Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Evolution of Paper

Tea. Earl Grey, Hot.  What?  No? We don't have that yet? Well, we should.  We have everything else.  Well, except maybe a transporter. That would be cool, too.   If you look at all the science fiction worlds of the 20th century, written in the golden age of Speculative fiction, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek stands out as one that, for the most part, we've delivered on the prophecies made.   Look at our cell phones, for instance.  We might as well have Scotty beam us up.  But all this has been documented many times before, and you don't need me to remind you of it. The unique thing about Star Trek is that the society they live in is totally paperless.  And we're getting that way.  It's the next big thing, as it were. 

Take the mail, for instance.  The United States Postal Service has been losing money for years now.  Millions of it.  But since it's subsidized by the Federal Government, it doesn't matter.  So it can continue to do things exactly as they have done it for years and continue to lose money. The main problem is that they haven't changed as our methods of communication and commerce have changed.  I found it amazing, as I was talking to my grandmother, that back in her day (30's, 40's), the Mail was delivered to every house twice, a day!  They had that many letters to deliver.  Not so many bills, probably.  That didn't happen until there were credit cards and debt out the ears.  The doctors probably had someone hand write bills, or they just went over to your house and talked it over.  But transportation and population have grown since then.  You'd think there would be more letters to send, more bills to mail, and you'd think the USPS would be making tons of money.  But the truth is that there are so few letters sent by envelope and stamp and paper anymore.  Email (and now, Facebook) makes writing to people unnecessary.  We can just type it out.  & y typ out all th ABCs when we can abbr them?  It's not even worth using standard English grammar and usage since we only have 140 characters to spell out what's on our minds.  I write very few checks for my bills since they're all done online now.

My grandmother gets letters from pen pals that she's had for years now, children of friends of her parents.  And they write her, and tell her all about the weather, and about the quilting projects they have done for their grandchildren, and how the tomatoes are growing. The speed of their lives is so much slower.   They write once a week, as if that is part of their lives they couldn't live without, like a TV show that comes on each week.  As Neil Postman said, there's a correlation between the way people think and the media that they use to communicate.  Sure, my grandmother can talk on the phone, but she'd rather not.   I wouldn't either.  I like writing letters (e-mail, of course) because it's a slower paced conversation.  I talk, and then you talk, but there are never any interruptions.  And they had those letters twice a day to return, as obviously they had no TV, no Internet, cell phone...etc.  Maybe a radio, with music or the ball game, but that was it. The conversation was slower because life was slower.

But now, in the electronic age where things are so quick that not even words need to be spelled out to communicate (i.e.  LOL OMG WTF BTW IMHO...etc....), we have no need for that mail.  I'm lucky, when I go to the mailbox, if there's a couple of bills in there, maybe a pamphlet about voting for the next congressman.  Pizza Coupons,  a worthless catalog.  So I had an idea.  What if, to turn around the financial position of the USPS, they drastically reduce the days they deliver the mail.  Say Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays only.  Special trucks could be used for priority or overnight services, but otherwise, only three times a week.  Talk about saving money! Because it's just  not necessary anymore. 

What else could we change through the evolution of paper and ink? Think of Gutenberg's invention, the printing press.  Think of how many things changed because it became so much easier to create books, pamphlets, a brand new way of communicating.  Through writing.  Reading became a necessary skill, where before only the wealthy and the clerics actually needed it.  But what would Gutenberg think to see his ink and paper system turned into a series of 0's and 1's on an electric-run board with wires, circuits, etc.   Paper becomes, at this point, irrelevant.  But so many other things do as well.

If you give me a pen and a pad of paper and tell me to write an essay, my hand will start aching after about 10 minutes.  I can't stand to write anymore.  It does nothing for my handwriting skills which are horrid anyway.  I would argue strongly for the elimination of cursive handwriting in schools and the mandatory keyboarding class to be taught to every student.  Learning to type is so essential to today's world.  School would be much different than today's affair.  Every student would have a laptop or tablet, with all the textbooks loaded into it, as well as a word processing program and a network tie in with the system so that the teacher can illustrate points on everyone's machine, which could be saved and reviewed for later.  Setting aside the idea of learning from a computer online at home (which would eliminate the school building, altogether,) we should at least eliminate the need for school lockers that simply take up room in the hallways.  If everything was fully done online, with laptops, electronically, there would be no need for forests full of paper records.  This is highly beneficial for the special education section of most schools I've worked with, where IEPs and other forms are spread out among filing cabinets throughout the building.  It would combine discipline notes, communication between teachers and administrators...the benefits of this are endless.    

I would go on and on spelling out the benefits of a fully electronic, paperless society.  And I would be wrong.  Because the permanence of paper is the one gigantic thing that will always keep books, newspapers, and the mail, circulating.  What if a cyber-attack wiped out the internet completely, or a virus that destroyed all electronic data on those computers.  The results would be tragic.  No medical records, no book manuscripts, no letters between presidents and their staff. All historic information saved purely this way would be lost.  All of my blogs... gone.  Makes me sad thinking about it.  And I've experienced this many times.  I don't think I actually have a single research paper from my college days in any electronic form, as every disk I ever used went bad on me, usually before I turned it in.  So that's why I have a paper copy of all my blogs printed out and taped into a Borders bought journal.  It's all there in its low-tech glory.  So while I am perfectly willing to have a paperless society, I know the importance of having paper copies of the world's information.  It would be worse than Fahrenheit 451, because the world's works would be more than burned up, they would be instantly deleted.  No one could save it.  So let us change and rely on our electronic book readers and our laptops and our online bill payment systems.  But let's also not forget that the system that Gutenberg invented some 500 years ago has lasted a good long while, and it's permanence is worth more than all the circuitry ever made.

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