Thursday, September 17, 2009

In defense of paper

At a PTA meeting I went to a couple of nights ago, some parents argued that, for ecological reasons, the PTA newsletter should no longer be printed and mailed. They argued that parents should read the newsletter online and not expect a paper copy, which costs the PTA thousands of dollars each year in printing and mailing costs. The counter-argument was that not all parents have computers and/or Internet access. So an ad hoc committee was formed that will look into providing computers to parents who don’t have them in the home. (Although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure that the energy required to manufacture, ship and run a computer is all that much ecologically better, in the long run, than printing and mailing a bi-monthly newsletter).

I receive the PTA newsletter by email because it arrives a week earlier that way, but I don’t want to receive all my news—or all the words I read—this way. The primary reason is that it hurts my neck to read at the computer for long stretches of time. And online text glows, which never feels natural to me. Stare at it too long and I start getting eyestrain and an ache in my forehead. I never had a headache in my life—or neck problems—until I started to use a computer in the late 1980s.

If everything goes online, I’m afraid readers of the future will be awkward head-jutting, Advil-popping creatures tethered to the computer screen (since that will be their only access to any kind of writing and all measures of entertainment), unable to move away since their physical misery will keep them from wanting to get up.

Of course, there are portable devices that lack the glow of a computer screen, and which you can read as you eat breakfast, but as I said in a previous post, unless the Kindle becomes so cheap I can buy it at the Dollar Store, where I buy my sunglasses, I’m not likely to own one. Leaving the paper Style section of the Washington Post behind on your Metro seat is no big deal; reading it on a Kindle and leaving the Kindle on your Metro seat is nearly tragic, given its current cost.

But beyond cost and discomfort, I would miss paper because books and magazines are more inviting to me than hyperlinks. Sure there are splashy web pages, but looking at a publication online, I miss the typical Table of Contents, being able to physically thumb through a magazine, letting things catch my eye. More than anything, I'd miss layouts—I rarely see an online layout that compares to a great two-page spread.

And, since I have chosen what comes into my home, the books and magazines I own or borrow from the library usually have more authority than whatever pops up in a Google answer. One of the best books I own is The Indoor Kitchen Garden, which I bought 20 years ago—$14.95 seemed so extravagant at the time. I used it to start an herb garden in my high-rise, no balcony apartment in D.C. and still use it to figure out what plants can go on my deck in containers. Plant by plant, it tells me how big the pot must be to provide for the roots, what the soil pH should be, etc. I’ve tried to find similar information on the Internet but when I type in “basil,” I’m given hundreds of pages, most not specific to container gardening, many written with god-knows what expertise. I can try to sift through and navigate the many possibilities on the Internet, or simply go to my bookshelf, pull down my well-worn book, and have my answer in a just a minute.

Postscript: I wrote this on my laptop a couple of days ago and uploaded it today, finally realizing the irony of complaining about reading on the Internet via a blog post that I now hope people will read on... the Internet.


oritil said...

Thank you for that cheer for hardcopy. A bonus with paper documents is that we have a record, eg, for evidence, scrapbooks. I often tell my children that they will have no record of their past if they only write on the computer. Even love letters are sent via Internet these days. I have letters that were written 40 years ago with information that I had forgotten but actually was significant in my life. It's also fun to share that history.
One thing not mentioned about the PTA newsletter situation is that the group in favor of online-only publication suggested that those of us who prefer to read it on the porch with a cup of coffee should print it out ourselves. I guess the cost-saving argument depends on the perspective.

Eric K. said...

Hey Beth - a couple of random comments. 1) Providing not-too-used computers to parents is actually a great idea for lots of reasons beside the one that the PTA has discussed. There is, of course, a huge gap between the technology haves and have-nots and this could diminish that discrepancy within your school community.

2) As a newswriter, I love print as well, but I have no illusions that it will remain widespread for very far into the future. Technology will improve, gradually, I think and overcome many of its deficiencies. Consider how far computers have come already in meeting consumers' needs.

3)love the "Plant by plant" phrase, which, naturally reminds me of Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird"