I think it’s fair to say that a staple of modern humanity is that we have these fads of going down paths of traditional tool rediscovery, back to making coffee without a machine or putting records on a turntable or driving a manual transmission car. Perhaps these activities are more impractical with today’s technology, but these surpassed inventions do have their eccentric pluses, albeit sometimes in minutely discernible ways. Coffee does taste better with a Chemex or an Aeropress—unless you have a very expensive machine. (Actually, that’s not for certain either. I’m sure with the proper barista, coffee becomes so good that taste becomes a very subjective nuance.) Vinyl records have a certain charisma and sound that is almost wabi sabiish. Vinyl can decorate real well. A record player is a set piece, an interesting surgical-looking sound system. Basically, it’s a conversation piece as well as a listening piece. Manual transmissions put you more in line with car, which makes driving a more immersive experience. These are all rabbit holes of both discovery and of developed taste, which heighten the attention for detail, the passion for the whole.
We’ve been doing the same sort of about-face with writing technologies. More and more people are turning back to paper and pen or fancy pencils. The Palomino Blackwing was revived. People reveled in it. Baron Fig came out with good-looking paper notebooks and has made quite the design thing out of it. Field Notes continues to reign. Moleskine gets bashed a lot by aficionados, but it’s there, and it’s still pretty good compared to the notebooks you can find at your local stationary conglomerate.
Why go back to paper and pen? Or stick with it? It is a human naturalist argument. We worry that something is lost when we go digital. That we are missing some part of slowing down or that the permanence of paper puts us in a creative trance that digital screens do not afford. Paper traps us with the blank space, no switching of applications, and that’s the thing that we need: to force ourselves.
Or perhaps we see paper as a natural thing, a catalyst for a state of mind that was easily entered into out on those African plains? A singular focus that was certainly practiced without hinderance in a simpler time.
Or maybe it’s the absence of tools that makes us think our mind becomes more attuned?
So we continue to buy notebooks and pens and fancy fountain pens and the like, and we continue to buy books in paper format. And then we turn off our phones at certain times when we feel it is detrimental to our presence of mind. The glow of phones is said to disrupt sleeping; we freak. We dare not take notes with a keyboard for fear of less retention than paper and writing utensil. A science experiment at Princeton has spoken.
But when is that final swing going to happen? That last swoop that brings us to digital and maybe digital only, except for the collectors who wish to darn their houses with the old or the rich who still like the luxuries of creamy paper and smooth writing utensils?
Probably when it all becomes cheaper. When we can buy an iPad Pro and Pencil and not worry about breaking it or encasing it in apocalyptic-ready cases. When screens make that dim comforting paper look, so that we can’t tell we are looking at a screen. Or when screens create nostalgia. When styluses become very responsive and easy to use. Perhaps when our walls and tables become digital and manipulatable themselves. New technology, by now, has that familiar swing: it becomes cool to those who have the means, coveted by those who have not. The sorting happens. The buying happens. Prices go down on the lucky few products that have made it, and the thing is adopted into wide society.
But if you really look at our nostalgia, alien-like or Douglas-Adams-dolphin-or-mouse-like, we are forgetting that our bodies were made for adaptation. For those who have worn or wear prescription glasses, our brains can make the transition from the vomit-inducing fishbowl effect into the normal seeing world in just a couple of days; we can imagine and inhabit the entire proximity of a car we drive regularly; we can discover and inculcate.
I’ve heard about a phenomenon that happens whenever we try something new. At least once the new thing has made mass adoption. We go back to the previous way because we miss it or it becomes cool again because it’s a minority thing, and then we push all the way to adoption of the new technology we have already liked and then shunned. The old way is finally relegated to collector status. Then, pen and paper would be only used by artists and hobbyists.
In his new book, Paper, Mark Kurlansky posits that new technologies, “rather than eliminating older technology, increases choices” (xvi). He mentions that candles are still at least a $2 billion dollar industry. Are candles, which with the advent of all sorts of crazy light dimming technology I haven’t seen very much of, comparable to, lets say, paper books? Is it oversimplification to equate books, an entertainment that can be easily reproduced as far as its content is concerned, with digital means and not the wavering and unpredictable light and smell of a candle? Both look good in a home, that’s for sure.
It seems odd to pair down the continued existence of physical books with their design and their looks and their nostalgic smell (however long that lasts in the generations to come). And maybe I’m getting used to the passing of things as I get older. And I’m beginning to think that this might not be a matter of age, just a matter of the times. We are speeding up our discoveries, or maybe it just seems that way. We humans are not changed. We are still hunters of information, and we’ve always done our best to create the right tool for the job. And what is the right tool? I suppose we will spend humanity figuring that out.