Monday, April 22, 2013

Not Quite Paperless

Media ecology scholars such as Marshall McLuhan spoke about how the electronic media environment brought about the end of the print era, and back in the sixties and seventies when McLuhan was sharing such observations there was a great deal of doubt, because television seemed to be co-existing relatively well with print media. Sure, the introduction of television resulted in the demise of the general interest magazine, but that medium found a new niche in specialized topics, just as radio had readjusted to the new media ecosystem by focusing on playing recorded music, or news and talk formats. And yes, the number of newspapers did decline to the point that most towns and cities only had one daily, but the newspaper medium itself remained well entrenched. And the medium of the book retained its high status and general popularity, although bestsellers were pushing other titles out, and the pocket book format was gradually declining (replaced to a large extent by the trade paperback).

But holding aside the very significant questions regarding whether we have become a postliterate culture, whether people are reading as much or as deeply as they were before, it is certainly clear that to the extent that we all are still reading, we are spending much less time on print media, and spending much less money on print media. Print media industries were coasting along in slow decline up until the financial collapse of 2008, and it was that disruption that revealed the vulnerabilities in the print business model, and led to a much more drastic shakeout than what was going on before.

The financial downturn was followed by the introduction of the iPad in 2010, which may well have been the final nail in the coffin for print media. Of course, this was preceded by the introduction of the Kindle in 2007, which led off the revolution. But the iPad knocked the ball out of the park (sorry but it is baseball season so please forgive my metaphoria). Simply put, when we read documents, we hold them much closer to our eyes than when we look at a desktop computer screen, which is why we may still have trouble reading off of a computer even with the high quality of contemporary screen technology, and the same is true of the laptop computer, unless you were to awkwardly hold it up to your face. The key element was the removal of the keys, the keyboard that is, making the tablet a medium we can read while keeping it about the same distance from our eyes as we would a print medium.

Of course, publishers have been scrambling to convert their publications to electronic form, and this has met with some success. As McLuhan observed, one medium can become the content of another, and print media are, in part, the content of computer media, meaning that the material qualities of print disappear, and its non-material form becomes part of the content of digital media, as a potential stylistic element.

So, years ago folks started to talk about a paperless society, and others pointed out that with computers and printers, we were actually generating more paper documents than ever before. And this was true for a time, but in the big picture it was a brief transitional period I would venture, and now we are genuinely reaching the point where pulp is becoming little more than fiction.

But there still are limits to this transition. A French television commercial posted on YouTube last month makes for a humorous comment on the one aspect of life where going paperless can be problematic:

So, beyond the humor, there is the larger point that toilet paper is a cultural convention, admittedly one we don't like to talk about too much, at least not past the age of 8.  But it is worth noting that for most of human history, there was no such product, and people used alternative methods, and it is not entirely clear that our own practice is the best that anyone's come up with, or the last word in human hygiene (I wonder what they use on the Starship Enterprise?). You can read a bit about it in the Wikipedia entry on toilet paper, or the History of Toilet Paper website. 

The only point I want to make is that, from these sources we can learn that toilet paper was introduced in 1880. And this follows a major revolution in the manufacture of paper itself in the mid-19th century. From the time paper was invented in China in the 2nd century up to this point, the writing surface was made from linen, making it more expensive and more difficult to manufacture than today's product. It was during the 19th century, spurred on by a shortage of linen, that the alternative method of producing paper from wood pulp was introduced, and widely adopted by the end of the century, resulting in a revolution in publishing. And while paper was sometimes used for toileting purposes going back to ancient China (according to Wikipedia), the specialized product sold in rolls (a retrieval of the scroll from antiquity?) did not exist until the late 19th century.

It is perhaps worth adding in this context that both McLuhan and Walter Ong noted the parallel between Freud's psychosexual stages of oral, anal, and genital, and the media ages of orality, literacy, and electricity. And there are some characteristics common to both the literate mindset and the anal personality type.

In any event, all this is a connection worth noting, at least in passing, as we know that whether it's paper, print, or even electronic media, this too shall pass...

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