No, We Shouldn’t Try to Stop the End of Paper

The NYT Op-Ed page has gone all fear-of-change on us with a piece from Justin B. Hollander about the evils of schools abandoning paper for electronic technologies:

Secretary Duncan is threatening to light a bonfire to a tried-and-true technology — good old paper — that has been the foundation for one of the great educational systems on the planet. And while e-readers and multimedia may seem appealing, the idea of replacing an effective learning platform with a widely hyped but still unproven one is extremely dangerous.

Paper was the foundation of our educational system because it was all we had. There’s no way to know whether our education system is great because of paper or in spite of it. Advocating for the preservation of paper is like saying people shouldn’t have made the switch to computers because American companies were built on the typewriter.

Hollander eventually gets into the heart of his argument:

This lesson of technology-inspired extinction can be retold in many other domains of life: the way phonographs nearly disappeared when the music CD was invented; the rejection of bicycles in the middle of the 20th century; the shuttering of Polaroid factories with the advent of digital cameras.

My point is not that these are all pernicious or reversible developments. On the contrary, we have all benefited from new advances in medicine, communications and computing, even those that displaced familiar technologies.

The Polaroid is a wonderful device for what it is, but it will and should remain a technological novelty. On the other hand, few higher-tech formats deliver the lush sound quality of the vinyl record, and younger generations have recently returned to the format.

In other words, we shouldn’t jump at a new technology simply because it has advantages; only time and study will reveal its disadvantages and show the value of what we’ve left behind.

Nobody is arguing that we should burn every piece of paper in the world. The argument is that our education system, like our music and photography industries, should be primarily built on newer, more-flexible, and more-accessible technologies.

Obviously there are still questions about how the brain responds to reading off of a screen, but the fact is that the world is moving in that direction. We talk about preparing students for “real world” jobs. Well, those jobs are going to involve electronic reading because no company or organization will be dumb enough to produce documents in a format that’s less affordable, less convenient, and less environmentally friendly.

Ultimately my issue with Hollander’s piece is that in general, society is biased against change in nearly every area. If the NYT printed op-eds supporting radical change in every aspect of life we would be better off simply because it would marginally work to offset our conservative bias. That’s why Hollander’s article is useless. People hate change, and thus there’s no reason to worry that we’re moving too quickly to abandon paper.


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