In Praise of Paper

Amid all the preoccupation with Big Data over the last few years, one might be forgiven for missing the telltale signs of a  low-key aesthetic return to (fixation with?) paper. It was there metaphorically, through apps that attempted to digitally capture the sensory aspects of paper-based media. But paper itself maintains its hold on the imagination, in part because of the kinds of communication and practices that it represents.

The Clinton Presidential library, for example, recently released tens of thousands of pages of previously withheld documents. A boon to historians, it recalls an era, according to former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol, in which officials working in litigious Washington were dissuaded from keeping records, schedules, diaries and the like, lest those records become forensic grist.

That concern – not producing the petards of one’s own (or one’s colleague’s) potential future hoisting  – still exists. But “in their wonky way,” Shesol writes, the Clinton papers “demonstrate the basic human compulsion to write things down—to work out and test ideas on paper, to engage in debates and occasional snits, to record and transcribe and (in my own case) doodle, and, to a surprising degree, to let down one’s guard.”

There are worlds of fact and flavor contained in such materials. Their survival represents a form of historical transparency and accountability that is inherently valuable, not least because it seizes and preserves the essence of, in Shisol’s terms, “government at work”.

I think it’s fair to say that insofar as “paper” and “writing it down” can be understood euphemistically, they evoke an aesthetic and practical compunction that is fundamentally archival. They refer to the accumulation of historically valuable  document collections and preserving them for a variety of purposes.

In this case, “paper” and “writing” might equally be understood through a variety of framing lenses: as metaphor  – one thing understood in terms of another; or as metanym – the whole understood through reference to its parts.

It almost goes without saying that not all records are on paper, and that a good number of datum generated these days begin and end their lives as electrons. But it is interesting that with Big Data comes a sort of Paper Blindness – that if it is not available electronically, then it either doesn’t exist at all or isn’t worth the bother of finding.

That a significant volume of paper-based information never gets seen by ordinary human beings isn’t remarkable. There is simply too much for any one person to consume, or tranches of it are too contentious to touch, or are tainted by their provenance,  or are classified, and so on.

If there’s a concern in this, it’s that enhanced or amplified accessibility in some areas also closes down the space for it in others. One day our expectations of  vast troves of historically relevant material may be confronted with…. a void.

Some of that is accepted and acceptable practice. Some of it isn’t.

Physical documents are regularly winnowed from archival collections, lost to water, fire and termites, abandoned in mouldering heaps, forgotten in attics, set aflame in wartime, or – in the lived vernacular of government at work – too secret, sensitive, or scandalous to ever see the light of day.

This has always been true, and it is as true in places like Quetta or Kandahar as it has been in Washington and Whitehall.