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 paperlessCredit: S. Lynn

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)