Xerox’s researchers have made the news recently with word that they have developed reusable paper — paper specially treated so that anything photocopied or laser-printed on it fades away in less than a day. The newly blank pages can thus be printed on again and again instead of being consigned to the recycle bin or worse.
In principle, I love this idea. Over a decade ago, I argued in an essay that the advent of ever more powerful computers, printers and personal typographic tools had transformed paper in a fundamental way, from a storage medium to interface. Well before the web arrived, paper was well on it’s way to becoming an ever more volatile medium — compose electronically, read on paper and then recycle it when done.
We are well into the world of paper as interface, and we are beginning to flirt with truly paperless alternatives. The vast bulk of information circulating in cyberspace is never reduced to paper at all. The paper-based information order has become a vast electronic piñata, with the thinnest of paper crusts surrounding a digital core.
Against this backdrop, reusable paper might seem like a good idea. In fact, if Xerox commercializes the idea at all, the most they can hope for is that their reusable paper will find a handful of specialized niches each solving some unique problem. Think spooks reading memos at the NSA, companies handing out proprietary data or schools presenting examinations. Personally, I am hoping it leads to ephemeral art — imagine books printed with the stuff whose words evaporate literally as they are being read like some magical text ifrom the library at Hogwarts.
And the weaknesses? Leave aside the obvious problems of having separate recycling bins, and the temptation of readers to scribble non-fading notes, making the paper unusable again. No, the deeper issue orbits around the assumption that people actually read what is on paper at all, much less within the 16 hours before the writing evaporates. I am convinced that printing has become a substitute for reading. We see something on-screen that we should read, but not having time to read it, we print it instead, intending to read it later. The unread document gets added to a heap of other unread documents which eventually are tossed –unread–into the recycling bin.
Meanwhile, we are inching ever-closer to paperlike electronic screens. Sony has a new electronic book-reader, the Librîe e-1000, which uses a display from eInk and will run over 7,000 page-turns before charging. In the amount of time it would take to deploy reusable paper, successors to the Librîe will become thinner, higher-resolution and ever more capable. Long-overdue electronic books are not far off in the form of tablet readers that will also to light entry and web-surfing. So, erasable paper may show up eventually, but if it does, it is likely to have a brief life and than go the way of instant movies, erasable ballpoints, and consumer software delivered as consumer-scannable barcode on sheets of –you got it — paper.