"Paper? Ain't that extinct?"

Another of the half-dozen pieces from the million monkeys archives that I want to move into DIYPlanner.com, from February 7, 2005.


Pen and paperIt comes as no surprise to anyone following the whole 43folders-style quest for life tweaks that there seems to be a resurgence in paper-based organisational products. See Merlin's canonical Introducing the Hipster PDA (follow-up), my own DIY Planner, Scott "Jerry" Lawrence's Hipster designs, Moleskine notebooks (link & link), and now Mark Berstein's Tinderbox Cards (he would be the so-intelligent- he-must-be- an-alien-lifeform creator of Eastgate's wonderful Tinderbox information management tool).

I have to wonder about what might be the reasons for the current infatuation with paper, especially those pieces of paper with semi-structured forms for inputting your information....

Is it portability? If you look at my Palm Tungsten E and at my DayRunner, you'll know which is more portable. Even a pack of Hipster PDA index cards can't compete with the size of a Palm.

Is it fear of technology? No, not for most. True, there are some people who have never jumped atop the digital bandwagon, but this new millenium is seeing most of them either dying out or reluctantly edging into modern technology. However, a majority of people who have recently taken up paper-based planning with a vengeance are those people for whom computers are a way of life.

Is it ease of sharing or storing information? Nope. You can't "sync" paper, although you can always photocopy pages at your local library or office supply store. And have you ever had to "search" a full filing cabinet for that little stray snippet of text you need?

Is it a failure of technology to keep abreast of personal information? That would be far-fetched. There are a million-and-one ways to organise your data. PDAs, TabletPCs, Outlook, Evolution, iCal, groupware, wikis, Tinderbox, DevonThink, OneNote, or even Emacs can all categorise and structure almost any sort of data you can produce. If anything, there are too many options (hence the inherent and endless "tweakability" of solutions).

Is it cost? I don't think so. A lot of people seem to have switched from PDAs and computers to paper, and frankly, you can get them dirt-cheap anyways. (I saw a base-level Palm at a local Wal-Mart the other day for about $55 USD.) DayRunners and Day Timers can be expensive, and buying paper, ink cartridges and other supplies can get a little pricey in the long run. Plus, people seem to be fascinated with purchasing $20-80 pens for their systems.

So what is it?

Pure and simple, I think the keyword is intimacy.

Try and curl up with a TabletPC, laptop or PDA for a few hours. Your eyes hurt, the hard shape is awkward, you're constantly checking for remaining battery time (or juggling a cord), and --despite this day and age-- it's not easy to build any sort of bond or connection to a machine, especially ones so transitory and mass-produced.

However, pick up a nice little leather-bound journal, grab a smoothly-writing pen, and all of a sudden, things become sensual. There is no hunk of metal, plastic and wires acting as an intermediary, nor is there any intimation of data being temporary. What you write on paper is immediately there, forever, and the flow of thought and creativity knows no middle-man: the connection is personal, free-flowing, spontaneous, and free of modern-day digital "interpretation". You write, sketch, doodle, draw lines and circles, add stars, and otherwise feel the flow of ink laid smooth upon the grain of the paper. It's a throw-back to another time, and we might just as well be our great-grandparents writing by nib pen and inkwell alongside the dim glow of a candle. For once, we can abandon our reliance on modern technology, and experience a connection with our innermost spirit, letting it roam free upon a page. All of this, and much more, heightens our sense of intimacy with the paper before us.

I realise that this seems a little strange to most people recently immersed into the realm of computers, PDAs and PIMs. After all, aren't we just doing things the old-fashioned, inefficient way? And then there are those folks for whom the digital domain is all-consuming, leaving no fuel nor inclination to pursue anything as backward as paper.

But --I think-- there are many of us who have been forging technology to our sundry needs for years, and now realise that something is indeed missing. For a few of us, this something is as fundamentally simple as scribing our schedules, our ideas, our idle thoughts, our lists, our daily dramas and even our dreams upon pieces of paper. In the same we can feel more for a photograph than for an image on a screen, these intimate, well-worn and sometimes messy little scraps will be cherished long after the phosphor of our screens has faded.

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