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How Going Paperless Is Simultaneously Improving and Destroying Us

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Paperless, paperless, paperless. It’s become such a hot topic that reaching for a piece of it gives me a tinge of guilt. I should be more green! And this is coming from someone who scans everything needed that comes across my desk, owns several devices on which to type notes but owns not one manila file folder. I have reallocated that file drawer space to more important items like snacks, tea and an extra pair of shoes. 

However, as much as I’ve adjusted to the paperless lifestyle, I’m cognizant of the effect it has had on my mind. Even before reading The Shallows (an intriguing book on the more broad topic of how the internet is actually changing how we think and process information), I noticed how moving to paperless has specifically changed my memory. I have no idea what my mother’s cell phone number is. If my calendar doesn’t sync, I’m late for meetings. If I don’t have internet, I have little to do at work. But those are all things I’m happy to free from my brain so it can store other things. 

But here is a tradeoff that I wrestle with. When I type notes during a lecture or meeting, I am less likely to remember what I recorded than if I had written it down. So is that time really saved if I have to re-read my notes? When I handwrite anything, I misspell much more by skipping letters in the middle of words. I’m not sure if that is an unhealthy dependence of an automatic spell checker, or because I type so much more often and faster than I write, if somehow my brain isn’t sure how to translate between the two mediums. Also, clicking keyboard sounds distract me, especially mine because I spend of good portion of my strokes on the backspace key. But when I write with a pencil, the therapeutic scraping sound of the lead against the page soothes and sometimes coaxes words right out of me.

Paper versus paperless

Beyond practical, everyday situations, I’m also concerned about the state of my future memory. When I was a child, Oregon Trail was as much as I ever used a computer and that was a special reward for well-behaved children during the last 15 minutes of lunch. So, I spent a lot of time reading paperback books. And the books that I loved as a child are still around in attics, old bookstores and yard sales. Occasionally, I run across one and smile, transported to a simpler time. But what are the younger generations going to run across? They won’t run across ebooks with crayon marks or scribbled notes in the margins. There is a saturation of digital images, more so now than at any point in history, but where will all those selfies be in 20 years? Many pictures are lost forever when the phone is dropped in the toilet (for those who still refuse to back up their data, tsk). Will we be handing down passwords to cloud storage rather than photo albums to the next generation? For those who recorded television shows via VCRs, one of the joys for me pulling those out years later was watching and remembering the commercials. With DVRs and Netflix TV show marathons, those commercials are lost unless you are dedicated and lucky enough to find one on YouTube (who didn't love the milk commercial?). 

So, I’m giving myself permission to buck the trend and do what works for me. I’ll be writing my to-do lists in a notebook, and taking a picture of it or scanning the document if electronic archiving is needed. I’ll be printing the funny pictures with the trendy hairstyles that future family members will laugh at. And I’ll take an occasional screenshot of a webpage rather than just a link in case it disappears unexpectedly.

I won’t feel guilty. But, I’ll be sure to recycle my paper notes.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Amazon Price: $15.95 $6.00 Buy Now
(price as of Feb 16, 2014)


Feb 26, 2014 11:27am
I don't think eliminating paper is destroying us...it's simply changing how we do things. Indeed it has it's pro's and con's. Regardless...whether we like it or not the technology train is moving forward.
May 31, 2014 9:44pm
If I'm going to do some serious thinking, three things are necessary: Peace and quiet, a pencil, and plenty of paper. Admittedly I'm an oldster (61) but I've been using personal computers since 1985. I love using CAD to finalize the design of something, but I prefer a pencil and paper while puzzling out how to create a new thing or process. Hard thinking always make me look for a pencil, paper, and some quiet. Somehow the pencil seems to be directly wired into my faculties of reason. I've often wondered if this is true for the current generation of high school students.

Videos go a long ways towards replacing technical books for learning hard subjects, but a paper book still has advantages much of the time. Learning hard stuff takes time, rereading, and quiet concentration. The same book in ebook format suffers from the same problems as studying on the internet--there's just too much interesting stuff stored on that ebook to tempt one away from his studies.

I share your concerns about lost memories, and the fragility of electronic memories--how much data can I still access from the first computer I owned in 1985? Probably none. Up until 7 or 8 years ago I still had a fair amount of data from my third computer (purchased in 1990 or 1991). It was on some old 720K floppies and with some effort I might have retrieved some of it... but of course I didn't.

On the other hard I have lots of letters, photographs, and business documents dating back to the seventies, and my parents still have things I wrote in grade school in the late fifties and early sixties. Best of all, nearly all of the 'data' on those old documents can be deciphered merely by viewing it.

It's going to be an interesting future. When one can conveniently pretend any surface is a piece of paper, and can intuitively mark up that imaginary piece of paper with gestures mimicking a pen or pencil, the day may belong to electronic media. But it will have to be media that is both pencil cheap and far more ubiquitous than anything we yet have available.

Thanks again for a good read,
Jun 11, 2014 6:14am
Thanks for the kind words, Brent! I have trouble parting with my old technology as well :)
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