Returning to paper: the ultimate personal technology

It’s a display with resolution higher than any screen you can buy. It’s memory that lasts at least as long as any disk, using a universal format that’s been proven for thousands of years. Despite computerists’ best attempts to kill it with concepts like “the paperless office,” paper lives.

At a recent conference, several luncheon tablemates and I grappled with a topic that sounds simpler at first blush than it actually is: How do you store your precious digital photos? A CD-R or a DVD may last 100 years, although we don’t really know for sure. But how will your grandchildren read that disc or know what’s on it?

Consider a product that I was using as recently as 10 years ago: the 5.25-inch floppy disk. I’ve got lots of files of at least some value on old-style floppies, but the only drive I own that will read them is in an ancient, closeted machine that may not even boot. If you organize your pictures with a product like Adobe Systems Inc.’s Photoshop Album or Apple Computer Inc.’s iPhoto, will compatible software exist 20 years hence? Fifty years down the road, who’s to say whether your heirs will be able to find a drive that reads your CD-Rs and software that understands their file formats?

Even in the digital world, good old analogue paper gets around all that. Print out a photo or document, and, short of flame or water, it’s likely to be around for a long time. And as anybody who’s flipped through photo albums can attest, a photo is essentially self-documenting. Even if you have no idea what a picture is about or when it was taken, and even if it’s faded, you have an inkling of what it represents. That’s something a cryptic file name on a CD can’t tell you.

At a break in the day, I noticed another conference attendee pulling out her PDA — a paper datebook. This savvy professional had been a Palm fashion victim before she chucked her handheld for paper’s directness. Ending her slavery to the time-wasting synchronization process, the slow-moving data entry of character recognition, and the tyranny of battery monitoring greatly outweighed the slim downside that she might lose the datebook. Old, reliable, low-tech paper beat high-tech electronics yet again.

I’ve personally returned to paper for things like receipts from Web purchases. Once upon a time I saved them as files, but overly clever sites kept conspiring with an overly stupid browser to save the pages incorrectly. And even when the file was okay, it wasn’t always on the machine I happened to have with me so that it could serve as proof in case of a snafu at a rental car lot or hotel. My love affair with paper was consummated when Alaska Airlines began letting me print out my boarding pass at home — which enabled me to bypass check-in.

Not convinced? If you’re reading this in the print version of ComputerWorld Canada, glance at its Web-based equivalent ( to see how much richness, legibility, and convenience get lost. The onscreen world is something, but not everything. Vive le papier!

Contributing PC World (U.S.) editor Stephen Manes has been writing about technology for two decades.

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