Computers Are Okay, but Paper Is One of Our Greatest Creations

By Lawrence Biemiller

Atlanta -- What most of us like best about the computer is that it spares us what we liked least about paper -- erasing it, filing it, searching it for some tidbit of information, finding a stamp for it and remembering to carry it to the mailbox. At the same time, what we dislike about the computer is that it's still so far from being everything that paper already is -- lightweight, cheap, forgiving, disposable and at the same time long-lived, and most of all convenient.

Paper is convenient to an extent unmatched by almost anything else in our lives. Unlike a laptop or even a palm-sized "personal digital assistant," paper folds up to fit in a pocket -- and can still carry more than enough information to get you from the airport to your appointments in an unfamiliar city. You can read a Salman Rushdie novel on the beach, or pack a book of Yeats's poems for a bike ride, without worrying that their innards will be contaminated or jostled. The real New York Times, unlike its Internet edition, can be read as comfortably at the breakfast table as on the sofa, the john, or the subway.

So why do we not celebrate paper as one of humankind's greatest inventions? The ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia had cuneiform writing but nothing like paper; they kept records of barley rations and reed deliveries on plump pillows of clay slightly larger than modern-day charcoal briquets. You can see a whole case of them at Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum -- and you can see that it would be difficult to carry around more than a few at a time, or to keep them in useful order. Bruce Knauft, an Emory anthropologist, says early Polynesian sailors found their way around the South Pacific with the help of "sticks and stuff tied together" to represent currents and other information. The stick constructions, he says, "communicated information, but not in two-dimensional form." Hertz's map of Atlanta, meanwhile, folds handily to fit in the back of a notebook.

As far as we can tell, the ancient Egyptians were the first to come up with something like paper: papyrus. Sheets were made by slicing the pith of a papyrus stalk and pounding together two layers of slices laid perpendicular to each other. The sheets were smoothed and polished with stones or shells. Gay Robins, an associate professor of ancient Egyptian art at Emory, says the Egyptians used papyrus for temple documents, legal records, even for copying favorite poems. But it was neither abundant nor widely used: Drafts and jottings were often done on limestone flaked from cliffs, and in any case only members of the elite classes knew how to write. "They were a tiny portion of the population, 1 or 2 per cent," says Ms. Robins. "What was written down was a privileged body of knowledge. Clearly the Egyptians didn't believe that everybody should know everything."

The first mention of the paper we're familiar with dates to A.D. 105, when a Chinese court official named Ts'ai Lun reported its invention to the emperor. It was made then essentially the same way it is now: A liquid pulp full of fibers was poured through a screen, which trapped some of the fibers. These formed a thin matrix that dried into a sheet of paper. Paper was used for wall coverings and currency, among other things, and it spread quickly to Japan and Korea. In 770, while disease was rampant in her country, the Japanese Empress Shotoku commissioned a million paper copies of prayers to be distributed among important temples. One of the surviving copies is in the collection of the American Museum of Papermaking, which is part of the Institute of Paper Science and Technology here in Atlanta. The museum's galleries offer everything from Tibetan palm-leaf books to a scale model, in brass, of a Fourdrinier papermaking machine, the industrial-age precursor to today's behemoths.

The galleries also trace paper's westward migration, by way of Samarkand and the Ottoman Empire. The Moors brought paper to Italy and Spain during the Middle Ages, but other Europeans refused to abandon parchment and vellum because paper was associated with Muslim culture. Widespread European acceptance of paper had to wait for the development of movable type and the printing press -- technology that, matched with the technology for making paper, can reasonably be said to have made our civilization almost everything it is today.

Mr. Knauft, the Emory anthropologist, says that being able to write on paper changes the process of thinking. "You can compose, record, reflect -- that cultivates a certain kind of cognition. A written document can be refined over time in a way that makes it much more profound than the individual who wrote it could be at any given moment." Once refined on paper, thoughts can be copied, transported, made available to others whenever they need them, gathered for reference and comparison, and used in teaching. The marriage of paper and printing sped the increase of knowledge and at the same time democratized it, and along with it society.

Mr. Knauft points out that not all of the changes made possible by paper were necessarily good. "I lived with a group of people who had no writing, the Gebusi, in interior New Guinea. They were amazed that I wanted to sit alone for hours staring at paper. Paper is almost archetypically antisocial." The Gebusi, he says, live together happily in long houses. "The idea that anybody would want to be alone for hours made no sense to them."

Similarly, he says, our reliance on paper -- on rendering thought and experience in two dimensions -- constrains our thinking. "The two-dimensionalization of our consciousness flattens our view of the world," emphasizing information that can be presented in two dimensions at the expense of information that can't. What can be made two-dimensional can be made accessible for study, debate, elaboration; what cannot be made two-dimensional often remains obscure. For instance, we remember dialogue better than body language, even though body language often communicates just as clearly. We reduce our experience of architectural spaces to picture-postcard views of walls or ceilings, because postcard views are what we're used to. Conversely, says Mr. Knauft, anthropologists have found people in isolated cultures who can't recognize even family members in photographs, because they're completely unfamiliar with two-dimensional representation.

What can be recorded on paper also shapes what becomes our history, because what has been recorded immutably -- in photographs or paragraphs -- often ends up supplanting what we actually remember. "Our history is the writing, what's on the paper," Mr. Knauft says, "and that becomes the lens through which we then look."

Yet paper goes about its business unremarked. Newspapers arrive on the doorstep every morning without our giving a moment's thought to the magnitude of such a luxury, which would surely have overwhelmed Herodotus or Galileo. At the mall we stop casually to browse in book superstores, any one of which contains more knowledge than Jefferson would have dared dream of -- all made possible, at least in part, by paper's being so cheap and so convenient.

As long as we're in the superstore, we might pick up a latte at the coffee bar. It comes in a paper cup, and biscotti come on a paper plate, with a paper napkin. The mall, in fact, is a good place to recognize that enormous quantities of paper become not books but other essentials of contemporary life: bags, cardboard boxes in all sizes, wallpaper, wrapping for everything from straws to soap to salmon, tissues, hand towels, theater tickets, and whole ensembles of party items -- paper hats, noisemakers, tablecloths, gift wrap. On average, each of us consumes some 675 pounds of paper annually, according to the Institute for Paper Science and Technology. Barry Crouse, the institute's director, points out an irony for the '90s: Far from making ours a paperless society, computers and their printers have caused demand for paper to soar.

These days a new computer comes with all kinds of bells and whistles. It will play snippets of Mozart, flash messages overseas, check the weather, keep your mail where you can find it, search the World-Wide Web for news or information or the text of Daddy-Long-Legs. It's hard not to be impressed, with the machine itself and with the restless surging advance of technology. But look at the paper all around you -- books and bills, magazines and maps, cereal boxes and candy-bar wrappers. Then ask yourself whether paper is the achievement against which we must measure both the usefulness of computers and their importance to civilization. A new computer suddenly seems a lot less amazing than the simplest grade-school composition book.

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published April 5, 1996.