I count myself as fortunate because I was born into a family and a generation that gave me a great appreciation of paper as a tool for thought. On the family side, my Dad first went to a school that used chalk and slates. This meant that in later life he had a massive appreciation for how cheap paper had become and how useful it was. You could write something down and because you didn't have to wipe it away the next time you needed to write something down, you could put it in a pile (!) and when you needed to remember it, just find it and read it.
At once of course you can imagine what my Dad's working room looked like - piles upon piles of paper. A geography and geology of records and this is where my generational fortune occurs. Computers cheap enough to be in the home and the small office did arrive in my childhood, but only slowly and the functionality developed slowly. So, in the first case, when confronted by the problems embodied by my Dad's paper geology I had to look to the ideas and techniques existing in the physical realm. (For an example, see this article on filing I linked to in Edition #003.)
In parallel with this, before age 12, just about everything at my school worked on paper. I even recall that cheap photocopying had not arrived for most of that time and we would receive duplicated worksheets covered in the characteristic purple of a spirit duplicator. Alongside the panoply of stationery (rollerballs, fountain pens, pencils, mechanical pencils, drawing aids, squared paper, graph paper, tracing paper and more) this all built a sense of physicality of working with paper. Intellectual work had a physical component - and if I'm honest, one I wasn't that good at. My handwriting was and remains slow and not very good looking. I draw in the style of a draftsman, but one who is quite error-prone. Crossings out and correction fluid have always been part of my paper experience.
Through my time in secondary school and university, computers made rapid strides. Along the way they addressed the two problems I've mentioned here. In digitising filing, computers took the piles of paper off the desk and in theory at least, via things like text search, made it easier to find what you are looking for. Secondly, the digital interface makes it much easier to correct errors. When I type the wrong letter, I just delete it and carry on. For me in particular, this was very freeing as the crossings out etc had always put a brake on my writing speed.
And yet... not only was paper still everywhere, it still seemed useful. It was a few years after university I came across a book that articulated for me some of the reasons why. In The Myth of the Paperless Office, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper apply the concept of "Affordances" (coined by James Gibson in 1966) to paper and digital systems. In particular how the "physical properties of paper (its being thin, light, porous, opaque, and flexible) afford the human actions of grasping, carrying, folding, writing, and so on" and how all this enables certain kinds of action and thought. We'll return another day to the things digital is good for, the book has a list and advances in technology have solved some of the problems pointed to in the book.
The book is well worth reading if you have the time, but for brevity I'll highlight just three things paper seemed to be good for at that time which I believe are still true now: memory offload, attention management and arranging information in space. In talking about these it will be clear that digital technology is on the road to catching up with paper - but I think for now it is usually easier to do these things with paper, especially without certain quite expensive devices (e.g. big monitors, tablets.)
As I mentioned in my review of Artefact cards in the last edition one thing pieces of paper excel at is somewhere to quickly jot down some things that are in your mind. We know that working memory is typically quite limited so this can have big benefits in a thinking process. As part of the offload process we can put certain items in certain places, which moves the remembering process from verbal to physical memory. As the Myth of the Paperless Office books notes from the case of air traffic controllers we can also fold the paper to hide some of the details, or turn over the piece of paper to write connected but distinct information.
The pieces of paper can be arranged and rearranged in physical space easily to explore new connections and hierarchies. You can do this on a digital whiteboard, but we should note the way our spatial memory works better for things distributed by (and across the span of) our hands and arms compared to flicking things around with a mouse.
Finally, what I've called attention management covers a couple of different issues. First, as above with memory offload, paper can easily be covered or folded to reduce complexity. It's also simple to put things out of the field of view and easy to bring them back later. This is useful not only for managing the level of detail, but also can help in keeping on topic - with lateral thoughts put aside for another time.
Secondly, there are in built constraints. The drawings or tables can only be as good as your pen, paper and time - but you don't interrupt your flow firing up a different piece of software to make them better. Likewise, general purpose computers hold a multitude of distractions (especially incoming communications) that working with paper does not.
Is paper the best tool for everything? Definitely not. Is it still useful for some parts of the thinking process? I think so, especially when cost is factored in.
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