Why I Love Paper

Now that the Matrix Reloaded is out on DVD, I rented the original Matrix once more, for old times' sake. (Yes, I know, we're now waxing nostalgic over movies only four years old.) I was struck by the relatively low-tech way that Neo battles the "sentinels" in both movies, by using an electromagnetic pulse. One good pulse and all those nasty probes are history.

What's sobering is to realize that we're vulnerable to a slow version of EMP right now. Think for a moment about how much information we maintain solely in electronic format, with no acid-free paper backup. According to the "How Much Information" project conducting in 2002 by the University of California's School of Information Management and Systems, printed material of all kinds made up less than .003% of the total storage of information. Ten percent was on film (predominantly photographs and x-rays), which is relatively stable, at least if you take the 10-year view. But about 90% of the stored information was on magnetic storage media—PC disk drives and servers.

Think about what's included in that 90%. It's your letters to your mother. It's your calendar for the next year (and the last three years), assuming you haven't ditched your Palm Pilot yet, out of lust for the next cool toy. It's all your banking information. It's your address book, with all those unlisted phone numbers and email addresses. And what about the essays you wrote five years ago and stored on 3.5" disks, which you can no longer read because your PC cannot read the older low-density disks? Imagine what will happen when historians and researchers try to figure out what life was like during the early 21st century. They can no longer rely on contemporaneous written records—all that information gets trashed whenever we upgrade to a new technology, or when our (un-backed-up) hard disk self-destructs. Instead, they'll see what some commentators refer to as the Digital Dark Age, a time during which very little information was retained in a format that can be read even ten or 20 years later, not to mention centuries later.

And on a larger scale, just look at the information in the public sphere that is no longer produced in hard copy. US Securities and Exchange Commission documents, while often formatted to look like printed filings, are submitted and stored electronically. The federal court system is moving toward electronic filing; according to an AP story, two-thirds of bankruptcy courts use an electronic system for their files, and more than 10 million federal cases exist only in electronic format. That means that people who cannot afford the charges for searching and reading court records through the PACER system have no access to these records. One good electro-magnetic pulse and there go the files.

As a recovering librarian, I also cringe at the thought of all the journal subscriptions I have that are entirely digital. It's wonderful when I think of the shelf space no longer devoted to back issues of magazines, but what happens when the library cancels a subscription or the publisher goes out of business? Poof: that electronic archive disappears.

And speaking of going poof, just ask a government documents librarian about all the reports that were removed from federal government Web sites after September 11th. While we all cheered the initiative to make government publications available electronically, thus greatly increasing the accessibility of this taxpayer-supported information, most of us didn't think of the ramifications of letting the government be responsible for maintaining the archival copies. We thought that all we had to do was catalog and index each document in our online library catalog, include the URL to the government agency web site, and sit back and rejoice that we didn't have to house all those paper copies. Instead, we now have catalog entries for reports that can no longer be found.

Granted, there are some instances where the loss or purging of electronic information isn't such a bad thing. I recently moved halfway across the country and, as anyone who has ever done a long-distance move knows, I looked at each of my possessions differently when I knew I was paying by the pound to schlep them. I was somewhat chagrined at the amount of paper I threw away before the movers arrived. Boxes and boxes and boxes of it—mostly old files from my business, magazines I will never get around to reading, and, yes, even some class notes from graduate school. We don't have the same opportunity to cull through our electronic information; in fact, I think that one of the blessings of the rapid obsolescence of PCs is that it allows us to harvest the files we really care about and then discard all the rest of the detritus that accumulates in the nooks and crannies of a hard drive.

But in our haste to digitize the content of our lives, we may be losing the ability to reconstruct it later. One good EMP from Neo—or a terrorist, for that matter—and we join the digital dark age. It's 11pm; do you know where your data is?