For hundreds of years, paper was the gold standard of written communication.
Anything you needed to record or remember, from love letters to receipts, was printed on paper.
Then digital communication took hold, and we began to believe the age of paper was over.
Why would anyone continue to use paper, when digital is so much more flexible?
Digital information is easier to share, easier to store. Copiers, filing cabinets, and fax machines disappeared into the digital vortex.
But yet, paper persists. And not just because insurance companies and banks are slow to move off legacy systems.
Paper persists because it’s easier to print a receipt than get a customer to enter their email address. Paper persists because an emailed love letter doesn’t have the same meaning. Paper persists because, even in a digital world, paper is still useful.
Especially for content marketers, paper has an irreplaceable power we can’t ignore.
The power of context
A few years ago, I discovered something strange about the way I used my digital devices.
When I picked up my phone, my fingers tapped their way to Instagram, or to Mail, without me even thinking about it. When I opened up my laptop, my mouse gravitated to open Mail, Slack, or Chrome.
It was as if I was interacting with my devices on autopilot.
And worse, as I started paying more attention to it, I realized this autopilot was actively subverting my intentions. I’d end up on Reddit when I meant to check the weather, Instagram when I meant to Google something.
To break this habit, I started scrambling my icons.
And it worked: With my icons rearranged, I had to think about what I was doing, instead of auto-navigating to familiar apps.
This was my introduction to the power of digital context.
I’ve always felt connected to the power of context in the physical world. Certain lighting helps me feel ready for bed, and wearing shoes helps put me in the mindset to work.
But, during this little app-experiment, I realized that the digital world had contextual power, too. And until then, I had been ignoring it.
This discovery of digital context changed the way I interacted with my devices. I began to search for ways to put digital in its place, to make space for myself to exist outside of it, on my own.
I started waiting to check my phone in the mornings, and made time to journal instead — in a real, paper journal.
I started going on walks, and left my phone at home in favor of a pocket-sized notebook. I put my phone away earlier in the evenings, and spent time instead with a good book.
I found that, in these moments, paper seamlessly took the place of digital … and then some.
Unlike digital, writing in paper notebooks and reading paper books allowed me to control the context and leave the space I needed to think and create.
And through it all, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t seen this sooner.
In pursuit of transcendence
If I were to boil down the purpose of all technological development to one goal, it would be this:
Technology helps us transcend the physical world.
Stone tools allowed us to extend our capacity to hunt, shelters kept us safe from the elements, vehicles and telephones helped us conquer space and time, medicine conquers disease …
Technology is about transcendence, and as a species, we’re obsessed with it.
So, it’s no wonder digital entirely captivated us; it is the most transcendent technology we’ve encountered yet.
The internet connects the world in “real time,” entire libraries live in the cloud, and computers can (sort of) drive cars, answer support questions, and predict human behavior.
Never in human history have we been so untethered by the bounds of physical reality.
As we began to realize digital’s potential, we started pouring everything into it — our work, our social circles, our entertainment.
Digital technology seemed like the answer to our transcendent dreams. We could finally leave the physical world behind.
But in this digital fantasy, we forgot a crucial part of human nature:
As much as technology has helped us overcome the difficulties of the physical world, we still need it.
We are it.
The physical cues of our environments and tools affect us in ways we don’t always recognize. And this digital place was affecting us too, even if we didn’t see it at first.
Finding a separate “place” for thought
Consider, for a moment, how many things you do on your digital devices.
On just my laptop, I communicate with coworkers, chat with friends, plan meals, research motorcycle parts, watch TV, and much more.
Is it any wonder that I often struggle with ideas when I try to think at this laptop, which echoes with previous distractions?
That’s the downside of digital. Because we do everything on one device, in that one same environment, it can be hard to separate work time from playtime, social time from focus time.
There are ways to manage it, of course. I’ve written before about a few ways I separate my work time from my personal time, and how I use environmental cues to improve my productivity.
But there’s one tried-and-true way to separate from all this digital chaos.
I bet you’ve guessed what it is by now.
When you work on paper, you control the context. You can choose the size, shape, and feel of your paper — even the structure and layout.
I currently have three notebooks, each with their own associations:
- Private time
They support my ideas, creativity, and productivity in ways I can’t get from a phone or laptop.
And having a separate place for thinking and reflection helps me get more out of my digital devices.
Now, I use my laptop for execution, for getting work done.
I type faster than I write, so I use my laptop to hammer out first drafts of posts. This sets me up for an easy editing process and way to share final drafts.
Although the bulk of my creative process still happens on a laptop, the ideas come from my notebooks, which I captured while I was using paper to allow (and encourage) my mind to wander.
Different technologies, different contexts
When digital began taking over the world, those of us who still valued paper struggled to explain why.
The appeal of transcendence and excitement over new technology forced us on the defensive. We felt we had to explain what paper had that digital didn’t.
But really, though paper has many benefits, one of the greatest is a quality it lacks.
No matter how much technology evolves, as long as we continue to inhabit physical bodies we will always be affected by the world around us and the technologies we use.
And ultimately, different technologies have different strengths, but no technology is neutral. There is no technology, no environment, that doesn’t affect how you think, feel, or react.
Our job, especially as writers and content marketers, is to leverage the best parts of each technology, so we can access the best parts of ourselves.