malcom gladwell on the social life of paper. 11.14.2005, 4:22 PM
posted by lisa lynch
I'm going to devote a series of posts to some (mostly online) texts that have been useful in my teaching and thinking about new media, textuality, and print technologies over the past few years. To start, I'd like to resurrect a three-year old New Yorker piece by Malcom Gladwell called "The Social Life Of Paper," which distills the arguments of Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper's book The Myth of the Paperless Office.
Gladwell (like Sellen and Harper) is interested in whether or not giving up paper entirely is practical or even possible. He suggests that for some tasks, paper remains the "killer app;" attempts to digitize such tasks might actually make them more difficult to do. His most compelling example, in the opening paragraph of his article, is the work of the air traffic controller:
On a busy day, a typical air-traffic controller might be in charge of as many as twenty-five airplanes at a time--some ascending, some descending, each at a different altitude and travelling at a different speed. He peers at a large, monochromatic radar console, tracking the movement of tiny tagged blips moving slowly across the screen. He talks to the sector where a plane is headed, and talks to the pilots passing through his sector, and talks to the other controllers about any new traffic on the horizon. And, as a controller juggles all those planes overhead, he scribbles notes on little pieces of paper, moving them around on his desk as he does. Air-traffic control depends on computers and radar. It also depends, heavily, on paper and ink.
Gladwell goes on to make the point that this while kind of reliance on bit of paper drives productivity-managers crazy, anyone who tries to change the way that an air traffic controller works is overlooking a simple fact: the strips of paper supply a stream of "cues" that mesh beautifully with the cognitive labor of the air traffic controller; they are, Gladwell says, "physical manifestations of what goes on inside his head."
Expanding on this example, Gladwell goes on to argue that while computers are excellent at storing information -- much better than the file cabinet with its paper documents -- they are often less useful for collaborative work and for the sort of intellectual tasks that are facilitated by piles of paper one can shuffle, rearrange, edit and discard on one's desk.
"The problem that paper solves," he writes, "is the problem that most concerns us today, which is how to support knowledge work. In fretting over paper, we have been tripped up by a historical accident of innovation, confused by the assumption that the most important invention is always the most recent. Had the computer come first -- and paper second -- no one would raise an eyebrow at the flight strips cluttering our air-traffic-control centers."
This is a pretty strong statement, and I find the logic both seductive and a bit flawed. I'm seduced because I too have piles of paper all over the place, and I'd like to think that these are not simply bits of dead tree, but instead artifacts intrinsic to knowledge work. But I'm skeptical because I think it's safe to assume that standard cognitive processes can change from generation to generation; for example, those who are growing up using ichat and texting are less likely to think of bits and scraps of paper as representative of cognitive immediacy in the same way I do.
When I've taught this essay, I usually also assign Sven Birkets' Into the Electronic Millenium, a text which argues (in a somewhat Lamarckian way) that electronic mediation is pretty much rewiring our brains in a way that makes it impossible for computer-mediated youth to process information in the same way as their elders. Most of them will agree with both Gladwell and Birkets -- yes, there will always be a need for paper because our brain will always process certain things certain ways, but also yes, digital technologies are changing the way that our brain works. My job is to get them to see that those two concepts contradict one another. Birkets espouses a peculiar and curmudgeonly sort of technological determinism. Gladwell, on the other hand, with his focus on an embodied way of knowing, flips the equation and wonders how best to get technology to work FOR us, instead of thinking how technology might work ON us.
I can see why my students are drawn to both arguments: even though I don't essentially agree with either essay, I often catch myself falling into Birket's trap of extreme technological determinism -- or alternately, thinking, like Gladwell, that because a certain way of doing things seems optimal it must be the "natural" way to do it.
Ray Cha on November 15, 2005 4:03 PM:
Lisa raises some interesting points on using paper. Papers on a desk remind of an article defending the cluttered desk in the Economist "In praise of clutter" (available for pay) which was published a few years ago. Psychologist Alison Kidd claims that a desk is a physical manifestation of our brains and that paper on a workspace is a tool to organize thoughts and ideas even before their categories exist. Seeing everything laid out help us process and organize all that information. Steve Whittaker and Julia Hirschberg of ATT Labs-Research explain that often clutter on a desk forms concentric circles with the most current and important information in the center. As information becomes less important, they get pushed outward until they get filed or thrown away in the garbage pail. Currently, even the largest monitors are much smaller than the average desk. Will the end of stacks of paper on our desk arrive when we reach the point where my entire desktop becomes a flat touch screen with reliable handwriting reorganization software? A lot of that will depend upon how seamlessly files will be able to be transferred from desk to PDA to memory stick to mobile device. I'm not throwing away my pads and Post-It notes just yet.
gary frost on November 15, 2005 9:21 PM:
Why is it assumed that there is a direct connection between paper and electronic communication? It is just as likely that print reading and screen reading are on separate tangents.
I think the connections are forced on us because screen presentation can mimic any of the parent reading modes; orality, writing or print. This compiling is in itself a distinctive technical achievement, but not a paradigm shift. Screen reading may face an uncertain future. Search query results, flight plan vectors, and graphic display of visual pattern may not induce persistent, attentive human monitoring.
Screen based games have required constant innovation to sustain human interest. Attentive TV viewing is in decline. Screen based research tools for scholarly work have required increasing scope and display innovation to produce sustained enthusiasm. I just attended a demonstration of display tools for graphic representation of the renditions of the poems of Walt Whitman across the editions including the graphic display of word repeats and word frequencies. The specialists were making their own assessments of how such an accessory could augment, but not direct, future Whitman research.
Meanwhile book publication continues to grow1% to 5% a year depending on category. Use of paper for human display presentation grows faster yet. It difficult to consider screen based presentation as growing at the expense of print.
peterme on November 16, 2005 12:41 AM:
A long time ago, I wrote a piece demonstrating the Mack Truck-size holes in Malcolm's argument.
bob stein on November 16, 2005 7:24 AM:
Peter Merholz's critique of Gladwell is spot-on. we're in the early stages of a dramatic shift in the way that humans communicate. going in, paper was the main way we stored information and knowledge. only 30 years in, paper has already lost a lot of ground. coming out, sometime in the next 30-50 years, the role of paper is likely to be inconsequential. not because we won't need to write little reminders which we post on our desktops and refrigerators, but because those writing surfaces will be smart and electronic. it's hard to imagine the future and it's natural to be nostalgic about what we've grown up with (and liked). the problem with unadulterated nostalgia is the same as the problem with unadulterated technological determinism. they both discourage open-minded consideration of how best to develop technology to serve humanity and the world we inhabit.
nice to see you here, peter.
gary frost on November 16, 2005 12:50 PM:
What electronic communications are "converting" in office functions are not the paper based transactions, but searching, sorting, sending transactions not suited or allocated to paper.
Paper is the state of text used for reading. Acording to Sellen and Harper, handling and annotating of paper texts during reading enhances comprehension.
It is a two way street and as the authors argue the attributes or affordances of paper they also endorse design directions for screen based affordances. But we have already learned that whatever the digital revolution is, it is not a mime of paper. It will be best to let distinctive affordances of the digital future dawn on their own.
bob martinengo on November 16, 2005 4:14 PM:
"It will be best to let distinctive affordances of the digital future dawn on their own."
Right on, Gary - thats the only way it will happen. People will use what people find useful.