Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The End of Paper

By David G. Young

Cuernavaca, Mexico, February 18, 2008 --  

Distribution of information on paper will lose its dominance within our lifetimes.

Upon the walls of the place built here by infamous conquistador Hernan Cortez is an accounting of tribute to be paid by the Indians newly subjected to Spanish rule. Tens of thousands of sheets of bark, for centuries used to write down pre-Hispanic records, were among the items of tribute -- but as a testament to the changing times, the accounting of tribute was written by Europeans on a substance novel to the Indians: paper.

Nearly 500 years later, the world is on the edge of a similar transition. Unless you've taken the trouble to "print" these words, you are probably reading this on a digital display of one of several technologies -- the increasingly rare cathode ray tube, or the currently dominant digital medium, the liquid crystal diode display.

But for all the inventiveness and new means to display the written word, ink on paper remains the dominant means of distributing information. Newspapers make up a huge percentage of the volume in landfills, and are compressed to a state where they cannot decompose, thereby serving as a subterranean monument to the apex of the era of the printing press.

But these days are nearing an end. Newspaper circulation has been in decline for several decades, and those newspapers remaining are physically shrunken in size as the sections most obviously suitable for electronic distribution -- classified advertising -- leapfrog other sections to find a dominant home online.

At least most newspapers have made lukewarm attempts to embrace electronic distribution through the creation of internet editions. Book publishers, however, are still stuck in the Gutenberg era. Only a tiny selection of books is available in an electronic format, and these almost always are locked up in obscure and proprietary encrypted formats that protect the publishers' rights at the expense of readers. The electronic readers available to read these formats are stunningly non-innovative -- expensive, clunky, unintuitive, and lagging far behind display technologies used in cell phones, digital assistants and laptops.

Innovation has therefore been shifted to other channels. Google has riled the industry by its project to scan nearly all printed books and make them searchable outside the locked-up world envisioned by major publishers. A new consumer product, Atiz BookSnap is designed to let people scan their own books.1 Its reported clunkiness ensures that it won't catch on, but its very invention highlights the printed book's inevitable demise. Like a rising tide around a sea wall, the market will find a way to circumvent the publishing industry's obstacles, just as VCRs and Digital Video Recorders served to circumvent television studios' tactics against on demand electronic distribution.

How long will paper last? As a dominant medium, I give it 30 years. By 2038, those who grew up with paper and without access to computers will all be retired in the United States, allowing a paperless culture to flourish unimpeded by the boss' biases for the old ways.

Between now and then, change will come in fits and starts. This year's White House budget, for example, was released exclusively in electronic format for the first time ever. And the takeout restaurant I visited in Atlanta's airport before arriving in Mexico featured a dynamic LCD screen menu rather than an ink on paper board.

Paper books of some sort may be around for much longer -- especially as collectors' items. Printed newspapers, however, probably won't last the 30 years mentioned above. Within this time, online editions will become dominant, and the paper-only elderly readership will have to resort to online editions converted to paper for their dwindling readership.

By then, most descendents of the Indians of Mexico's central valleys who supplied the bark sheets will have undergone their second conversion in writing technology in 500 years.

The age of paper is over.


1. Washington Post, Book Ripper Doesn't Bother Publishers -- Yet, February 13, 2008