May 24, 2004

In praise of paper

By: James N. Markels

In a Reason article two weeks ago, Jeff Taylor bemoaned how our government was still stuck in the “Paper Age” instead of getting itself into the digital world. Why couldn’t we be more like Estonia, he wondered, where “cabinet meetings are plug-and-play,” and “[a]s policy is made it is posted the government’s Web site so the public knows what is going on”? Why endure the “leisurely pace” of paper pushing when the world moves at the speed of text messaging?

At first I wondered the same thing. E-mail and Word documents are today’s paper, right? No point living in the past. But then I spied something on my bookshelf that made me realize that paper is essential to good governance, if not the lifeblood itself.

That something is my copy of The Washington Post from January 1, 2000. Above the fold you have a color photo of the fireworks display over Sydney’s Harbor Bridge, complete with the headline: “World Celebrates Peacefully As Y2K Worries Dissipate.” To the right is “Yeltsin Resigns, Admits Failures.” Below the fold, a story was titled: “Afghan Hijack Drama Ends Peacefully.” Not even five years old and these things already seem quaint.

But in a Google-ready digital world where even the cell phones can tap into the Internet, what am I doing with a hard copy of an old newspaper? Why not just download what I’m interested in and save the space on my bookshelf?

The main reason is authenticity. When I show my future children this paper they will be able to see the precise edition that came out when one millennium ended and another began. They will ask me why we were so nervous about “Y2K,” snicker at the obsolete product ads, and stare blankly at the long-gone pop culture icons listed in the “What’s In” and “Out” in the Style section. The paper itself is a snapshot of history that couldn’t be replicated by merely searching for clippings from January 1, 2000. This isn’t some sterile rendering of the original information–it is the original.

The authenticity that makes my copy of the Post special is something that only paper can provide. And this authenticity is something that government depends on to do its job. As Taylor acknowledges, digital documents are far easier to manipulate and forge than paper documents. It’s no surprise that identity theft and plagiarism have exploded with the advent of the Internet. That a particular document is “official” is all-important to authority-based governance. The ability of paper to convey a stamp or mark of authority that is difficult to duplicate makes paper essential to figuring out whether authority has been given to do a particular thing. A digital-based government would be far more vulnerable to falsified documents and orders, inevitably resulting in abuses of power.

This is precisely why there is a “best evidence” rule in our courts. A court will not accept a photocopied or faxed version of a document if the original can be procured because only the original–the best evidence–is trusted to be accurate in its contents. And if the document was originally digital, it should be rendered to paper so that you have a concrete version immune to future editing.

Paper also comes with the built-in safety feature of leaving a “paper trail” for future investigators to use to hold government officials accountable for their actions. It’s all too easy to simply delete digital files, while paper files are easier to protect. Further, creating a digital-age bureaucracy would not only mean a huge cost today in order to upgrade everything and transfer paper-based files to computer hard drives, but it would require a continuing cost to keep the technology relatively up-to-date.

As Taylor notes, Estonia is able to start off as a “plug-and-play” government because it doesn’t have a history of paper behind it. But even Estonia will start to feel the bite in a few years as new technology renders “plug-and-play” obsolete. In an earlier Reason piece, Taylor cited to a General Accounting Office report in 2000 that found that “the FBI had over 13,000 desktop computers that were four to eight years old and could not run basic software packages.”

A digital-based government would need to stay fairly close to the technological edge to maintain itself, and that would mean huge costs in new computers, software, and training on a regular basis. Just think of the computers that were top-of-the-line a mere decade ago: 100 MHz Pentiums running Windows 3.1. They’re little more than glorified paperweights today. Imagine the cost of the entire government having to buy new computers every ten years or less.

And let’s not forget that digital networks are vulnerable to viruses, electrical disruptions, and unauthorized access in ways that paper files are not. The only main advantage that a digital government would have is speed, but let’s not be so hasty in thinking that this is an advantage.

“The Paper Age assumes and requires a sort of leisurely approach to governance perhaps reflecting a time when jousting with government with still a relatively rare occurrence,” wrote Taylor, but he seems to think this is a bad thing.

As someone who likes a government that does less and at a slow pace, I’m not so sure that speeding up our bureaucrats would improve governance. Estonia can have its speedy digital meetings and updates; I’ll take slow, secure paper accountability every time.

James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for