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Go paperless

Neil Drumm

I’m sure I am not the only one to be irritated by the constant pressure from banks and other powerful institutions, to “Go Paperless.”

In effect this is a demand to give up our own records to a massive computer known as the Cloud. It’s called the Cloud. For a reason: that’s how insubstantial it is. Go paperless means not being able to access your own records without passwords and double and triple forms of verification, go paperless means go powerless. Our information becomes like the emperor’s new clothes, Invisible even while we pretend it is still there.

In order to have any confidence in our records, we have to print them ourselves using outrageously expensive printer ink and saving the big corporations billions in printing and mailing costs. If you like discovering conspiracies, take a look at this one.

Written records are simply more reassuring. I have a lifetime’s worth of newspaper and magazine clippings on every subject that interests me, and many that do not. These serve as a kind of tangible second memory, I also used to put my trust in medical records. My doctor had a great fat file of paper records to leaf through and frown over at every visit. It made me feel important. All those symptoms obviously added up to something, if only in weight of paper. Now it’s just a few weightless hieroglyphs on a screen, which I can never see. The rest is all “in the archives,” perhaps.

“Archive” itself is an old-fashioned word meaning simply a collection of records. Archivists and librarians are supposed look after our written records, as they have done since the time of the Egyptians. All of the great books and most of the great archives of the world are still kept on paper. Paper is flammable of course, and books can be, have been, and are being burned from time to time, but not in such a spectacularly wholesale way as data can be edited or removed with a few keystrokes.

[Even in my local library more and more books are listed as “digital book only.” That’s not a book that’s just a puff of electrons in the air. A book has weight.]

It's not just out-of-date folks like me who love real books. Some college students, to their great credit, have protested against the disappearance of their beloved libraries into cyberspace. Students at Berkeley have occupied their splendid Huntingdon library in a quixotic crusade to save it.

The change away from paper records has been enormously beneficial to some people. The criminal classes can now steal millions of dollars without even bringing a paper bag to carry it in or risking a shootout at the bank. Spies have virtually unlimited opportunities. The young man recently accused of stealing huge numbers of government secrets would have needed a truck to carry them away on paper. But the modern, paperless spy never needs to hide documents in hollow trees or microfilm them or even swallow them like a traditional spy. He never has to move from his desk and can share any amount of classified material with his friends without even paying the cost of postage, [Julian Assange was another entrepreneur who took advantage of the fact that secrets are now available to everyone.]

It seems that digital secrets are no secrets at all, which is a victory for open government I suppose. But just because the government has gone paperless doesn’t mean that all of us have to do the same.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.