The Paper Tiger

A stack of paper, with convenient tin of hot chocolate for size comparison.

Those of you I have talked to recently will know I have been ditching nearly all of my paper. I’ve been a terrible, terrible hoarder of loose paper over the years. Uni notes, bank statements, school reports, bills, receipts, meeting minutes, society reports, business cards, conference guides, concert programs, newspapers, medical reports, programming competition practice problem sets… you name it, if it was paper based and I was given a copy, there was a really good chance I had kept it and put it in a pile or binder folder somewhere. Eventually the pile was put in a box, and moved to my next place of residence, and a new pile came to life.

Why would I throw out paper, when I might just possibly maybe want to keep the information for future reference, and it’s easier to put it in a pile than anything else? And some paper you have to keep, so it’s not like it’d be fair to the rest of the paper if I only kept that, right? Paper is an Object, and Objects Have Souls. I can’t just go around killing harmless, innocent paper! It’s simply not done. Somebody printed the paper and the paper and ink cost money. The paper was produced from trees, lovingly grown just for your perverse paper pleasures. Paper chemists treated the paper with their magic bleach to make it nice and bright. You can even write notes on the paper after it’s been printed, adding to its value. You can just give paper to another person, exactly as it exists, and it’s practically guaranteed to be compatible with them.

And let’s not forget, it’s convenient to have a lot of paper around in case you need to save the world with your 紙使う人 super-abilities.

Yomiko Readman, "The Paper"...if she were an MtG card.

Plus I’d like to see you fold an iPad into a “paper” crane.

So what changed?

The changes have been gradual, but like a tipping point or titration or emergent criticality, it was only in the last month I got jack of the piles of paper I was storing.

The story probably started with my mother’s mother.

Joyce Purtscher is a family historian. She was the first in our family (those of us in Tasmania, anyway) to get a personal computer and a laptop (well, it was more of a reinforced-steel-bench-top, but still). She has produced a number of indexes. An index, for those unfamiliar, is a summary of information designed to get you to the original information quicker. It’s not just books and database tables that are useful with indexes, however. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an index into all the copies of The Mercury, that tell you on what page the Calvin & Hobbes is on, what the other comics were, and perhaps the punchline? (Other people might have different ideas as to what the useful information is.) Joyce has produced indexes of things like the public records of Tasmanian orphans through the 19th century. The beautiful thing with these indexes is that for all the basic details of the record, you don’t have to go to the source, because basic details are there in the index. Indexes help you get to the right paper faster, and frequently you don’t care about the paper. And the good genealogical indexes all come on CD.

Hanging around my grandmother first taught me that there’s a lot of paper, and a lot of information on it, in the world. Much of it seemed to be located within the State Archives and the State Library. Archives and libraries, of course, take great care of their historic documents, ensuring that oxygen, moisture, arsonists, and sunlight are kept away, to prevent degradation. Systems exist for safely storing truly enormous quantities of paper. I didn’t connect the paper in the Archives with the paper at home. Paper at home was stuff that was useful to us, the paper in the archives had no daily relevance. And sure, paper is fragile. Lazily dumping it in a box under the house is going to ruin it eventually. But modern paper is lighter, and treated with chemicals so that it doesn’t rot or get eaten by mould in the same way as Ye Olde Paper.

But I noticed one other thing. The 500 megabyte hard drive out of her 486, when I had the joy of migrating her to a newer computer, hadn’t lost a single bit of information. In fact, through the years, the one piece of computer I’ve had fail on me the least, in spite of all the moving parts, has been the humble hard drive.

Fast forward out of my childhood.

In the very early 2000s, my family bought a flatbed scanner. It was a bulky USB device with a slightly dodgy driver that had to do every scan twice. Scans would come out on an angle, a bit pixelated, and with crappy colouring. On our clunky old beige computer with a “whopping” 4GB hard drive, scans took a long time to perform and a significant amount of space to store in any decent quality—and there were better things to put on the computer, like games and music. We used the scanner for emailing photos and that was about it.

In 2005, I got my Gmail invite. Email available anywhere I had an internet connection! Okay, that part wasn’t so relatively awesome as existing email solutions. But the space! Who was ever going to fill a whole gigabyte with their email? Even with huge attachments? Never delete email again!

Never delete paper either…because if email was good enough to keep forever, so was paper. 2005 was the year my paper storage really took off, and not just because of Gmail. I had just got a credit card, with monthly paper statements. I had a job for a few months, which had weekly payslips. There were things like bills and receipts. I’d have to file a tax return, and I’d never know when the bank was going to cock up and I’d need a statement. But there was still relatively little paper, so there was no problem in my mind hauling it around. I’d even got my core muscles in carting school notes for so many years, a little extra paper was not a problem.

The problem with core muscles is, though, they need exercise. In 2007 I got my current job, and in 2008 and 2009 the amount of time I spent sitting down had grown even more due to the time required for Uni. So instead of taking a lined pad with me to lectures, at some point in 2008 I started taking electronic notes, right into LaTeX on my MacBook. This seriously paid off, because

  • carrying the mass of notes was no longer a problem;
  • my handwriting was barely legible anyway;
  • because it was typeset and not handwritten, I was not hesitant to let my lecturer or classmates have a copy, and have them judge me on my handwriting.

