How to Use Paper in the Modern Era

by Site Author


Welcome to the digital era. Please leave your paper at the door. The way in which we use paper, and the way in which we should use paper, has changed. Paper is no longer a good way to store information. There was a time when important documents were simply filed away. We are past that. Instead of filing away paper, you should scan it, and then back up the files. With a cheap scanner and some free software, you’ll be able to search all of your files wherever you are. You’ll sleep better knowing that a stainless steel cabinet isn’t the only thing protecting them from ruin. In this way, the world is slowly moving away from paper as a storage device. You don’t see lots of new filing cabinets these days.

So how should we use paper? Paper still has it’s place, just not in the filing cabinet. While paper is no longer useful to store information, it is useful to transmit information.

For instance, I still give my students old-fashioned, paper handouts. My handouts are their souvenir from each class. The handouts encourage the students to use a pen to take notes rather than their laptop. (You can’t check Facebook on a paper handout.)

Edward Tufte recommends doing something similar with all presentations. Instead of relying on Microsoft Powerpoint, rely on Microsoft Word. Give people a handout, and then talk them through it.

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has taken that advice to heart. At Amazon, executive meetings don’t involve Powerpoint. Instead, a presenter distributes a six-page memo on paper. The first half-hour of the meeting is silent; the executives just sit there, reading the memo, and taking notes in the margin. Then, they discuss the memo.

There are several benefits to such an old-fashioned approach. Writing the memo actually helps the presenter far more than creating Powerpoint slides. As Bezos puts it: “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.” And the most effective way to communicate those ideas is by having the audience read.

A second modern use for paper is as a quick means of capturing ideas. It’s a lot easier to jot down an idea on a Post-It Note than to peck it into your smartphone. Those little scraps of paper are transitory. They hold onto bits of information, until you have time to type them into a computer.

Finally, a third reason to use paper in the modern era is to avoid distraction. Take, for instance, this terrific interview with Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld wrote every episode of his sitcom on canary-yellow legal pads. Other writers (for instance, Justin Peters and Neal Stephenson) also start with paper. President Obama has written several speeches long hand; his writing is pictured above.

In short, paper used to be static. The paper just sat there, in a cabinet. Now paper flows: from you to the audience and from a notepad to a scanner. Paper is now a medium more than it ever was before.