August 22, 2007 by Colin
The new paper from the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy was tugging on my heartstrings from the moment I read its title:
Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal (.pdf)
William Powers, normally the media critic for the National Journal, has penned a wonderful and rambling discussion of modern attitudes towards news, newsprint and paper in general. Mixed throughout are citations from much older texts that speak of the impact of innovations in paper felt by contemporary societies.
More importantly, his essay doesn’t hew to either of the well-worn straw men seen in the current “online vs. traditional” discussion: online isn’t the harbinger of the end of paper, and paper isn’t naturally and eternally superior to the ephemeral qualities of online information.
Instead, Powers draws from texts, interviews, web extracts and book citations to look at the role of paper in our world today. At 74 pages the download may seem , but it’s a quick and interesting read.
Because I’m quirky sometimes, I was drawn to a story Powers tells of the clash between old and new cultures – a clash that modern store clerks are incapable of resolving:
“…I chose a box of basic cream-colored note paper, took it to the counter and handed the clerk my credit card. “Do you have cash?” she asked, explaining that the computer was down. I didn’t have enough – couldn’t she just get the charge approved over the phone?
Alas no, she said, waiting for the approval takes forever. “It can be, like, ten minutes.” We stared at each other for a moment. “Couldn’t you go around the neighborhood and find a cash machine and come back?” she asked off-handedly, as if I’d created the problem and needed to fix it. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. She shrugged. I left the box on the counter and walked out.
It was almost unimaginable: A chain store in a modern American city demanding payment in paper currency. One of the paramount values of consumer culture is convenience, and I suppose I was punishing the store for violating that ethos. But then, think about the errand that had taken me to Papyrus in the first place.
… The clerk was essentially asking me to make the same choice I’d already made, choose the paper medium over the electronic one, even though it required a little extra time and effort. And why not? The store is called Papyrus.”
I remember my first job, more than twenty years ago. I felt an enormous sense of pride when the assistant manager asked my to authorize a credit card. It was a VISA. Not a branded VISA – just a plain old card.
I ran the card through the table-mounted imprinter, making sure that I pressed hard enough to make an impression on all three tissue-thin pieces of paper. I asked the customer to sign.
Then, I picked up the phone and called VISA directly. I read the card number and the expiration date out loud – loud enough for most of the store to hear. Then I wrote the authorization code on the imprinted paper.
Even if one person today was willing to wait for that five minute process to finish, all the other people in line would not be willing to wait. And so, one of the daily applications for paper has disappeared.
[tags] death of paper, newspapers, online vs. inline, Powers, National Journal, Shorenstein [/tags]