What Makes Paper So Special?

When discussing the merits of print communication, pundits like me tend to fixate specific applications like publishing or business communication, but don’t say much about the medium itself: paper. There are preconceptions about its inconvenience in dealing with large quantities of data (true) or its negative impact on the environment (false). However, we don’t often think about the thing itself: that sheet of mashed-up fibers on which we make our mark. Despite the realities of digital media, paper continues to be a medium of convenience, cost-effectiveness, and versatility.

The history of paper sheds some light. The word of course comes from papyrus which is not paper as we know it, but a laminate of a specific plant. The Chinese invention we know as paper (about 100 A.D., give or take a century) involved squeezing water out of a plant fiber slurry to produce a thin sheet of writing material. As the technology made its way across Asia, the Islamic world, and eventually Europe, it replaced common but often inconvenient or costly media like bark, bone, animal skins, and (most inconvenient of all) stone.

Civilizations certainly existed without paper. However, rapid, disruptive change often followed the introduction of this new, more convenient medium for communicating ideas. Just as digital is a catalyst for change today, so has paper been for centuries.

When print advocates defend their choice of media, they often cite the aesthetic experience the feel of paper that is preferable to that of a screen. Some go so far as to claim that the tangible, touchable, tactile nature of paper creates a greater sensory footprint in the brain, and is therefore more engaging and effective in communicating ideas to humans. This could be true, arguably, because we’ve had hundreds of years of collective experience with paper, and only decades of experience with screens.

Another somewhat philosophical argument for paper is that its lack of rich media pizazz is actually an advantageless distraction, more focus, a better medium for our admittedly too distractible minds.

The part of me that simply likes print gravitates towards these arguments. However, the case for paper is actually more prosaic: boring economics. Paper has succeeded through the centuries, and is likely to be viable for a long time, because of plain old cost issues.

Let me explain. Paper and by extension print itself provides an extraordinarily high visual experience for a remarkably low cost. On the communicator/publisher side, this is arguable. Print has manufacturing, storage and transportation costs that digital does not.* However, on the consumer side, the cost of print is negligible. Special devices and networks are not required, technical support and e-waste are non-issues, and paper disposal/recycling is well-established or even free. Power requirements for the paper media consumer are pretty much limited to lighting. Paper does not have a built-in bias towards more affluent consumers who can afford devices. It is also less vulnerable to technology failures or obsolescence.

All this is not to say that paper meets all communication needs far from it. However, its a real mistake to deride paper, or relegate it to the wastebasket, so to speak. Until digital meets the economic, environmental, and aesthetic needs that paper meets so well, we must hang onto both media, and look for ways they can work in tandem.

–John Parsons

* Digital is not free for the communicator, by any means. Digital storage, while dropping in cost, involves energy and management overhead that every business and publication must account for.