In defense of paper

In a growing virtual world, some offices have practical reasons for using the ol' notepad, pen

Phyllis Korkki / New York Times News Service /

Published Oct 7, 2012 at 05:00AM

Paper still matters. The frequent whirring of printers in offices — despite the Internet, Microsoft Word, social media, scanners, smartphone apps and PDF files — attests to that. We may use less of it than we once did, but reading and writing on paper serves a function that, for many workers, a screen can’t replicate.

Paper, says the productivity expert David Allen, is “in your face.” Its physical presence can be a goad to completing tasks, whereas computer files can easily be hidden and thus forgotten, he said. Some of his clients are returning to paper planners for this very reason, he added.

Allen, the author of “Getting Things Done,” does much of his writing on a computer, but there are still times when writing with a fountain pen on a notepad “allows me to get my head in the right place,” he said.

Paper printouts also serve an important function, he said. For long texts, a printout can allow a reader to better understand relationships between sections of writing. And paper handouts are still a presence at meetings partly because they are useful for taking notes.

Reading a long document on paper rather than on a computer screen helps people “better understand the geography of the argument contained within,” said Richard H.R. Harper, a principal researcher for Microsoft in Cambridge, England, and co-author with Abigail J. Sellen of “The Myth of the Paperless Office,” published in 2001.

Today’s workers are often navigating through multiple objects in complex ways and creating new documents as well, Harper said. Using more than one computer screen can be helpful for all this cognitive juggling. But when workers are going back and forth between points in a longer document, it can be more efficient to read on paper, he said.

A study released in 1997 showed that people’s comprehension is superior when they read texts on paper as opposed to online, Harper said. That finding, of course, doesn’t consider the vast improvements in screen technology that have occurred since then, among them e-readers.

He is doing research on e-readers, which are now used mostly for leisure reading. In the future, office workers might make more use of e-readers “alongside other devices for reading and creation, and this will add to the spread of screen collateral on the desk” while not necessarily making reading more efficient, he said.

Steve Leveen, co-founder and CEO of Levenger, maintains that digital technology is better for socializing and sharing, while paper is best for quiet contemplation. His company is in the business of promoting paper as an aesthetic experience, offering high-end notebooks, journals and pens, even as it expands to sell items like laptop desks and smartphone cases.

Paper, Leveen said, “can be a luscious and beautiful thing — the way we savor fine food and wine, we can savor paper and ink and what it does for us.”

Paper reminds us that “we’re physical beings, despite having to contend with an increasingly virtual world,” he said. People complain that writing by hand is slow, but that can be good for thinking and creating, he said: “It slows us down to think and to contemplate and to revise and recast.”

Computer styluses, too, can “force you to think more carefully about which words you put down and how to plan what you say,” Harper said. But a stylus can’t replace the physical experience of putting pen to paper, he said.

A stylus has the advantage of cutting down on the heedless use of paper, as does the use of screens. And that’s good news for trees.

As a nation, “we’re doing more with less paper, and recycling more of what we do use,” said Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of the GreenBiz Group, which aims to help businesses become more environmentally responsible.

Makower doesn’t do a great deal of writing on paper because he has trouble reading his own handwriting. And he is more organized with his computer files than with paper.

“I don’t know where to put things in the real world,” he said, “but I know exactly where to put them on my computer.”

But, he said, he knows that some people are just the opposite and that there is still a place for paper in the office. Although he conducts almost all his work digitally, he still prints out his group’s “State of Green Business” report — more than 80 pages this year — for proofreading.

“I can do a pretty good job on the screen, but there’s something about reading it in hard copy,” Makower said, that makes it easier for him to understand.

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