In a Digital Age, Is There a Place for Pen and Paper?

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Like most people I know, my interaction with words happens mostly through keyboards, both real (computer) and virtual (iPad, iPhone). Sometimes, I transfer words from my mind to a digital device by way of a stylus, working on an iPad. I would guess that less than 1% of the words I record these days come from the tip of a pen. Does this mean pens are soon to become obsolete? Will paper for writing become a thing of the past?

No, says Phyllis Korkki, writing for the New York Times. In “Pen and Paper Still Practical in the Office,” also entitled “In Defense of the Power of Paper,” Korkki explains why we should not give up on pen and paper. She writes:

PAPER still matters. The frequent whirring of printers in offices — despite the Internet, Microsoft Word, social media, scanners, smartphone apps and PDF files — attests to that. We may use less of it than we once did, but reading and writing on paper serves a function that, for many workers, a screen can’t replicate.

Paper, says the productivity expert David Allen, is “in your face.” Its physical presence can be a goad to completing tasks, whereas computer files can easily be hidden and thus forgotten, he said. Some of his clients are returning to paper planners for this very reason, he added. . . .

Reading a long document on paper rather than on a computer screen helps people “better understand the geography of the argument contained within,” said Richard H. R. Harper, a principal researcher for Microsoft in Cambridge, England, and co-author with Abigail J. Sellen of “The Myth of the Paperless Office,” published in 2001.

Today’s workers are often navigating through multiple objects in complex ways and creating new documents as well, Mr. Harper said. Using more than one computer screen can be helpful for all this cognitive juggling. But when workers are going back and forth between points in a longer document, it can be more efficient to read on paper, he said.

What do you think? Does does paper for writing have a future? Or is it “history”? In what contexts or for what purposes do you prefer pen and paper to digital technology? How do you think the shift from pen and paper to keyboards and computers has changed the way we communicate? The way we think?

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  • If I am trying to read anything that is not completely linear, I need paper or an app. For me this is more about protecting myself from distraction, though.

    An app isolates me inside a particular program of my phone so I can focus on what I’m doing more easily.

    Similarly, paper doesn’t distract me with other options, popups, etc.

  • Sam

    When I’m working on an important piece of writing, and I’m stuck or struggling with perfectionism, I often turn to a pen and a spiral notebook and begin to write longhand. It allows me to concentrate on getting the ideas out, however garbled and flimsy they are at first… But I imagine I might be among the last cohort of folks to find this to be the case. Yes, I type faster than I write. But this slower pace makes me less likely to want to cross out — on the screen it is backspace — and do it again. The “bad idea” that really is leading somewhere, thus, remains in existence.

    I also find it interesting what an historically consistent problem this is. Technological advancement always brings with it the concern that what once was will be no more. Usually, the old remains, and becomes adapted, even as the new becomes essential as well. Thus, mini-storage! =)

  • Cathlyn Park

    I agree completely! Printing does matter! Look at this: . From contracts to planners, there is no replacing that REAL physical presence of paper that makes it enduring and well important. If it is not printed, you are still really unsure if it matters. I think though, with the rise of tablets, that table top paper references might slowly be converted to e-documents to. It all depends on how thinner and less bulkier those tables get.