05/14/2013 07:44 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Why Paper Is NOT Dead


A few years ago I bought a nice new computer mouse - sleek, wireless and compact, lovely to look at and lovely to hold. The trouble is, after a couple of months, it stopped working. So I took it back to the shop and got another one. After a couple of months, it too stopped working. Trawling through various online forums I found that this was a common problem, with a simple solution. You just fold up some small pieces of paper, wedge them in around the batteries to prevent them coming loose, and hey presto! A lo-fi solution to a high-tech problem. Paper saved the day.

It's often easy to forget that paper was and is and is likely to remain the most ubiquitous, the most simply useful and also the most easily recyclable of man-made communication devices. It's even easier to forget that paper performs numerous other obvious and important roles in our lives and continues to reach parts that other products simply cannot reach.

Paper is, of course, the medium through which and upon which we have for centuries enjoyed reading literature and looking at art. But it's also served us a packaging. And money. Some pieces of paper are priceless: mostly, it ends up as trash. It is the bearer of good news, and a transmitter of despair. Steel, timber and concrete may usefully serve as the foundations of a house, but paper has served for two thousand years as the foundation of entire cultures, governments and economic systems.

Paper also remains the spiritual technology par excellence, the perfect multi-faith, multi-purpose platform for almost any religious event or occasion, having the advantage over other popular spiritual technologies, such as, say, blood, animal carcasses, crystals, hairshirts, metal cilices, or Scientology E-meters, being light, flexible, flammable, capable of being decorated and inscribed, and not requiring batteries.

Anything and everything has been made from paper. The current standard industry figures suggest that there are around 14,000 designed end uses for the stuff, but that's only the tip of our proverbial paper iceberg. There are, in addition, all the undesigned end uses - such as my improvised computer mouse fix. Paper has been used to make wheels. And flying machines - the French pioneers of early flight, the Montgolfier brothers, came from a family of papermakers, their balloons made of paper and silk. And boats. In 1878 Nathaniel H. Bishop published his Voyage of the Paper Canoe, his hymn to the "American paper boat," being an account of his 2,500 mile journey from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, manufacturers discovered that just about every sort of household item and requisite could be moulded and made from cheap papier mâché, and tricked out with decorative transfer print floral designs - and so they were, including beds, wardrobes, cupboards, what-nots and tea-trays. You might almost have lived in an entirely paper house - wallpapered, paper curtains, paper carpet, paper furniture - and dressed in paper clothes. Paper, to borrow a phrase from the German paper sculptor Thomas Demand, is the Zelig of all materials. It can be cut, folded, bent, twisted, lacquered and waterproofed into objects of any shape and size. It is also delightfully easily disposed of: the architect Frank Gehry, who dabbled with cardboard furniture back in the early 1970s, remarked that 'The nice thing about it is that you can simply tear off a bit and throw it away if you don't like it'.

But these are only the more obvious, outer manifestations of our deep-rooted paper culture, the paper-crust, as it were, the everyday world of artifacts and objects. What's truly astonishing is the vast hidden sub-strata of paper that has informed and determined our lives, our identities and our imaginations, so much so that we might rightly be described as paper people, creatures spawned on rags and sheets, announced in newsprint, and filed away in endless paper archives. Think about it: everything that matters to us still happens on paper. We are born, and are issued with a birth certificate. We collect more certificates at school. And another when we marry. And yet another when we divorce, and buy a house, and die. We are encased and inscribed with deeds and contracts, engrafted into paper, which becomes our artificial skin - and which outlives us.

This then is the great paradox of paper. There is no denying that we are now entering a world beyond paper - or certain forms of paper. Whither books? Without paper. But we need to remember that books existed before paper, and that they'll exist long after, and it's far too early to dismiss or ignore paper in all of its other uses. As Jacques Derrida once pointed out, "To say farewell to paper today would be rather like deciding one fine day to stop speaking because you had learned to write." Production and consumption of paper is increasing, not decreasing.

Even in the digital age, paper remains the ghost in our machines, the shadow behind every act of hi-tech digital communication. The word processing document I am typing into and onto has the appearance of a sheet of fresh white paper. In the corner of the screen sits an image of a waste-paper basket. There are pages, paragraphs, and margins. I will "file" the "document" in a "folder." And you will read it in black and white, on-screen, as though it were words on a page. The paper book may be dead or dying. But there's plenty of life left in paper.

Ian Sansom is the author of the new book Paper: An Elegy.

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