The persistance of paper by Alessandro Ludovico

The persistance of paper

Paper publishing will never be the same again. It is deeply affected by a dual contradictory need. On one hand, real-time updating is pervading the printed page space with various technologies, and on the opposite, the need for something reliable and not dependent on the lack of tcp/ip waves or electricity is more and more precious for a generation stuck for most part of the day close to their unstable laptops. Various disembodiment of paper is practiced on the net and in connected devices, but the immobility (so the reassuring stability) of the printed page is on the other end growing and finding new customized way of production and consumption. Cellulose and electricity are not married, yet, but their vital relationship can still be taken as an opportunity for a new independent pervasive publishing wave.

The persistance of paper, how pixel want to be stable
Announced over and over from the end of nineties there’s a perpetually upcoming technology that pretends, sooner or later, to substitute the paper. It’s the so called ‘electronic paper’, ‘e-paper,’ or ‘electronic ink’, a special kind of display made not by pixels and light, but by electrically charged micro-balls (a sort of pixels if you want) that can turn black or white. This kind of hardware is still an alien object. Usually it’s a paperback sized display with a stylus to interact and display texts uploaded in various ways (via wireless networks, ethernet cable, smart media). I’ve had the chance, by accident, to personally check the iLiad, one of the few devices of this kind already for sale. After playing a little bit with the interface, the turning bar that ‘turns’ the page, and the display, my feeling was to be in front of book-sized screen palmtop much worst than a laptop, and worst than a paper book or magazine also. Even if it’ll be much better when the technology will evolve, presently it seems more another ‘wannabe’ paper in electronic guise, than the future of paper itself. Some qualities are that it’s quite stable and document-devoted, and this specific model runs on Linux, so seem to be the most stable of them all. But, I’d still prefer much to spend 600 euro in a bookstore than buying this gizmo. Electronic paper has a lot to do with space. One of its few challenging promises is to reduce the space in your bookshelf. But, what’s the price of this ‘promise’? To me it’s similar to the never realized ‘paperless’ office, advertised from the eighties by the personal computer industry. Something magic that simply won’t happen safely. It’s a promise of virtualization, disembodiment of a heavy physicality, you’d like to reduce to have more. And this thrills to own more and more content, because digitally then it’s easy to copy, share or simply store. This is one of the arguments behind the Amazon Noir project I’ve developed with Ubermorgen and Paolo Cirio. Paolo Cirio coded a software that stressed to the extreme limits the ‘search inside the book’ feature, being able to obtain all the text though thousands of queries and then reconstructing the whole searched book. This is the actualization of all the parts of the book that can be searched. It’s the ‘imagined book’ made real, so the virtual bulimic appetite for texts satisfied, in the end. But, no digital hardware or culture will save us from the weight of real books and things, the ‘reality showdown’. Again, paper is more persistent.

The web space of magazines, turning pages with the mouse
Paper publishing has started to wonder itself what to do with the web from the very beginning. Probably the independent publishers even before than the industry as a cover of Factsheet Five of 1995 proves. The ‘yellow pages’ of zines dedicated an issue to the web and its consequences on the zine world. The cover title was ‘Paper or Plastic?” and this comic, perfectly synthesize the fears of dying of the traditional zine world embodied by a bold younger ‘silicon’ bully. Today there’s no more doubt that the electronic space par excellence is the web, and the whole publishing industry seems to still wondering itself on how to exploit this medium for their old business. They established websites with some (or more) content taken from the printed edition and various online shops that would have improved the sales. The latest strategy is a controversial one: giving away pdf files of glossy entertainment magazines, if you register on specialized websites. So you can find yourself not paying money, but personal data for the latest Business Week, Macworld, or Playboy issue. After registering, the download of a 50 or so megabyte starts and after a while you can flip or turn the pages with mouse clicks. The industry is then dramatically improving ‘distribution,’ and ‘readership’, two of the golden keyword of commercial publishing, apparently not affecting the sales. This strategy seems to be borrowed from the p2p scheme. The better the distribution (even if some of that is for free) the better the sales. And this could be an efficient response to the so called ‘Digital Shoplifting‘ of copyrighted images that used to be quite popular in Japan. This was a social phenomenon that involved mostly young woman taking pictures of haircut or dresses in fashion magazines with their mobile phones in bookstores, and then sharing the picture with friends discussing the new trends. The Japanese Magazine Publishers Association says the practice is “information theft” but bookshop owners said their staff cannot tell the difference between customers taking pictures and those simply chatting on their phones. And giving away content is a publishing habit that has been anticipated by a sort of underground design phenomenon. A substantial number of free electronic magazines (downloadable or viewable in a web page) have been produced in this field. This so-called pdf-zines (Magnify for example) were showing off creativity, affinity among different design groups, aesthetic experiments, content simply not worth for commercial magazines, or too controversial for them. It’s very important that they were not interactive at all, not exploiting any characteristic of the electronic medium apart the potential infinite duplication and distribution. Sure enough they applied to these pdf files the same graphic and production standards of the paper medium. A sort of never born paper product, thrown off to the always free and crowded web channels.

Print-on-demand, the photocopy machine of the new millennium (coming soon)
The need for physical print could be said to be ‘instinctual’. How paper can still trigger our inner instinct to read is at the core of a 2006 computer art installation. I’m talking about the ‘Pamphlet‘ by Helmut Smits. It consists of a laptop, software, and a printer placed on the edge of a window. People can type a message on the laptop. By pressing ‘send’ a pamphlet is printed and dropped from the 10th floor by the printer. The falling down paper and the resulting ‘pamphlet’ on the street symbolizes the relatively short distance from the personal production to the public enjoyment of a printed product, and how the traditional product parameters has been disrupted. The fascination of take-away paper is the same at the base of newspapers that are starting to stretch their role and nature with downloadable and printable last minute editions. These are highly customized on one key factor: the updating time. They are meant to be read offline, so enjoyed with a relative calm, but with the most stretched and feverish time of production. This is part of a larger need: to put the virtually and real-time produced content out of the screen to affect real life or be enjoyed in it. And this is the field where another technology step into. The print-on-demand is very simple: you produce a pdf file of a magazine or a book. A print-on-demand online service charges you something (there are cheap and expensive one) for adapting the files to the production chain of a high resolution digital copier. Than you’d ask them to produce the number of copies you want (even a few or only one) also taking care of selling them on the web. This is drastically reducing the costs of printing and distributing, letting the author focusing on production. This is a potentially big opportunity for independent publishing, avoiding the usual initial costs of printing (the bigger one) and then giving to every publisher the opportunity to sell its stuff through the web without learning how to. I’m partially using it to save on the cost of Neural and on producing art books for some project of mine (like Amazon Noir). It’d be in the end what the photocopy machines has represented in the eighties and nineties, a cheap opportunity to print and distribute content in a stable, easy, usual, and physically enjoyable format. That’s what paper still is.