Last week, the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that it would no longer publish a print edition - Monocolumn | Monocle


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19 March 2012

Last week, the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that it would no longer publish a print edition.

Across many industries there is a push to digitise, from national archives and libraries to tax offices, retail, film and even fine art, with David Hockney having taken to creating the occasional work using an iPad. It seems all matters of life are being taken into the world of binary code.

The information worth keeping is to be put onto a server in a climate-controlled room and left there for future generations. And, there’s just so much information these days isn’t there?

Some tech jobs perhaps don’t need paper. If I push back my chair and peer across the Monocle editorial floor over to the web team, I see this philosophy already in action. Nothing is printed, there’s not even a pen.

But, there is value in paper. We still cling to it. I sit amongst several small stacks of it.

Many air traffic control centres still use strips of paper to coordinate flight paths despite a plethora of technologies at their disposal – technologies that themselves are often based on the metaphor of paper. Some even use a pen-like stylus to allow controllers to jot notes. And e-books too don’t question the appeal of paper, with huge R&D budgets dedicated to mimicking its appearance.

I am no Luddite, however. Although art made on iPads may not be my cup of tea, it is for some, and I do agree we don’t need paper records of tax claims.

But, with an ever-changing online encyclopaedia like Wikipedia and now Britannica, what we lose is the chance to go back and remember what we thought things were like. Our memory is only about “now”– every website is the latest version and there’s rarely, if ever, a chance to understand how it got there.

Paper is not only more tactile, and – as in the life of an air traffic controller – can offer the chance to move things around quickly, to scribble and jot upon. But, it’s also a far more fascinating way to record things. Once you print a word it doesn’t change. And who could ever compare popping in your grandfather’s USB stick with opening a suitcase of his old letters?


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