Scene one: an office in the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. Will Smart, the hospital trust’s director of information management and technology, considers whether the NHS should go paperless, the policy of health secretary Jeremy Hunt. His answer: “I think paper is just another device. I don’t think we will ever lose it.”
Scene two: a bar near Tower Bridge. A high-flying digital executive, freshly returned from a foreign trip advising one of his employer’s subsidiaries on optimal social media usage, is introduced to the handsome paperback version of my ID card book Card declined. “Ooh!” he says, lovingly flicking through its pages. (I don’t think Ben was just being polite.)
Scene three: an art gallery in a converted mansion in the Warwickshire countryside. In one room, a collection of two century-old landscapes by Constable, Turner and their peers. In the next, modern responses, with one which seems the equal of some of the paintings: a screen showing a sequence of stylised, computer-drawn sketches of a summer walk in the French countryside. The work (Summer – you can see an extract here – by Julian Opie, famous for his stylised portraits such as those of Blur) is lovely. But while it could be sold as a DVD or a screensaver, the artist has made just four copies.
I wrote and designed my book on computers, have sold most of the copies through Kindle and as PDFs, and the paper copies are printed on demand from digital files. But those paper copies still feel like the real thing. Julian Opie’s Summer is digital, but has the exclusivity of a canvas. The main exhibition, at Compton Verney gallery until 22 September, focuses on when British artists started to paint outside: an innovation in how they worked, rather like stylised, computer-drawn sketches.
Paper is just another device, but it is a rather brilliant one. You can pick it up, own it, destroy it or keep it for your lifetime – it can last for millennia if properly looked after. It can feel nice and look beautiful, it doesn’t need a power supply and it doesn’t crash. Reading paper is generally a private experience – nothing records you turning the pages – and generally a richer one than looking at a screen. The finding by Neil Thurman at City University (reported in the Times, log-in required) that people spend 46 minutes per day with a printed newspaper, compared with 66 seconds with a news website, confirms that a lot of people feel this way.
Of course, it has a lot of disadvantages too, often the flipside of the same characteristics such as its weight and permanence. But while the NHS could and should have far less paper than it does, and while some things work better on a screen than on paper, it’s becoming obvious that some things work better on paper than on a screen.
The trend towards paperlessness seems rather like the trend towards offshoring. Initially, all the movement was one way, but then it went into partial reverse with nearshoring, with things that took too long to ship in from China being made in Europe or even Britain – such as print on demand copies of books. Manufacturers eventually got to ‘rightshoring’, making things where it makes most sense to make them (as the Economist noted a few years ago). Wasn’t that always the obvious conclusion?
The NHS, the media and everyone else obsessing about digital versus paper, and the desirability of paperlessness, should embrace rightpapering instead. That means choosing what device works best in each case, with paper considered along with everything else. For some things – including books – I don’t think we will ever lose it.