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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

March 22, 2014 at 10:52 PM

Paper or pixel? Don’t burn those books just yet

(Photo by MorBCN on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

(Photo by MorBCN on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

At a Starbucks near my house this month, I saw a man reading a newspaper, a woman reading a book and another woman, near them, reading a magazine.

I peered at them over my laptop, at which I’d blinked and stared for at least an hour, and felt something crazy.

I felt jealous.

Paper is the has-been of the communications revolution. It weighs a bunch. It doesn’t update. And if you want to compose a message, you can’t hit “send.”

And yet: In 2014, if you’re reading something on paper for a while in a coffee shop, I know something about you in that moment. I know that you are free.

And a part of me wants to walk up to you, shake you by the collar (OK, maybe not) and ask how in the world you manage it.

If you’ve done nothing but read books and newspapers in coffee shops since before there was Wi-Fi, you’re probably shaking your head. Are these gadget people completely insane?

Maybe. But the contrast is interesting: A few years ago I would’ve spotted those paper mongers — my laptop and iPhone a temple to new-age productivity — and felt oh so superior.

Is that a print edition of The New York Times? The one that got old the second it rolled off the presses and doesn’t have this great photo slideshow? That’s nice. And is that a hardcover book that weighs and costs twice as much as the same book on my Kindle?

I used to think people reading paper were behind the times. Now I think they’re blissfully free from them.

By “free,” you might think I mean free of work — as in, I’ve got pressing stuff to do and they don’t. That’s not what I mean at all, though work is of course a part of this. It helps to think about what paper is — and isn’t — to see why.

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When we compare paper with digital, we compare them as media — stuff on which other stuff is written. One is smart, the other dumb. Point: digital.

But compare paper and digital as devices — things made for a purpose — and it’s a different story, one we rarely tell.

Paper’s purpose is simple. You look at it or you put something on it. That’s it.

Most of the devices on which we read digital media, on the other hand, have purposes as infinite as the operations they perform. You could be updating a project spreadsheet on your laptop, but then here comes a chat message or a new blog post. You could be scanning your Facebook app on your smartphone, but there’s that calendar alert and isn’t it time you check your email again?

Even when you’re immersed in a news article on a digital device, different activities tempt you on all sides. Here’s an ad you can click. Ten other articles you can read. Some flashing nonsense about belly fat. And always there, in the back of your mind, the other things you can check before you put this thing back in its pocket. It’ll just take a minute. Or five. Or 10.

Next to the capabilities of digital, paper is dumb. But next to the tranquility of paper, digital is an assault. Alive with possibilities but full of demands. Always connected but never done. Triggers, enablers, provocateurs.

See a book in a corner and you think of the book. See an iPad in the corner and you think of everything you could be doing with it, at all hours of the day, because that’s the world these devices have created with our complicity — a world that never rests. A world that forgot how.

A world where paper is sweet, sweet sanctuary.

I said work was a part of this. Really, it’s our lust for productivity. That lust puts a premium on doing it all, and doing it now. That’s what has given rise not only to portable devices, but portable devices that do everything.

There’s an app for that, and this, and that. As we pile them on, we pile on the expectations. The device grows heavier and heavier, clings tighter and tighter, and nothing seems possible without it.

But if you’re reading on paper, maybe you know that’s just not true.

I love digital devices. They’re my superpower. But somewhere in this mechanical bounty, I think we mistook simple for “dumb,” just because it came before something we’ve come to call “smart.”

Not long ago I was convinced paper was outdone. Outperformed. Beaten. It wasn’t a question of whether paper would die, but when.

Now, I hope it sticks around long enough for us to know why we would want it to.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Books, Column, Habits, Tech Devotion

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