Paper: the never ending story
Technology is a catch-all term for how fast new innovations of the modern world are moving. Used to cover everything from our obsession with social media to the devices we use to access it – some with a stylised piece of fruit stamped on their brushed metal backs – we forget that even thirty years ago, ‘technology’ meant a remote control unit to change our television stations with rather than crossing the room to push a button, and forty years before that, it meant the television itself.
Our digital devices might enable us to carry hundreds of books with us at all time, but author Mark Kurlansky thinks that paper is the one great human invention that refuses to curl up and die; here’s why he’s absolutely right. In his book, Paper: Paging Through History, he notes that paper is the most astonishing development in human history. After all, it is paper that has recorded much of human history. Oral tradition passed folklore and legend from generation to generation, but many a good story became embellished in the telling; although the occasional transcriber working by candlelight would alter a tale to suit local tastes and traditions, those written histories remained – largely – the same once they were on paper.
Papyrus scrolls helped to spread religious belief, and particularly Christianity and The Bible, and written instruction helped to foster other new technologies by spreading new findings in mathematics and medicine from one side of the world to the other – particularly essential in dragging much of Europe out of the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. Paper was valuable; expensive to produce, especially pre-Caxton and other European printing press systems, where books had to be painstakingly copied out by hand. Early medieval manuscripts are full of the magic left behind by those that wrote them out; complaints about the cold, or the failing light, or doodles of animals and other more ribald subjects. Paper has brought their voices down to us and shown us that we’re not so very different, even almost a thousand years on.
Now, paper seems very disposable; it seems that an established newspaper or magazine folds or goes digital only every few months, and many online news sources now hide behind a paywall, asking for our credit cards before we can read what even fairly recently was available on the internet for free. It’s no different, however, to us paying for a newspaper; something we were very used to doing even a decade ago. That in itself should tell us that the written word – even on a screen – is regaining some of its former value.
If you’re fond of reading in the bath, you’ve no doubt either splashed your book at some point, or even dropped it altogether. If you do that with a tablet, you have a very expensive chopping board, but your book will eventually dry out and be readable once again. Paper really is the technology that refuses to give in.