Becoming a Digital Paper Person

ebooks digital reading technology

I have always been a paper person.

When I was a child in school, I remember very clearly that my schoolbag weighed a ton. My back ached from the dense mass hanging from it- a bag full of copy books, workbooks, textbooks and the associated paraphernalia- but I loved all those little bits and didn’t equate their various delights with the heavy backpack.

Back then, ‘fancy paper’ was a thing- coloured pages; paper shaped like animals or hearts; scented paper. All of it seemed amazing to me at the time. When I look back now I realise that I literally collected sheets of paper and found it fun. I’m sure kids today would flush heads down toilets for less.

In secondary school, I was bookish (this was a surprise to nobody) and was drawn to the subjects with the largest textbooks- history, chemistry and biology. The weight of my bag was usually unpleasant, even with a locker to stash some of them in.

Paper is heavy- and that takes a toll when people are hefting books around. In 2012, a group of scientists in Dublin conducted a small study on schoolbag weight and found young teenagers carrying bags weighing up to 11kg every day. In July 2017, Telangana, a state in India, put a cap on schoolbag weight, including a ban on homework for lower classes. Sometimes, I have three paperbacks in my bag- which seems unnecessarily heavy.

It’s not just about the weight though- paper is an environmentally unfriendly industry. One tree produces 8,333ish sheets of standard copier paper- which isn’t a lot when US offices alone use over 12 trillion sheets a year. When you do the maths, that shows what a whack paper really is to forests. It takes more than three gallons of water to make a single sheet of paper- and water is itself a limited resource. Paper production accounts for 1% of global carbon dioxide emissions and conventional paper bleaching releases highly toxic dioxins back into the environment and the food chain. It’s a high price to pay for sheets of white paper. Recycled paper is of course an improvement- but paper isn’t infinitely recyclable.

Though the technological revolution should have reduced global paper output, it’s a misnomer; demand for paper grows every year. Trees basically breathe for the planet- so each ream of paper comes with a series of hidden costs. Paper packaging is also a problem, but as readers, I reckon we should be aware on the impact of our specific hobby on the planet.

I didn’t learn any of this until I went to university and had a completely fascinating conversation with a librarian whose name I don’t even know. She was distressed to see so many students printing hundreds of pages, despite everything being remotely and easily accessible online.

The issue, of course, is that paper itself is a legacy experience. It lasts and it’s tangible- and it doesn’t require a falsely brightened screen. You can feel it with your own hands and the delicious feel of pen on paper is unmatched (this is a very paper-anorak comment to make, so I accept that this may seem a bit tragic).

When reading, there is a certain joy to a real book, which has resulted in some pushback against the digital reading experience offered by kindles and their ilk. That ‘new book’ smell is often referenced and can’t be replaced by a tablet.

I read a lot, and I write a lot, both in my regular job and for my hobbies. I’m never without a pen and a notebook. My tiny London flat is stacked with books. But the average human breathes through 740kg of oxygen per year- roughly seven or eight trees worth. It’s time to take the plunge and reduce my paper reliance, so I’ve pre-ordered a ReMarkable, a tablet offering a ‘paper like’ experience.

It’s a plain slab with an E-Ink display and a nibbed pen for writing. It allows annotating PDFs, creating page templates for repeated use and- best of all- it has enough space to carry the information contained in hundreds of notebooks. Almost every technology website that has tested it have come up with rave reviews; apparently it really feels like writing on actual paper.

The ReMarakable is a niche product and it’s undeniably expensive. It’s focused solely on the reading and writing experience- there is no Spotify, no Instagram, not even Goodreads to distract.

Paper is one of those things that is removed from technology: your Facebook notifications don’t pop up in your notebook- and maybe this is partially why paper demand remains so high. Though I was drawn to the ReMarkable because of the ‘paper experience’, I also loved the idea that it’s a blank space and my attention won’t easily be drawn to a distraction.

The ReMarkable may prove an absolute and abject failure. The world might never abandon paper- but I think this is the first time I’ve been excited about a new piece of technology in years. Just me, my tech pen and a plain white tablet- like pen and paper, remade (but better for the planet).

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