Paper Forever… or Not.

The Chinese invented paper and ever since it was brought to the West by traders, it is now ubiquitous. So ubiquitous that we don’t even notice it is there. I have read a lot of fantasy stories and the ones that don’t specifically mention parchment are very few. Paper is used even in alternate universe fantasies. It seems that once there is literacy in a society then they will write on paper. It seems that no-one in the Western world can even imagine writing on anything else but paper. At least until the digital age takes over.

In futuristic novels, authors like to use technology for everything. Paper as a writing medium has all but disappeared. Screens and keyboards are used. Handwriting as well, may have completely disappeared. However, paper may be used as a handy portable display and it will still be used for packaging in its forms of cardboard and wrapping paper. Even in the future, paper would not completely disappear.

Yet, in the Western world, paper is not a popular field of study nor is it a job that is popular. No-one talks of going into paper manufacturing or opening a paper mill/ factory. In the history of reading, writing, printing or books and literacy, paper hardly gets a mention in favour of diving right into the subject. T.H. Barrett (2011) wrote a paper that compares the historiography of paper and print. This, she says includes a comparison between Chinese historiography and Western historiography. For the Western world, the technology of printing led to the Age of Enlightenment etc.This was a period of much political, financial, social and cultural upheaval. Naturally, history emphasises this event. For the Chinese, though, paper holds sway in the history. Calligraphy was a revered skill especially amongst poets. Therefore, paper manufacture was big business and was written about often. The Chinese also had printing techniques but those were mainly used for convenience and were hardly written about in the medieval times.

I do wonder sometimes if it is possible to be rid of paper. Many dystopian novels describe an ‘after the end of the world’ event. What usually cause the end of the world may be World War Three, a plague or a combination of the two. I wonder though what would happen if paper were to disappear, both past and present. Some things that come to mind are:

  • There will be no more cash in large denominations.
  • All newspapers will have to be distributed online.
  • Identity records may entirely disappear or only be available through digital back-ups.
  • A large amount of knowledge would disappear. Textbooks, notes written by billions of students through the ages, all gone.
  • Financial statements and records will disappear.
  • Postal Services will be in disarray. No letters or packages could be delivered. Online businesses that depend on such services will lose money.
  • An increase in the manufacture of plastic and other synthetic products.

This is very interesting to think about. In fact if this was made into a book, I will definitely read it.


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