In the 70s, Dad sat down at the breakfast table with the morning paper. In many cities there was an afternoon edition as well, to read when he got home. The kids all carried huge bags of textbooks and on vacation they took their favorite paperback novels. In between time, paper bills arrived in the mail, and checks went out the same way.
Today we read the paper online, the kids’ textbooks can be delivered to an iPad, novels are read on a Kindle and bills come by email and get paid via smartphones. Companies have even developed flexible displays that roll up like maps. So is the end of paper here?
In some ways, the answer seems to be yes. Paper as a means of delivering messages, much communication and even bills and memos seems as if it is being replaced. Newspapers are struggling, and the paper memo, once pushed around offices in manila envelopes on rickety carts, has gone the way of the dodo, replaced by email.
Now more and more companies are giving customers the option to go paperless with their bills, and offering incentives to do so. Even retailers are now forgoing their old cash registers for payment systems driven by tablet computers and delivering receipts via email to customer’s smart phones.
The reasons for this decline in paper use are simple: Electronic means of delivery are more immediate, offer greater interactivity and cost less to produce and deliver.
But is paper really dead? In 2009 many were predicting the end of printed books in favor of e-books as the rise of the Kindle rocked traditional publishing. This year saw a slowing of e-book sales at around 30% of the market. So what gives?
What we are seeing is that paper offers many advantages over tablets and other devices for some purposes. It doesn’t reflect in the sun, so reading at the beach is a breeze. It can be made beautiful by printing, cutting, embossing or molding. It can be cut into different shapes.
Paper also trumps tablets with its size. It can be small, like a children’s book, or large like a map. And whilst a map on your cellphone is useful for getting directions on the go, a paper map can be folded out and used to plan in a way that you can’t see on a tablet, it can be rolled or folded, and it can even be hung as art or decor.
Even with books, paper shows no sign of disappearing completely. A Kindle might hold 1000 novels, but it doesn’t make for a beautiful coffee table book. Large format books, like photography based art books or even cookbooks are actually increasing in popularity thanks to on demand printing.
So paper continues to have a place as a tool of art and beauty, if not of utility. Beautiful books, artworks and even packaging will have a place in our lives for a long time to come. But paper as utility, to deliver messages, or bills and receipts, or even much of our news, is more costly and a waste of a resource, and it is those uses of paper, rather than paper itself, that we are seeing coming to an end.