The abolition of paper and the pompous rule of the present

By Branko Milanovic - 15 January 2024
The abolition of paper and the pompous rule of the present

Branko Milanovic argues that placing the entirety of modern knowledge in the electronic format is dangerous.

China is considered to have been the first country (civilization) to have created the modern version of paper. Paper is listed as one among the four big Chinese inventions (the other three are compass, gun powder and printing). Perhaps it will be the first country to desinvent paper too.

What is striking in today’s China, compared to even as recently as five years ago, is a complete disappearance of paper. I mean paper as a means to convey information, not paper as in paper napkins in cafés. Some of that disappearance is perhaps justifiably celebrated: instead of metro cards that can be easily displaced, there are electronic tickets on cell phones; instead of plastic credit cards, there are Alipay and similar systems available within your phone;  instead of crumpled banknotes, there are touchless screens that pay your bills.

It would be wrong to take this as an ideological feature linked to the current system of electronic surveillance in China. Very similar developments are observable elsewhere, in all modern societies: China is just slightly ahead of the rest of the world. Further, even the very ideological propaganda is affected by this. In the past, museums linked with various CPC events had on display a variety of officially-approved publications: speeches, resolutions, biographies. Almost nothing of that remains. In the excellent Shanghai museum dedicated to the founding congress of the Chinese Communist Party, there is just one book that can be bought in the museum store. The store sells pens, badges, umbrellas, toys, bags, pandas but no written documents. One would search in vain for such elementary publications as the Founding Act of the CPC, its first resolutions etc. Moreover, looking at the rich exhibits that deal with the New Culture movement of the 1920s and numerous publications that are displayed in the museum, one wonders what could in the future be shown from similar cultural movements of today? Copies of emails? Laptops where the texts are stored?

Such dematerialization of information can be celebrated, perhaps at times excessively given the relatively modest gains in efficiency that are achieved compared to the older system, but the paeans disregard one important feature.

People’s interactions are not solely based on the present. Our interactions and opinions are so many “bottles thrown into the sea” in the hope of explaining our current thinking and conveying to the future what we feel and what we have learned. This is the advantage of a written system compared to the oral. The oral system could neither transmit information over time, nor do it accurately. We have Homer’s verses today because somebody eventually was able to write them down.

Things would not have come to us had they not been preserved on scripts made of papyrus. Or even better, as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans did, preservation of certain facts was entrusted to the stone: it was more durable than paper, but it was hard to carve and carry longer and more complex messages.

In the three weeks I spent in China, I have seen, in a Beijing hotel, two desultory copies of a Chinese-language newspaper and “China daily” displayed in a bar and not touched by anyone; one person reading what appeared to be a newspaper in a Shanghai museum; and a father reading to his kid a comic book on a train—and no other piece of information recorded on paper. In three weeks. Surely, I went to a big bookstore in Shanghai with six floors of books; or have seen a beautiful new library at the Zhejiang university. There are plenty of books there. So paper as a means of conveyance or storage of information has not completely disappeared. But its function to convey today’s information into the future has apparently ceased.

This is not a trivial issue. Whether information about a subway trip is encrusted on a piece of paper or stored within your cell phone does not matter to the future generations. But placing the entire modern knowledge in the electronic format is dangerous. We can already see the first effects of it. The electronic system of storage is old enough for us to have noticed that many websites, links, blogs where information was stored are already by now broken, deleted, or have been moved elsewhere. Information on household income or people’s characteristics that was collected in the past is in many cases lost because  the software systems used to read and process such information have changed. Ironically, but not at all surprisingly, all the information that we can get regarding some past surveys of population (and I am not talking here about ancient  data, but information that is twenty years old) comes from the printed summaries of such sources. I have seen this very clearly with Soviet household surveys whose data have all been irretrievably lost because already by the early 1990s the technology had entirely changed, and short of enormous and expensive effort, the Soviet-made computer cards could no longer be read. But the problem is the same everywhere. US micro data from the 1950s and early 1960s are impossible to access any more.

With full transfer to electronic-only information, we are moving to an ever-ruling “presentism”. Information can be seemingly efficiently and costlessly transmitted today or over a very short time period, but is afterwards lost forever. When our civilization vanishes, the new researchers, perhaps thousands of years away, will be faced by the conundrum: did literacy disappear? How to explain that a civilization from which there are millions of written records (that would be saved the way that the Dead Sea Scrolls were saved) had suddenly abandoned literacy and gone back to oral communication and barbarism?

In fact this very post, for whatever it is worth, will be forever gone as soon as the website you read it on folds and another format of dissemination takes over. Until then, try to carve it in stone…



This first appeared on Branko's blog.

Photo by Ayşenaz Bilgin

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