Zettel’s nightmare of digital domination

On the small paradigm shift of an old medium

Microsoft’s Word presents an icon showing a sheet of paper with a dog’s ear at the right corner. Lines are indicated that run across the sheet. Countless times a day this paperless document is opened, stubbornly proclaiming its origins in the days of paper. Not so much different from those first cars, which could not deny their conceptual birth in the age of stagecoaches. The carriage-like nature of cars with their delightfully purposeless running boards is history. We learn to better understand a new medium as a supposed borrowing from a traditional one, but this very perception also creates the obstacles to understanding the phenomenological peculiarities of new media.

Digital texts, however, are not to be understood, not to be touched, nothing is inscribed, but we possess a magic board on which signs are created that can be corrected without a trace, at least on the surfaces. Our work is surrounded by the aura of the text, which tends to be always finished, even perfect. Why then has the paperless office so far remained a fiction?? Are there lingering habits that still prevent us from banishing the last remnants of paper from our highly organized workday, or do we still need paper?. to scan away? How anachronistic are in the age of Word, RTF, PDF etc. the interfaces of highly organized hard disks and our (un)secret paper economy?

Will paper remain the medium of the future??

Paper is an ambivalent medium. It tends to the merciless multiplication according to laws, which Parkinson described as hypertrophy of the bureaucratic madness and which perhaps follow a law of virgin generation, which is not yet known to us. In any case, there is no sign of paper dying. Statistically, paper is used more than ever at present. In the U.S., there has been a 15% increase between 1995 and 2000. If it were only the force of habit, everything would speak in favor of the recurrent numbers of this media use. Quite a few application forms from public authorities have also become more elaborate in the age of digitalization. Does paper remain a medium of the future despite the seemingly powerful competition of word-processing programs?

Paper and pen are not only highly practical in terms of perception and ergonomics in their simplicity. The act of making it is more exciting than operating a keyboard with the long-term guarantee of tendonitis. Automatic typewriters subject people to mechanical processes that do not allow for individuality of presentation. The tactile surface, which experiences the act of writing as a gentle resistance, possesses aesthetic qualities that monitors might suggest, but have long since failed to achieve.

Smart paper, which combines the advantages of the analog medium with digital storage properties, has not yet reached maturity. How many immortal as well as abundant lines, documents, letters and sudelbuchers owe their existence solely to the sensuality of the superficially antiquated material? Scribbling, scribbling, painting, drawing, writing – the change of modes of representation and gestures remains as flexible as software is not yet. Paper does not know any heavy program changes, formatting difficulties and is at least not corruptible by computer viruses. Joseph Beuys’ evocations of human creativity on chalkboards and scraps of paper make the direct connection of human creative power to this lightweight medium so clear.

The freedom of flying sheets

Compared to the precision of the monitor and the objectivity of digital letters, paper appeals as a medium for creative processes. The schizophrenic graphomaniac Adolf Wolfli, for example, created huge panoramic pictures, mainly in pencil and colored pencil, on which writing, drawing, collage, and musical notes swam into one another. Paper as a carrier of multimedia stagings before time. But even beyond artistic notations and uses, paper remains a central medium of everyday writing systems. Each sheet of paper is a small monitor, flexible like a laptop, can be installed anywhere and quickly removed. For eternity or for the wastebasket. Commissioner Columbo’s grotesquely small notepad and pencil stub were often much more productive than the grid search.

Psychologists, sociologists and ergonomists do not consider such scribblers as Columbo to be incorrigible contemporaries who have not yet properly internalized the royal medium of the digital writing machine. The two social scientists Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper have in their study "The Myth of the Paperless Office" The mark of the contemporary office is not the file," observes numerous collaborative processes in which vast amounts of paper are poured over shared desks and people work informally on paper. Only after these creative passions, long processes of correction and mutual completion, the text finally moves into the computer.

The authors consider paper as a social medium with high flexibility. The common paper war shows the interest of the person in the recordings more clearly than, for example, the fixed gaze at the monitor. The piles of paper on desks, the gentle hills and valleys, made of books, newspapers, notes are not the business cards of incorrigible messies, but regularly highly organized topographies, whose owners find information with ease – without search function and index. The two paper researchers regard Papierstobe as breathing, living archives.

Paradoxically, desk piles embody the very fluidity, incompleteness and complexity of the thought process. What is not yet organized in the mind enjoys the freedom of flying sheets, the sacrificial planning before their systematization. The Stobe and Stapel are metaphors of the brain landscapes. Sellen and Harper observed binders with all kinds of idiosyncratic, highly personalized records that only make sense to the makers and insiders.

Not the paperless office, but only the archiving of less paper is the solution

Historically this is not without irony. Association in the 19. In the twentieth century, the idea of systematic organization has been combined with paper. Accounting, business reports, daily work reports were the result of a written culture that did not trust the dialectics of communication. Carbon paper and the typewriter, later the photocopier, enormously increased the productive effects of paper.

Melvil Dewey won a gold medal at the 1893 World’s Fair for hanging file cabinets that replaced horizontally confusing piles with vertical access to documents. For computer scientist David M. Levy ("Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age") Dewey was the anti-Walt-Whitman of his time, who did not accept the beauty and immediacy of the objects like the latter, but standardized them, ordered them and brought them into form. The idea of 19. The twentieth-century practice of binding paper, taming it in drawers, binders and indexes for all eternity, has flowed into our digital filing systems. Since the storage capacity of paper is poor, this function of the classical paper is irretrievably gone.

With the described advantages of paper, the system of the future will not become the paperless office, but will remain as a creatively chaotic interface between digital and analog recording systems. So readers, what you see in front of you right now. In other words:

"The mark of the contemporary office is not the file. It’s the pile."

What is anachronistic, therefore, is not the paper but the inflationary software advertisements that want to push our yellow posties, our smear sheets and inflationary paper economies into the media sidelines. Zettel’s nightmare is the de-chaoticized, creativity-killing surface of monitors and slick work surfaces. The flips and strips on and next to, above and below the monitor remain the reference to human organizational chaos or chaos management, which management consultants also prescribe to companies as indispensable for their productive future.

According to the two paper scientists, the problem in the future is not to use less paper, but to archive less paper. Paper then remains a sacrificial material – not for eternity, but for the idea of the moment. Thus I throw away the handwritten sketches to this text now. Quod erat scribendum.

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