Is paper dead? Not at Google, as reported here by Levenger Press founding editor Mim Harrison. And I'm as delighted as anyone. Here at Levenger, I call paper and pens heritage technology, and they have their advantages that are only becoming more clear as digital improves. The high-quality paper products we sell at Levenger are affordable luxury.
Paper is taking up its destiny as one of those things we don’t absolutely have to have, but deeply want. Some others on my list of such luxuries include Colombian coffee, French butter, British leather, wooden boats, bicycles, and candles. We don't need any of these things, but they are part of what makes our house our home.
If you’ve read the book Sprint, you know the title of this blog to be true. The Google guys use paper! Not all the time, of course, and not everyone at Google is so inclined. Even so, the revelation is telling.
Google Ventures’ Jake Knapp created the sprint process that provides the title of the book, which he co-authored with Google Ventures’ John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz. The sprint is a method, as the book’s subtitle promises, to help “solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days.”
To do that, a small group of a company’s key players devotes one full work week to prototyping and testing a new idea. But how do you get these busy people to focus on solutions for just one issue? And for five days?
Ban all electronic devices from the work sessions.
And, as Knapp said in a recent interview, “Start on paper.”
Do the Google guys know something we don’t? It wouldn’t be the first time. Or maybe we did know this, but forgot it in our haste while multitasking. After all, by one account (Google’s), we now get impatient if we have to wait two-fifths of a second for an online search to deliver the goods.
But Knapp and his co-authors make their position on paper clear when it comes to sprinting: “Even though we’re total tech nerds,” they write, “we’re believers in the importance of starting on paper.”
The reason for it may surprise you: “It’s a great equalizer,” the authors maintain. “Everyone can write words, draw boxes, and express his or her ideas with the same clarity.”
In its long and complex history, paper hasn’t always been so democratic, but inventors like Gutenberg made it so. Today paper bears a certain resemblance to vinyl records, which have become sought after because of their superior sound delivery. As with music, so with thought: when you want clarity, you seek out paper.
Paper is the slow food of thought. It invites introspection. Even the unnerving blank page can be freeing, in that it prods you to cogitate and ponder. As we once said at Levenger: rethink paper, because paper helps you think.
And it’s what enables an astonishingly quick, five-day turnaround from idea to tested prototype.
To be clear, the Google guys’ sprint methodology does not call for reams of 8 ½ x 11 paper. Much of it involves a more abbreviated kind of (paper) tablet: sticky notes, and lots of them. But certain exercises call for a larger paper landscape so that there’s space for every kind of idea capture, from doodling to diagramming.
As the authors observe about a certain phase of the sprint, “As long as everyone is thinking and writing stuff on paper, you’re on the golden path.”
Two other recent books celebrate paper in more comprehensive ways—The Paper Trail, by Alexander Monro, and Paper: Paging through History, by Mark Kurlansky. The timing, as timing often is, is propitious. Because just a few months ago, the trade magazine Publishers Weekly reported on a survey that the Codex Group conducted on the state of the printed book.
Remember how, just a few years ago, e-books were crushing print books in the numbers sold? We would all be migrating to e-books, went the wisdom of the day.
Apparently not all readers got that memo.
What Codex’s president, Peter Hildick-Smith, reported as part of the survey results was the appearance of what he describes as “digital fatigue”: consumers are beginning to tire of e-reading. They like the stuff on paper.
Where once such books would be referred to (and sometimes dismissed as) old-fashioned print, they’ve now become newfangled again. Especially for the new demographic of digital natives who are drawn to them. In the Codex survey, the 18- to 24-year olds surveyed were the ones opting the most for print books.
Does all this mean that paper is the wave of the future? No. But nor must it necessarily be some quaint artifact of the past. As a society, it may just be that we’re learning how to respect what paper can do for us, even as we embrace the electronic.
What a futurist sees
“New media never fully displace old media,” says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley and a consulting professor at Stanford. He points out that concerts and movies are still alive, despite the appearance of radio and TV. So don’t look for digital books to supplant their physical forebears. “Books as a medium took four centuries to mature,” says Paul. “Digital won’t out-book the book at what books do best.” He does offer this prognostication on e-books: “They began by trying to copy traditional print, but will quickly mature into a medium with its own unique qualities.”
Turning a page
The August 7 (print) edition of The New York Times included a stand-alone segment devoted exclusively to an excerpt from Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad. It fills 10 newspaper-size pages. Don’t look for this particular excerpt online; you won’t find it (even if you wait longer than two-fifths of a second).
In its editorial note preceding the excerpt, the Times observed, “Though we are excited by innovations like virtual reality and digital storytelling, we also recognize the lasting power of the broadsheet.”
Most of us use far less paper in our lives now, both at work and at home. That can be a good thing: we don’t get bogged down in it and buried under it. Instead, we’re learning now how to use paper just enough for it to be uplifting.