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Stationary Paper Should Survive the Digital Outburst

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An article in this past week’s Indian-region Economic Times, Mumbia, India, describes what it calls a "charming book" published in 2014 titled Adventures in Stationery: a Journey Through Your Pencil Case. The author, James Ward, writes that a large part of the appeal of stationery lies in its potential: "it’s a way of becoming a new person, a better person. Buying this set of index cards and those page markers means I’ll finally become the organized person I always wanted to be." Obsolete stationery could represent potential wasted, withering away in the depths of office cupboards.

Ward’s book is a love-letter to stationery, a passion that runs deep for many people. It goes back perhaps to childhood when the school stationery items were the first purely functional items we acquired – sweets and toys are an indulgence and clothes a necessity, but stationery items were the tools to equip us for life. We would compare them and trade them and fight over them. Among the pleasures in going to our parents offices was the chance to pinch their stationery, alluringly accessories of adult life.

But this might seem like a vanishing joy, soon to be as obsolescent as all those items coming out of the Economic Times cupboards. "Our ability to record our thoughts and ideas no longer involves putting pen to paper," Ward admits. "Everything can be synced and indexed and stored in the cloud instantly retrieved on countless devices... Could it be that within a few years stationery will be no more?" This is certainly hoped for by all those who produce paeans to the paperless office, Ward notes in the article.

But some very important things are left to be considered during this transition, such as security risks, Ward adds. The article identifies India’s PM Narendra Modi as possibly being one of them. One of his promises when he came to power a year ago was to run paperless cabinet meetings, with ministers being handed tablet computers with all the information they needed on it, ready for them to sign with digital signatures. But recently senior bureaucrats have admitted – perhaps trying to conceal a sense of satisfaction – that this hasn’t been possible for security reasons. Digital debates are too easy to leak or hack into, so for now they are sticking with files.

Security could be a savior of stationery in other ways too. One of the surprising consequences of Edward Snowden’s revelations of American spying was a sudden resurgence in interest in typewriters from both opponents and allies. Since the U.S. seemed to have the ability to hack into almost any kind of digital dialogue a Russian official announced that "from the point of view of keeping secrets, the most primitive method is preferred: a human hand with a pen or a typewriter."

Even in technology-driven Germany a senior politician said they were considering typewriters "and not electronic models either," Ward points out.. 

In his book, Ward quotes Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, to argue that stationery, like all technology, has a future: "With a very few exceptions, technologies don’t die... Technologies are idea-based and culture is their memory."

As proof of how the idea of stationery has survived digital change, Ward points to skeumorphic design "the replication of an object’s physical characteristics in another material or form."

This is particularly useful to help people transition between technologies, and Ward lists the many ways stationery is invoked in software design: "the paperclips used to attach documents to emails; the envelopes used to show new messages; the pens, brushes, pencils, and erasers used in Photoshop; the push-pins used to represent posts in WordPress; the pen meaning ‘compose new email’; the clipboard and scissors to cut and paste; note taking apps designed like yellow-legal pads; highlighters and sticky notes." We are constantly interacting with the images of stationery that we hardly use any longer!

Perhaps this might change as new generations come up who have never used erasers or scissors or push-pins, yet Ward insists that this would only enhance the value of stationery: "what could actually result is a greater appreciation of the physical... a pen doesn’t stop working just because you have gone into a tunnel; no one has ever needed to borrow a charger because the battery on their pencil has died; and if you’re writing in a Moleskine [notebook], you need never worry about having a bad signal or it crashing before you’ve had a chance to save your work."

If that sounds almost like a dare, one should consider the Saint John’s Bible. This was commissioned in 1998 by a Benedictine abbey in the U.S. to mark the approaching new millennium – the first completely handwritten Bible to be created since the invention of the printing press.

This extremely beautiful work, which was finished in December 2011, was written using quill pens made of the flight feathers of geese, with swan feathers used for thicker lettering on the titles.

A skill that had been obsolete in 1901 – though even then, it should be remembered, there was that dispensation for department heads – had now become art, the quills no longer antique stationery, but tools for timeless talent. This might seem unlikely with carbon papers being discarded at offices around the globe, but who could be blamed for quietly removing a packet from the waste-bin and taking it home?, Ward asks.

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