Paper: The Unavoidable Interface

I was wrong. We all were wrong.

Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash

In this digital era, what do you think is the life expectancy of technology like paper notepads? Do you dream of a future with a simple “Alexa, take note of this”? Or you are in the search of a frictionless way of taking notes or capturing text?

What if I tell you that the expected life expectancy of paper notepads in our daily lives is longer than an iPad, not to say “Alexa”.

iPads have been around in the face of the Earth for only a little more than ten years. Alexa is just a newborn in the tech world.

Paper notebooks have been with us for at least six hundred years.

The Lindy effect is a concept that says the older a technology is, the longer is likely to be around in the future. Under this idea, it’s more probable that we’ll still see and use paper notebooks in the next hundred years than iPads or Alexas.

The dream that never was

The dream born with the rise of the personal computer. In the nineteen seventies with the appearance of computer screens and digitalization, the idea of a paperless office began to form in some companies and businesses.

Of course, there was a big reduction in the use of paper in almost every industry, but nothing close to “paperless”. Some areas in some businesses even started to print more — it was easier thanks to the printer.

(One of the arguments in favor of a paperless office was to save trees from being converted into paper. The problem is that the production of electronic devices — in the amount that the current consumption demands — comes with a big carbon footprint.)

Personally, I must admit that when I bought a Palm Pilot — a very old handheld PC — around the year two thousand, I thought the same: a world without paper, a world without capturing or digitalizing the physical or analog world.

I was wrong. We all were wrong.

The unavoidable advantages

Paper notebooks, notepads, legal or yellow pads, journals, sketchbooks… have technological advantages that iPads, tablets, iPhones, smartphones, or smartwatches, don’t have.

  • Cheap: really, really cheap.
  • Simple: you can use notepads as examples of simplicity.
  • High resolution at a low cost: have you seen the beauty of a 0.15 mm black ink line on blank paper?
  • Wide types of input encodings: text, math symbols, drawings, vectors, images…
  • No batteries: no cords or power source either.
  • Open source “software” and hardware technology: anyone can make them, anyone can use them
  • Age-less technology: I can open one of my old notebooks from the last years of the previous century and use it as time hasn’t passed; try that with a Palm Pilot.
  • Fast responsiveness: to begin with, you don’t need to put your fingerprint or passcode, but more than that, jotting things down is faster on paper.

The note-taking brain

But the most important advantage of paper notebooks against digital ones of note-taking apps is related to how your brain is activated in the process. In this domain, paper notebooks have more advantages.

New technics to optimize memorization and learning, like the very trendy spaced repetition system, lack in what simple handwriting things down does with your brain:

  • Enables the summarization and reframing of information in your own handwritten words for encoding.
  • Handwriting is a very active visual and tactile task: you have to perceive constant physical sizes and spatial locations — paper provides physical, tactile, and spatiotemporally references to the text.
  • The use of paper enhances the experience of writing adding episodic and spatial information to it: thinking and learning begin in the sensory-motor system and is based on reference frames.

Questions for learning

So, these are my questions — the kind of questions previous to experimentation.

  • The paperless future never arrived — analog and digital writing systems coexist. How can we have the best of both worlds?
  • What analog tools — paper-based writing or drawing systems — should be part of what you do for work, study, or a hobby?
  • What the pros and cons of still using them? Do they still have value? How to integrate them into your digital daily life?

These questions are behind the course Writing on Paper in the Digital Age at where we’ll review an inventory of mediums, techniques, tools, and workflows for writing in both, the analog and digital world, contrast them with how each of us uses them, and consider alternatives to improve our daily writing practices.

What I would like is to identify and recognize which analog tools and workflows are still useful along with our digital life and design a better integration of both.


Author, psychotherapist, coach—Human behavior, UX, media and audiences—Father, husband, meditator—New book: We Are Not Shakespeare in Quarantine

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