paper does the job, there seems no point in having to peck at a tiny “keyboard,” stopping everything to again update an app or, worst of all, hunt for an app that disappeared. Paper does not ask for a password. Therefore, paper does not reject a password because the Caps Lock was on.

I’m on the web all the time, but newspapers remain the most elegant (and efficient) way of digesting what a reasonably informed person needs to know that day. Stories on similar topics are placed near one another; you don’t have to recall a related headline three screens back. You can write on the page, and turn over the edge if you want to go back to it.

Oh, I’ll face tech challenges galore in 2010. I may want to learn how to build an “Automator work flow” or figure out the “integrated cable winder and magnetic flaps” that came with a seemingly simple pair of ear buds. But for me, 2010 will still be the year of “compressed cellulose,” that extraordinary invention known as paper.

Copyright 2009