The Dangers of the Paperless Revolution

February 16th, 2015

From the very first day personal computers and online access became relatively inexpensive and popular, there was the dream of a paperless revolution. In other words, rather than printing all your documents, including manuscripts and even financial records, you’d reduce them to ones and zeros and turn them into computer files. In the early days, you used floppy disks for storage that were later accompanied by hard drives, but later on you used CDs, DVDs and thumb drives for removable storage. Capacity soared as fast as ways to consume that capacity .

But with easy online access came places to store your stuff in ways that made it easy for other people to read. So you had blogs and social networks to spread the word. Face-book and other companies turned the concept of social networks into billion dollar businesses that stored and monetized your words and pictures, coherent and otherwise.

Yes, you still buy printers and expensive consumables, but maybe not quote as often as before. I recently reverted to a cheap Brother laser printer that, when I use recycled consumables, costs less than a penny a page to operate. It’s rare that I need four-colors. Still, money is money, and I have enough storage at hand to keep my stuff in digital form. I can also call on Microsoft OneDrive, part of the Office 365 subscription, to place up to 1TB in the cloud.

Of course, my ISP won’t let me send that much in the way of data because of the dreaded bandwidth cap.

Now as many of you know, although I’ve worked as a broadcaster since my early 20s, I also have a long background in the publishing world. I have written books and edited and published magazines, and the romance and the feel of the printed page remains, at my advanced age, endlessly attractive.

As a practical matter, however, print is essentially dead, although some publishers may not know it yet. The remaining physical newspapers are mostly on hard times, with reduced advertising revenue and page counts, and smaller staffs. Most of the content has been pushed online, though some of it resides behind a paywall. This means you have to subscribe to get more than the paragraph or two posted to tempt you to read more.

With proper preservation techniques, printed material can be stored without serious deterioration. So it’s there for you to read a decade from now, or 500 years from now all things being equal. Maybe our heirs will need to learn our peculiar twenty-first century colloquialisms, but the content will be readable and, we presume, understandable.

But the other day, I was cleaning out a night table in the master bedroom and found a tape cassette dating back to the 1980s. To me, it was a useless piece of plastic containing an equally useless magnetic coated roll of tape inside. Why useless? Well, I gave up my last cassette recorder, a Radio Shack mind you, a decade or two ago. Or maybe it disappeared in the move from one home to another, and I haven’t had a car with a cassette player in years. For $39.97, I can still buy a cassette recorder from Radio Shack; well, at least as long as the stores last, and that won’t be long. Without buying something new, the recording contains something I cannot hear.

Before the last move to a new home, I encountered a box of floppy disks dating back to the early 1990s. I hoped I transferred that content onto CD, because it’s been years since I had a floppy drive. Truth to tell, you can still buy a USB-based floppy drive for less than $20, so you should be able to read most floppies, well except the ones smaller than 1.4MB. But even if you can read the files, would you have an app that can open them? Maybe Word, but not QuarkXPress and other important productivity apps.

And what about apps that haven’t been updated in years, software no longer being developed?

So we have documents that may be no more than 10 or 15 years old that suddenly can’t be opened unless you have a vintage Mac or PC with an older version of the app. There may be other ways to trick your computer to open those documents, but you are suddenly confronted with a wave of incompatibility in what is, in the scheme of things, a very short time.

Of course all those photos and videos you post on Instagram or Face-book are saved in industry standard formats, such as JPEG or MOV. At least they are standard formats now, but what about a decade from now? What about all that peerless prose you posted online to your WordPress blogs, or a social network?

How much of that material will still be available in the far future? What about the stuff you deposited in the cloud for safekeeping? Will the services that host your data even be around? After all, the cloud is just a network of servers with hard drives or SSDs, no doubt more powerful and reliable than your equipment, but still based on the same technologies.

A thousand years from now, imagine distant visitors from another star system stopping by on Earth to see what happened to those foolish humans whose civilization had long since vanished. How much will there be in the way of relics to assess our history? They might be able to restore and, with their own computers and expert translators, read our printed documents, but what about those floppies, those mechanical hard drives and other storage devices? Will any of it be left to decode? Would SSDs be the most durable medium?

How much have we sacrificed in the permanence of our written words and photos by moving everything to the cloud? How long can you depend on that stuff being available, particularly as new companies and services arise to replace the old ones?

Yes, print may be on life support, but it’ll be a say day for everyone when it disappears. Just recall the quaint birthday present Dr. McCoy handed to Captain Kirk in the 1982 sci-fi classic, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” and consider how real that scene might actually be in our far future.

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One Response to “The Dangers of the Paperless Revolution”

  1. Yacko says:

    Vint Cerf’s recent comments have been derided by the instant pundit crowd on the Internet, most of which is a generation that can’t conceive of, let’s say, the previous 3000 year reign of analog. They also think digital is inherently completely different. Maybe not.

    “Would ???? be the most durable medium?”

    Actually there is no durable medium. The new hardware you move the data to is the most durable medium. In fact, the best way of ascertaining whether any old data might still be good is to copy it from one substrate to another without errors. Sad to say, the only way of preserving information is to reproduce it for the newer generation, whether handed down by word of mouth, copied repeatedly in manuscripts or printed as a book. Those were the old ways, but the method lives on with new media, well…, just because there is no better method. As to formats, those are well documented and I don’t think jpeg will die any sooner than a hundred years. Emulators for just about any game or computer system exist, and given they are often the product of a single individual, if we really needed something I am sure a business could hash one out fairly quickly.

    Having said the previous, I have a feeling, as part of our condition on Earth, there is no way to save all of the past while adding to the body of knowledge in the present all the while planning the future. Whether traditions forgotten, languages lost or papyri burned, humans have been a dismal failure at saving the past. For a recent example of this debacle, feel free to read this Wikipedia article about films from the first half of the film industry’s existence.

    I believe there have been for the longest time duplicating machines using film that can dupe fragile films sprocket for sprocket, not as nice as the digital means we now have, but capable of doing a decent job. Whether it is a lack of money, lack of will, or lack of foresight, or just a manifestation of the human condition, you make the call. As I previously stated, the best way of saving the past is to duplicate it, and here we have a recent example of failing to do that with properties that at one time had (and a few may still have) monetary value. Doesn’t bode well for the future.

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