03 September 2005

The best technology ever invented

Paper, yes paper, is still the best, least expensive, most long-lived and most reliable technology:

- It doesn't need to be upgraded. Paper has not significantly changed for thousands of years. A hundred-year-old piece of paper is still usable -- readable and writable -- today.

- It does not need electricity or any other power source to function.

- It does not crash. Unless you spill something on it, or take the effort to light it on fire, you will not lose your work.

- Industry standards are open and widely accepted. Paper comes in standard formats for standard purposes: Letter-size, tabloid-size, index cards, business cards, etc. These standard sizes fit standard devices such as printers, fax machines, etc.

- It is ligher in weight and more transportable than any other technology.

- It's inexpensive. The entry-level price point is just a few cents. Usually it can be found for free.

- It's easily learned and used. Just about anyone in the world can be up and running in minutes, even a small child.

The back-to-paper movement is in full swing. You can find an eloquent manifesto on the subject by Douglas Johnston at A Million Monkeys Typing. It's titled well: "The Lost Art."

The much-maligned, all-too-often taken for granted staple of everyday communication, paper, is coming back. The back-to-paper movement is growing.

Viva the revolution!!!

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Anonymous said...

Alright, Enough!

I hereby challenge you on "It is ligher in weight and more transportable than any other technology."

We shall have a one mile race in which you carry 50,000 pages of text -- on paper. I will carry that text on my PDA.

And I'm not even in very good shape.

Unknown said...

Well, since you're anonymous it will be hard to take you up on it.

However I am up for it -- let's race!

I accept your challenge. Who gets to choose the content?

Douglas Johnston said...

First, Dave, I owe you my thanks and appreciation for your kind words about both my a million monkeys typing blog and my new paper-based productivity site DIYPlanner.com.

Second, may I suggest a second part, double or nothing, to the challenge: first one to write 10 pages using their pen or stylus of choice without getting a cramp wins. Bonus points for legible diagrams and doodles of any world leader in a chimp costume.

I may also suggest to readers an excellent MIT book on productivity in the workplace: The Myth of the Paperless Office, by Sellen and Harper. This fascinating study reveals that we still have a long way to go before the promises of digital technology are fulfilled. (I've been an IT professional for nearly fifteen years, so please understand I've seen both sides of the issue.)

all my best,

Unknown said...

Thanks Doug!

To be perfectly honest, I am as addicted to computing technology as I am to paper.

I can't imagine living my life without either.

I use paper money and digital money. I draw on paper and I draw on my computer.

Both have strengths and weaknesses, but my primary point was that paper as a technology is often undervalued.

Perhaps pixels and pencils can peacefully coexist.

I really don't have a burning desire to run a mile with 50,000 pages on my back!

Unknown said...


Is this you?

Anonymous said...

No, anonymous is I. I thought I would have to sign up to leave a comment, so I did not.

Text files? Hardly.

I am a proud OneNote user. Have you tried it?

paulmerrill said...

I totally agree about the value of paper. I even wrote a real letter on paper as a result of reading your post.

Having said that, you might visit my blog & comment. I commented on yours as I saw your post about wanting people to comment.


I do very much enjoy your blog and find it very useful as I manage 15 people.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting how many paper-based contributors flock to Flickr where you can find hundreds of images of pages along with that prove one thing for certain--the digital realm serves the analogue population quite nicely. As you suggest, the two co-exist.

Douglas Johnston said...

Dave, I agree.

I'm a firm believer in the old maxim, "the best tool for the job." Sometimes, it is certainly a digital one for me: I can't imagine life without email, online banking, Illustrator/ Photoshop, DEVONthink, and the Web. But it's a matter of knowing the inherent limitations of one's tools, much like a master carpenter knows exactly the right blade for the desired result -- with the least amount of effort. The degree of effort required is why I have learned to use paper again. You would not believe the extents to which I travelled in order to implement an "efficient" time management system; try crazy-gluing PDAs, email contacts, extranets, wikis, AJAX apps, homebrew code, and other incompatible structures, and you'll get the idea. The day I cleaned out the cluttered attic of my mind, took out a single piece of paper and a pen, and commenced to re-organise my life... that was the day when the world made sense again.

It turned out that the best tool for the job, for me, was a quarter's worth of paper and a two-dollar pen. A shock, to say the least, when one is supposed to be an Information Technology guru....

all my best,
D*I*Y Planner | a million monkeys typing

Unknown said...

Anonymous: I suspect you are not human but rather, some kind of artificial intelligence program.

So why am I writing to you? Good question!

Scott Bryan said...

I believe faith is the most empowering technology yet invented. It's the basis of our very ability to have such an enormous and complex economy (via money, law, political capital--all faith based technologies.)

What good would paper even be were it not for the faith based information it can contain? Faith in counterintuitive imaginary things, like the square root of negative one, empowers us to solve a great many equations that would be irreducible otherwise.

Faith in the integrity of our infrastructure and government has empowered people to reach ever higher levels of overall productivity (even if no one has found a way to do it very equitably.)

Faith in the constancy of physical reality has empowered us to discover a great deal about the most fundamental constituents of our world. And faith is the source of our most fundamental problems as well--the clash between ideologies that is the source of nearly all conflict.

Unknown said...

Hi Scott,

Sure, if you want to take it that far I don't think I disagree with your point, although I might say it differently. Symbolic representation -- the ability to represent abstract ideas with words and other symbols -- is probably the technology that enables all the others. And there's an element of faith in all abstraction.

Neil said...

So, I noticed your post was made several years ago. I'm curious, are you still as active a paper-user? I've been caught in the dichotomy of how real-time information in the digital age seems to still be best captured at inception on paper, with all kinds of ways to balance them both.

Neil said...

I'm curious, are you still as active a paper advocate? I've been disecting the dichotomoy between how real-time information in the digital age seem to be still best captured, at inception, on paper.

Unknown said...

Hi Neil,

Screen technology is catching up fast and I use it a lot more than I used to. I still prefer paper for many things, but I can see a day when I do go fully digital. But IMO we aren't there yet.