Paperless Society

CBS Radio’s syndicated computer columnist Dave Ross captured the essence of distributed printing this way: The best thing about the Internet is that there’s no paper. The worst thing about the Internet is that there’s no paper.

Remember the promise of the paperless society? How computers would revolutionize the world and make all that wasted paper obsolete? Hasn’t exactly worked out that way, has it?

Truth is, looking at stuff on paper, rather than a screen, is preferred, which is why distributed printing has developed. Xerox is right in trying to develop reusable paper, because we’re not going to stop using paper for the written word. It’s not what we’re used to, and it’s not even Pagan.

Yes, lots of Pagans like the idea of saving trees – I’m certainly a big forest slut myself. But there’s a reason that Paganism is Earth-based spirituality: it’s a religion that’s based on the physical world, more than any other. Pagans focus more on the current life than on what happens after death, often expecting reward and punishment to catch up with us before we move on out of this shell. We value sexuality in all its positive forms, and consider sex itself to be holy. We’re very physical, tactile, and earth-based.

As much as I want to never sacrifice another tree to my needs, I know I will never read a novel as a pdf. Even those clever little electronic books haven’t taken off, and I’m not going to buy one. I want to feel it in my hands, smell the pages, hear the rustle as I turn them. It’s the same with other bits of paper. Are physical files really any more real than electronic ones? I can destroy paper as well as I can a document on my computer, and probably there are more electronic copies, so I’m less likely to destroy the only copy. But legal documents, medical records, financial statements and the like still gather in file boxes, in basements and storage facilities. We trust in them, because they’re real.

I have some emails from my late father. I also have a letter he wrote to me once. The letter has much more emotion in it than those emails. A physical object can key into memories like those pixels cannot. I can see his handwriting, tell how he felt as he crafted each word. No one will ever save a folder of love letters on their hard drive and then read them, one by one, curled up with their laptop on a rainy day as they fondly recall that torrid romance. Computers are wonderful machines that lack that quality of tangibility that we humans crave.

Now this doesn’t mean we can’t reduce our harvesting of trees. We can create paper out of a more renewable plant like hemp or by focusing on improving the recycling process. The price and quality of these products will drop as demand increases, and intelligent people are needed to step up to the plate and choose to pay more for the long-term gain. The linked reference to reusable paper is intriguing, and holds promise, though it sounds like it is not quite there yet. Gift wrapping should be done more with gift boxes or bags; this is also a great way to try out the hemp products, since people are willing to spend a little more money at this time of year.

Paper has been around for thousands of years and will not be going away anytime soon. It’s okay to love it as long as you know the price you’re paying.

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