MAY 2017 IN

Back to Paper

The trend away from paper documents has gone farther than we really want, so that we are due for a countertrend — going back to paper in the same way that the record industry is going back to vinyl.

I realized this when I was preparing to do a torn-paper backdrop for a book cover photo. I needed information on torn-paper techniques, and I was looking, of course, on the Internet. To my surprise, there were more tutorials on how to simulate a torn-paper look in a digital painting or drawing than there were on the time-honored artistic medium of torn paper that uses real paper torn into a shape by the artist’s own hands.

Paperless documents are an advantage in many ways, but facing the prospect of paperless torn paper it was easy for me to say that we might have gone too far. It reminded me of one of my favorite Halloween songs, “The Headless Mr. Potatohead,” because it is a ludicrous situation in much the same way. It is not just that a traditional art form is being overlooked, or that physical torn paper is faster, cheaper, and more artful than its digital simulation. You also have to ask why artists and designers are going to so much trouble to make a digital effect that mimics the distressed edges of a natural material.

Geometric precision was one of the bold and novel advantages of the digital form when we first adopted it for images. You didn’t have to learn how to make a perfectly straight line or a perfect right angle — it was automatic.

In many respects this precision is an improvement. Sometimes, though, you need the impression of a natural object — perhaps even an actual physical object — in order to anchor an important idea or something that you’re working on. This is especially so when you want a physical anchor to accompany a transitional period in your life or work, a temporary period of a few hours, days, or years. Though any distinctive physical object can serve as an anchor, there is a lot to be said for paper. It is lightweight, potentially durable, and cheap. Paper is also, not incidentally, easy to write on. Writing is one of the quickest ways to create something of symbolic power.

The value of something physical can be seen in a wide range of situations. A printed booklet that says “welcome to the company” means ten times as much as an email message that contains all the same information. You are far more likely to remember a paper map that guides you to your destination than a digital map that serves that same purpose. If you’re vowing to change your way of living, writing your intention on a small sheet of paper and carrying that paper with you makes you more likely to follow through. That is the power of an physical anchor.

This anchoring technique works that much better if it is a unique piece of paper. Unique paper, though, is not hard to come by. Even a stylized, luxury form of paper costs less than almost any manufactured product you can think of. If you want to go farther, any sheet of paper takes on a shape all its own as soon as it is torn on one edge. This is the natural result of paper being, at heart, a natural material.

Style is important when you’re picking something to serve as an anchor. That’s because of the nature of an anchor — every anchor has to be unique in your experience to make the connections you want it to make.

In the back-to-vinyl trend, record companies aren’t overlooking this aspect of phonograph records. Colored vinyl and other distinctive qualities make a phonograph record more meaningful to collectors. In a similar way, we could make better use of the range of possibilities that paper offers. This was something that came more naturally in the 1960s, but was set aside in the photocopier era.

I’m using torn paper for a book cover image even though the objective is a digital image (ready to print, in case any physical copies are needed). The choice of real torn paper is not just because tearing paper is so easy to do compared to other art forms. An artist tearing paper intentionally gives up an element of control. The final shape is partly determined by random forces. The quantum effects that make one fiber stronger than others nearby when the paper is torn at a particular place and angle determine the fine details of the final shape. The same as anything quantum, the shape a torn paper edge takes on is completely unknowable and unpredictable, and that is a big part of what makes it seem “real.”

I’m not suggesting that we give up electronic documents. After all, the music industry, despite the unique appeal of vinyl, has no intention of giving up digital downloads. But it is clear that we are not fully using the potential that paper has to offer. In a world that is mostly digital we need more “real.” We’ve started looking for it. We have already begun making a shift in that direction. Paper will be part of that trend.

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