There are other small benefits that come with electronic notes, such as searchability. The notes were mine and I had the source file so annotating was hardly an issue. Okay, so drawing diagrams quickly into a computer can be a pain, and a problem I had no decent solution for for a while. The paper wasn’t going anywhere just yet.

A few years ago I went and purchased my first ever 1 terabyte hard disk. A whole terabyte! What the dickens can anybody do with that quantity of space!? Well, it’s not hard to imagine what, when you are a terrible, terrible data hoarder such as myself. Movies, music, games, disc images, audio libraries, virtual machines. Never delete data again!

And then Apple released Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, which came with Time Machine. Backups became easy…no, not just easy, sexy. It wasn’t a question of the possibility of backing everything up. All of a sudden I desired to back everything up. Of course I had a system of CD burning backups going on before that (oh, did I mention I’m getting rid of optical media too?) but to back up everything? Differentially? To commodity, portable, external hard drives? In a matter of minutes per day? Never fear data loss again!

When Apple released Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, I heard about one really cool new feature that still doesn’t seem to have been picked up widely. As you probably know, Preview is quite a capable PDF form completion and annotation tool. I was using it for those pesky AUC subsidy claim forms. But in order to properly sign a PDF with a signature, you had to print it, sign it, and then scan it back in. Preview app now includes signature annotations. You sign some paper, hold the paper up to the computer camera, and it captures your signature, which you can then insert as an annotation onto any PDF. Super handy.

In March this year, early one morning I queued at the Apple Store in Sydney. There was only one product being launched, their next “resolutionary” product: the new iPad. The one with the “retina” display, which is admittedly an utter joy to read, compared to every previous computer screen I’ve had the honour of using. Never print something merely in order to read it, ever again!

Just to be clear though: I still prefer reading paper books over eBooks. I haven’t engaged in a War on Books yet. Books are lovely.

Finally, I got home from Sydney last month and that’s when the final straw broke the camel into tiny giblets. I took one look at the horrid mess of the room all my stuff was in and thought something had to be done. I started a War on Stuff, and thought critically about a lot of my possessions. I realised that the majority of the loose paper I had stored was for archival purposes: entirely for posterity, keeping people honest, or future tax assessments. Exceedingly little of the paper that was filling up so much of my personal environment had daily relevance.

So here’s what I thought next. What would Steve do?

Steve at Home

  • In the modern day of fast document scanners and huge and cheap hard drives, it’s very economical to scan all the paper at a very decent quality setting.
  • You can’t “back up” paper. Well, you can, but you have to copy it, which means either using a scanner and printer, or a photocopier. “Backing up” physical paper actually means archiving, which requires physically moving the paper to a stable, clean, dry storage area that’s not likely to catch on fire. To move paper to the other side of the world takes at least half a day. Backing up a scanned document means copying a file and that can be done to the other side of the planet within seconds.
  • To access paper, you have to have it physically near you. To access a file, you just have to be near the Internet. I always have at least two Internet connections on hand. (But don’t trust the cloud; encrypt your files and keep a local backup.)
  • You can’t “encrypt” paper. Well, again, you can, but again, what it actually means is rewriting a new encrypted copy and destroying the old copy.
  • “Securely deleting” paper requires a fire or a paper shredder. Securely deleting a file means knowing where the menu item is, or having an encrypted hard drive to start off with, or being sensible about your hard drive disposal.
  • Paper occupies significant space and has significant mass and associated costs, compared to the amount of information it stores. 200 sheets of 80gsm A4 paper weighs one kilogram. One A4 side scans in to my computer at about 1 MB. So if I have 1TB of hard disk space, on a hard disk weighing about 600 grams and costing about $60, I can store the equivalent of one million sides—500 000 A4 sheets—which would weigh 2.5 metric tonnes and cost $110 000 to print at uni—just in black and white! I can store even more on disk if I have the original document files, since plain text, layout information and vector images are more storage-efficient than full-page raster images.
  • While reading is optimal with nicely typeset print on paper, the vast majority of reading can be done on an iPad or some lesser eBook reader, so printing is unnecessary unless you really have to. You can make annotations easily with Preview or any number of other tools.
  • Paper degrades, thermal paper fades rapidly, and paper paraphernalia can be damaging. Staples and paperclips rust. Your hard disk can be damaged but is hermetically sealed, and probably lives in a hefty computer you won’t move around, unlike paper, which is so convenient to manhandle.
  • People accept emails with attached PDFs 99% as readily as they accept physical paper. You can complete PDF forms entirely electronically. When you do need paper, there’s a lot of printers in the world. These days you can print to your home printer via the Internet as though you were there.
  • For tax purposes, computer records are acceptable. So scan all the old receipts before they fade.
  • With a fast scanner, scanning all your handwritten notes is quite easy. There’s no shame in drawing a complicated diagram on paper simply to scan it. But with apps like Paper by 53 and procreate, drawing directly into commodity devices like the iPad is fun. Capturing diagrams like the ones lecturers write on the board can be done even easier: use the camera in your phone!

So I bought this. It’s the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500. It can scan A4 documents at 20 pages per minute, both sides at 300 dpi. It folds away quite compactly. The driver doesn’t suck.

ScanSnap deploy!

ScanSnap folded away

I have now scanned thousands of pieces of paper. I have shredded hundreds, and the shreddings are now in the compost. The other paper has gone back to recycling. My Year 7 school reports are but a few clicks away.