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Is paper obsolete? A Canadian who had a stash of new-style polymer $100 bills probably would disagree. He kept them in a coffee can near a radiator and they melted. Others have complained that Canada’s new individual notes stick together and resist folding. Canadian authorities insist problems are exaggerated and that the new plastic money is much harder to counterfeit than traditional rag-content paper. Still, it’s only a matter of time before counterfeiters imitate the technology, as they have with other safety features from watermarks to holograms, at least well enough to fool time-pressed cashiers.
Could the solution be to eliminate all currency in favor of digital transactions? Barron’s ran a cover story asking if we’ve reached “The End of Cash?” The author called the disappearance of cash “slow but inexorable.” Yet he had to acknowledge at the outset that the federal government printed a record 8.4 billion notes in 2011. While the piece asserted that “upscale merchants are doing away with cash registers,” the only one it mentioned was Apple stores. And even they do accept cash, despite urban legends otherwise.
Paper is definitely becoming less important for financial transactions. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s website makes this point graphically. Cash accounts for only 0.2 percent of the value of funds transferred; the volume is overwhelmingly electronic. But that doesn’t mean paper money has been withering. Nearly half of all transactions — 49.4 percent, according to the Fed — are still in cash. Somebody has failed to inform tens of millions of consumers about the “post-cash, post–credit card economy.” Most futurist gurus and journalists who extol it, whatever their politics, have little contact with the 25 percent or more of the population who, according to the Fed, are “unbanked or underbanked” and rely almost entirely on cash payments, with the exception of the debit cards now encouraged by Social Security and other government agencies.
Nearly half of all transactions — 49.4 percent, according to the Fed — are still in cash.
And paper remains invaluable even for the millions of people with ample credit. Globally, the increase in Chinese consumption of paper over the last five years has more than offset the decline in U.S. production, according to the Environmental Paper Network, a nonprofit promoting conservation and recycling. And according to the Economist, global paper use per capita is up by 50 percent since the dawn of the personal computing age in 1980. (Thanks to the prodigious paperwork of the expanding European Union, Brussels’s multilingual bureaucrats have brought Belgium to the number one world per-capita rank in paper use.) Paper may be less vital for conveying breaking news than it once was — according to the Times Literary Supplement, Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo transatlantic flight alone increased newsprint consumption by 25,000 tons — but it can offer four advantages: prestige, utility, permanence, and security.
As routine communications have become largely electronic, paper’s role as a mark of status has only grown. Can an exclusively electronic diploma, passport, or military commission document even be imagined? Will the bride’s family announce a wedding with advertising-supported Evites, and will the photographer supply only digital files recording the event? The more important the gesture, the more imperative a handwritten note, in part precisely because people find handwriting more difficult now. Even a commercially produced card signals that the sender has taken the trouble to visit a shop, select the proper design, find a stamp, address it, and mail it. One recent European experiment showed that even for a high-technology job announcement, many more potential applicants replied to postcards than to email announcements. And America’s continued printing of one-dollar bills signals support for the U.S. note as a reserve currency. (At the other end of the range, the $3 billion in hundred-dollar bills printed last year are used mainly overseas.)
Go into any big box office supply store and you’ll find that paper and writing equipment still occupy at least the same floor area as electronics.
In periodical publications, the web-only option often makes sense, but the e-book is far from taking the place of print. A printing signals the strength of a publisher’s belief in a book and its willingness to take a risk. Editors and reviewers increasingly rely on electronic proofs, but books issued only electronically are seldom reviewed in major media — web or print — and bought by surprisingly few libraries, at least in my experience.
Paper also remains surprisingly practical. If you doubt this, go into any big box office supply store and you’ll find that paper and writing equipment still occupy at least the same floor area as electronics. Sales of pencils continue to increase; in the recession year of 2011, wood pencil production rose by 6.8 percent. Many multifunction copier-printers include flatbed scanners that can convert notebooks into electronic files. Software handwriting recognition will continue to improve, and there are high-tech pens that even make simultaneous paper and electronic records.
And paper’s utility crosses generations. In August 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran the headline “Students Find E-Textbooks ‘Clumsy’ and Don’t Use Their Interactive Features.” Texts and other e-books are not products but licenses for limited uses of copyrighted files; they generally have zero resale value. Dominique Schurman, CEO of the 450-store Papyrus chain, told the San Francisco Chronicle that “teenagers are discovering stationery and greeting cards almost as a novelty … a great way to communicate and be noticed.” Paper reaches back centuries. Scholars around the world are still studying paper fragments that are up to a thousand years old from the synagogue depository in the Jewish community of Cairo and the parchment texts of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai.
Paper — even the cheap, alkaline kind — also appears more durable than it did during the “brittle books” panic of the 1980s. The novelist Nicholson Baker attacked some librarians and archivists as vandals in his book Double Fold for discarding rare originals of books, magazines, and especially newspapers when making microfilm and electronic backups. (Some of Baker’s targets have in turn accused him of oversimplification and ignorance of their professions, but other librarians have at least tacitly acknowledged his point. The Duke University Library is preserving in perpetuity a 5,000-volume collection of historic newspapers rescued and donated by Baker.) Electronic data can be fragile, too. Many information professionals now acknowledge that the preservation of digital content on physical media may be an even bigger challenge, since drives crash, optical disks and flash media degrade, and file formats become almost unreadable. They are especially concerned about “born-digital” works with no version in an analog format like a printed publication or LP record. Thus, paper remains the backup material of last resort, even though it is usually a poor medium for beginning research; electronic databases are far more efficient.
A careful eye can still detect phony bills and documents far more easily than network managers can spot new worms and viruses.
Finally, paper is surprisingly secure. Despite counterfeiters’ deviant ingenuity, a careful eye can still detect phony bills and documents far more easily than network managers can spot new worms and viruses with greater destructive potential. Journalists may mock the Japanese for clinging to their fax machines, but faxing can be more rational than sending sensitive information like Social Security and credit card numbers in unencrypted e-mail, as even many corporate users still do. As for voting security, even tech enthusiasts like Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey, have concluded that paper is still unsurpassed by any electronic voting system.
For all the attractions of gold to prophets of apocalypse, precious metals and jewels are not so useful in actual emergencies. If the electric grid has been hacked, how do you get past the vault time lock to your safe deposit box? And if you can, how do you get change when using Kruggerrands to buy sacks of potatoes?
A practical rehearsal not so long ago proved the point. The Cleveland Fed’s graph shows a distinct spike in currency printed in 1999. This was in anticipation of computer malfunctions resulting from the failure to patch software to deal with the millennium rollover — the Year 2000 or Y2K problem, as it was called. While actual disruptions were much rarer than optimists expected, Chairman Alan Greenspan paid tribute to the virtues of paper money in a speech in September 1999, calling the extra supply the “precautionary inventory.”
So the next time you write down another password on a sticky note and put it on your computer monitor, remember: something can become less important but more essential.
Edward Tenner is the author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. He is a visiting scholar in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and an affiliate of the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.
Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group
Paper is becoming less important in some respects, but its strengths — prestige, utility, permanence, and security — are more essential than ever.
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