Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Notes And Comments

Paper Revolutions

If projects like E-Estonia mark a break with paper, they also represent the continuation of an administrative order made possible by the first paper revolution.

Richard Hughes Gibson

A party inviting people to become an e-residents of e-Estonia; photo by Aron Urb.

“The odd thing about paper is that we still use it. The stuff should be obsolete, a quaint, medieval anachronism, replaced by new information technologies like the personal computer. Yet quite the opposite has happened.”

So wrote the futurist Paul Saffo in the pages (still print) of Personal Computing in 1987. The arrival of the digital age as a popular phenomenon—via those personal computers Saffo mentioned—had not delivered the “paperless office,” much less the “paperless society” prophesied by tech gurus in previous decades. In fact, paper consumption was increasing rapidly. The next year, in Computerworld, Edward Tenner pithily observed that “the paperless office, the leafless library, the inkless newspaper, the cashless, checkless society…have gone the way of the Empire State Building’s dirigible mooring.” The paperless society appeared to many an exploded “myth,” an appraisal echoed often in the ensuing decades, including our own.

Yet Saffo contended that the volume of paper buildup obscured the real “paper revolution” taking place. Previously, vital information had been entrusted to paper; increasingly, that office fell to digital media. The majority of the printouts issuing from printers, Saffo noted, had short shelf lives ahead. Most of this paper would be read, maybe marked up, and then discarded, with the file tucked away on a disk for future use. In 1987, Saffo perceived that “paper as ‘storage’ was taking a back seat to paper as ‘interface.’” Five years later, he likened the new information order to “a huge electronic piñata, composed of a thin paper crust surrounding an electronic core. The paper crust is most noticeable, but the hidden electronic core that produces the crust is far larger—and growing more rapidly.” Saffo’s conclusion: “We are becoming paperless, but we hardly notice it at all.”

In the last year and a half, field reports from Europe have returned the issue to popular attention, as that last bit of paper crust has been peeled away by an unlikely innovator: Estonia. E-Estonia, as the project is known, in fact commenced shortly after the Baltic republic broke from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Early initiatives put computers in every school and made government meetings paperless affairs—“e-Cabinet” being initially conducted via computer terminals installed in the session hall. In 2000, the government declared Internet access a human right, and promoted it by making Wi-Fi freely available to most of the populace in the next two years. Since then, the government has rolled out e-voting, e-public safety, e-health, and e-land initiatives. Armed with an ID card and a PIN, one can call up medical records, submit taxes, summon an ambulance, research a property’s history, and, starting this year, register a child’s birth. Indeed, among the very few government services still unavailable online are civil marriages and real estate transfers. And you, too, reader, can join the e-fun. E-residency, which the Estonians bill as a “transnational digital identity,” allows business types to take advantage of E-Estonia’s digital platforms—including e-banking—from anywhere, the bar of entry being a fairly simple background check and payment of a small fee. Notification of one’s acceptance arrives, of course, by e-mail.

One could argue that despite all these innovations, Estonia isn’t completely paper-free, and never will be. E-Estonia may pose an existential threat to copy paper, but it is unlikely to oust wrapping paper, paper towels, and innumerable other paper products that line our daily lives. (There are, as the historian Nicholas Basbanes has noted, “something on the order of twenty thousand commercial uses of paper in the world today.”) Yet such would-be knockout observations miss the mark. The paperless society was a vision, above all, for infrastructure. The prophets weren’t simply forecasting reduced costs for business and government alike, though such calculations did matter. From their desks in research parks, university labs, and government offices, the mythmakers were dreaming up mechanisms that would transport information faster, store more of it, and increase its accessibility. In E-Estonia, they would surely have seen their vindication at long last. The irony that it happened in Estonia, a densely forested country whose oldest industrial company is a paper mill (opened in 1734), would not be lost on them.

We might wrap up our meditation there—declaring E-Estonia’s victory over institutional paper clutter, and urging on, in turn, efforts to shed that last bit of paper crust from our own information society. But I submit that to conclude on such a note would be to take a superficial view of the changeover. To understand the transition now taking place, we need to recognize paper’s role in building the bureaucratic infrastructure that we now take as normal, even natural, and which E-Estonia and similar initiatives perpetuate in new media. And to do that, we need to return to the original “paper revolution” in the West.

A Chinese invention, papermaking became a European craft thanks to Muslim artisans who set up mills in twelfth-century Spain. When those regions fell to Christian kings, the conquerors became patrons of paper, which was an attractive alternative to parchment (i.e., leaves made from animal skin) for internal bookkeeping and correspondence. In his superb study White Magic: The Age of Paper, the German critic Lothar Müller locates the “prototype of modern, file-based leadership” at this historical moment, though in Sicily. There Frederick II’s chancery officials took advantage of paper sold by Arab merchants to develop “registers” (res gestae) on Roman and Byzantine models that tracked “expenses incurred, orders placed, and taxes levied.” Because of paper’s relative cheapness, the officials could also now record “proceedings which previously would not have been worthy of note,” including “the king’s interest in falconry.”

By the end of the next century, papermills had cropped up in France, Italy, and Germany. A media ecology soon emerged akin to the division of labor between digital “storage” and paper “interface” observed by Saffo. Documents that needed to hold up for generations (such as charters) were committed to parchment, while everyday accounting and administrative tasks were handled with paper. Paper’s advent encouraged what Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders memorably described in ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind as the “alphabetization” of medieval culture, particularly writing’s ever-expanding role in “the mediation of mundane relations.” Paper, to continue with Illich and Sanders, promoted the official drive to document everything, and the populace’s growing belief that “trust, power, possession, and everyday status” were to be secured by having one’s papers—and parchments—in order.

On Müller’s telling, if Frederick II’s Sicilian chancery was the “prototype” of file-based leadership, the model reached a full-fledged state in the halls of his descendent Philip II of Spain. Here, Müller argues, we meet the origins of the “media of modern bureaucracy.” Nicknamed by his contemporaries “el rey papelero,” “the paper king,” Philip used the stuff promiscuously, inaugurating, in the historian I.A.A. Thompson’s words, a “documentary revolution.” Paper, moreover, made it possible to reimagine public relations: “The paper king ruled according to the principle that every single one of his subjects should be able to send him a letter.” Paper was thus not merely an office supply for Philip; through its mediation, a vast communications network was conceived, one theoretically encompassing the whole of the king’s dominions in the Old and New Worlds.

To recall Philip’s paper kingdom is to be reminded that if projects like E-Estonia mark a break—the end of paper’s hegemony over official life—they also represent the continuation of an administrative order made possible by the first paper revolution. Yes, we may say, E-Estonia has ushered in the paperless society. Good news for those tired of filling out redundant paperwork and trudging to the voting booth in foul weather. Good news for trees. But the paperless society is still a society of questionnaires, forms, charts, memos, and official correspondence. It is still a society in which “trust, power, possession, and everyday status” hinge on keeping one’s files straight. The paperless society is no small victory over filing cabinets. But let’s not overlook what endures. The files are still with us.