Pages are an Implementation of Paper

Future of Text 7.10.23

This session is a prologue to an extended conversation around spatial cognition.

Apple recently popularized “spatial computing” to distinguish their product from virtual reality. Both terms are easy to pick apart. Writing is spatial computing, just as TV and social media are virtual realities. Spatial computing implies transformation rather than replication. That is an interesting vector to explore the future of text and, more broadly, the future of cognition.

Spatial computing dates back to November 30th, 38000 BC, when someone made a line in the sand. More recently, ancient Romans used wax-coated wooden tablets to augment their thinking. The chalkboard was invented in 1801. But the most popular tool for spatial computing has been paper.

What made paper so unique that it became the standard for centuries? ChatGPT listed the qualities of paper as versatile, durable, easy to produce, portable, and absorbant (good for ink and printing presses). Paper is also analog.

Sidenote: I asked ChatGPT to categorize the differences between digital and analog technologies. It came up with:

  • Flexibility vs. Specialization: As mentioned, analog tools are often more flexible, while digital tools tend to be more specialized. For example, a notepad application on a computer is designed specifically for taking notes and isn’t easily adapted to other tasks.
  • Tactility: Analog tools engage our senses in a direct, tactile way that digital tools often don’t. Writing with a pencil on paper involves a physical, sensory experience that typing on a keyboard lacks.
  • Persistence vs. Transience: Analog tools like paper create a permanent record, while digital tools often support more transient, ephemeral interactions. For example, you can easily delete or modify digital notes, while erasing pencil from paper leaves traces.
  • Affordances and Constraints: Each tool, analog or digital, offers certain affordances (things it enables) and constraints (things it inhibits). Understanding these can be key to understanding how the tool shapes our thinking and behavior.
  • Cognitive Extension vs. Cognitive Transformation: Some argue that analog tools extend our cognitive processes in a more straightforward manner (e.g., a pencil extends our ability to remember by externalizing our thoughts), whereas digital tools may transform our cognitive processes in more complex ways (e.g., a digital calculator doesn’t just extend our mathematical abilities, it changes the nature of the task).

I use three tools to get my thoughts out: paper, text-based digital applications, and voice-based digital applications. Voice applications are primarily useful to generate textual artifacts. I also use digital mapping tools (aka spatial canvas tools) but mainly analog tools to map out ideas.

We are conditioned by the technology we interact with. The more count on it, the more we forget how it conditions us.

Of the tools mentioned, paper seems to come with the fewest conditions. Paper is so natural that I didn’t realize I had conflated paper with pages. Pages are like an implementation of paper, the way that javascript is an implementation of ECMAScript.

When I started using a large roll of paper as my primary tool for thought, I found forgotten affordances. It was like finding a massive cellar under the floorboards of your bedroom. What’s down there, and why was it covered up? (One obvious answer is that walking on a flat surface is more convenient than tiptoeing around a hole in the ground.)

Heavy trade-offs come with writing on a large scroll, which may outweigh the newfound freedom. But the exercise gets me thinking about other subterranean affordances. What are other examples of micro-conditioning via technology? Has the rapid evolution of digital technology stunted other spatial cognition techniques?

If there’s something to writing in the sand that is unlike any other interaction, can we pinpoint what is valuable and try to reproduce it in another medium?

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