Paper as a Lasting Medium


In our contemporary age where digital remediation of sign systems is common, paper as perceptible material substrate for static, two-dimensional visual sign systems is still being widely used. This is because paper has affordances that new technologies do not have and new technologies also bring about new constraints. In the future, paper will probably be totally replaced because of the further advance of technologies and human beings’ shifted expectations.


Since paper is invented in China in 2nd century, it has been one of the major media of human being’s communication and information storage. In the contemporary digital age, paper is still being used widely and intensively. In 2014, the U.S. consumed 73,093 tons of paper product and China consumed 108,750 tons (Green America, 2017). U.S. uses about 68 million trees to produce paper and paper products every year (The Paperless Project, 2014).

Paper is quite a versatile kind of material which is used in many aspect of human beings’ life. For example, paper can serve as mere wraps or containers that protect or preserve other substances. Or paper itself can form human symbolic artifacts without the participation of other sign systems. The art of paper folding and the Chinese art of paper cutting are good examples. These paper-related arts are themselves symbolic and iconic sign systems that people use to convey many layers of meanings–Chinese paper cutting, for example, does not only represent the image it depicts, but it also has the meaning of good wishes, which is a layer of meaning given by conventions or cultural encyclopedia.

To be clear, what I want to mainly talk about in this article is paper as a media that serve as perceptible material substrate for tokens of static, two-dimensional visual sign systems like written languages and images.

A little history

Signs systems like written languages and paintings have been invented employed by human beings as media of communication since the dawn of civilizations, but paper was not a universally used media until it was invented in 105 AD by Chinese people (Stavrianos, 1998). Before settling down on paper, those two-dimensional sign systems wander through different other material substrates. About 3000 BC, people in the river plain of Mesopotamia inscribed written language in clay, and Egyptians discovered papyrus as a portable but unstable writing surface. Chinese people used bamboo strips linked with thread to create bulky scrolls that store information in an ancient version of Chinese characters around 1500 BC.

People around the world were adept at making use of local materials. Wax, leaves and wood had all been once considered handy materials to store written information from 5th century BC. People started to write and draw on parchment after it is invented in the region of Mediterranean during 2nd century BC.

And then paper stepped onto the stage of history. It made its way from Asia to Arab, to Muslim world and eventually to Europe. By 15th century, paper had become common in Europe. In 19th century, paper went through a major revolution with its main ingredient switched from rags to wood pulp–to cope with the greater demand brought by economic prosperity (, 2017).

Since then, paper has been used by people all around the world from different cultures that employ various sign systems–different languages, different vocations, different walks of life, all these mean different sign systems, but those static, two-dimensional visual sign systems all conform to paper, their common perceptible material substrate–until its dominance is shaken by new technologies.

Affordances of paper

Affordance is a concept adopted from cognitive psychology that means the action and interpretation something can afford (Norman, 1999). Compared with previous materials that bore the same types of signs systems, paper has many advantages, thus it bears more affordances.

Firstly, paper is light, compared to clay and bamboo strips. There is a Chinese idiom, “学富五车” that can be directly translated into “One’s mind bear more knowledge than could have been contained in five cartloads of books”. It is an expression that can be dated back to the time when books in the form of bamboo strips is so heavy that can only be carried around with carts dragged by horses. Secondly, paper is thinner and more flexible than papyrus and parchment. Also, paper is far less expensive that parchment made from animal skin, so it can be massively produced and became available for people throughout societies.

These advantages in properties give paper more affordances as a communication medium that is suppose to spread sign systems through time and space than previous materials. Its lightness and thinness makes it easy to be carried around. For example, mailmen send one’s mail to where it is intended, which is a practice still used now though in more efficient ways than ancient times. Paper’s flexibility reduces the risk that structures of sign systems reside on it is to be compromised.

Coming down to practical functions, Paper serve mainly as a display interface that connects different systems, which in most cases are two dimensional sign systems and human being’s core operation system to recognize signs. Books are good example for this case. Along the path of technological development, sign systems in the book was firstly handwritten (or drawn), and then printed, but the progress of technological advance has not changed the properties of the interfaces.

Paper also serve as a handy tool for human beings to offload some of their cognitive processes (Dror & Harnad, 2008). A journalist would take notes during interviews on his notepad so that he can keep a record of important facts and quotes. Someone who is heading to supermarket would figure out a shopping list on a piece of used paper before he sets out so that he does not need to murmur all the things he wants to buy to himself all the time. A student who is trying to learn mathematics would be very used to listing some equations or drawing some diagrams on scratch paper. A piece of delicate painting always starts with a rough sketch. As a matter of fact, the concept of this kind of quick cognitive offloading is well adopted by new technologies. For example, in Processing, a java-based programming language, programs are referred to as sketches, in the spirit of quick graphics prototyping (Shiffman, 2015).

Moreover, due to paper’s physical properties, like lightness and flexibility, it can easily be attached to other objects, so that it is frequently used to label things. Tags attached to clothes on a shopping mall’s racks indicate their prices and other things buyers need to know. Paper boxes are used not only for containing objects, but also are often used for giving an illustration of their properties. The concept of labeling has also been adopted by contemporary technologies, e.g. hashtag function in social media and different other forms of metadata.

New technologies

Nowadays, paper’s position as a major kind of media for human beings’ communication has been challenged by devices that can digitally remediate the types of sign systems afforded by paper.

Computer is the most important example. Computer was designed under the concept of metamedium, medium for other medium (Manovich, 2013). Computer can afford not only the static, two dimensional sigh systems that can be borne by paper, but also more complex time-based media like audio and video. Digital remediation of tokens from existing sign systems also allows users to search and compare among different patterns more easily, which is certainly one of the constraints of paper. More importantly, computer allows users to manipulate the sign systems like editing and re-arranging, instead of mere composing and receiving, by enabling symbols for action, which means symbols for controlling other symbols (Irvine, 2014). Users are also free to offload some of their cognitive processes by employing digital applications like calculator and notepad. The automation of some of the repetitive or standardized processes makes things a lot easier. Also, data can be attached to other data like tags to clothes for the sake of explanation or description. Links can be made to bring groups of data from different locations together, as Vannevar Bush envisioned for Memex, a imaginary prototype for modern computer (Bush, 1945).

E-book like Amazon Kindle is another significant example, for they are designed to imitate the look and feel of physical books, magazines and newspapers. The electronic ink and the designation for users to hold it with one hand are employed by Kindle to conform with human being’s form factor, which means the product tries hard to fulfill human beings’ habituated expectations–in this case, reading printed books. But it can also go beyond printed books. For example, in the process of reading a e-book on Kindle, users can create and share notes, look up words in dictionaries, adjust the font and size of text and search for certain content (Amazon, 2017). In addition to mere interpretation of given signs, e-book allow users to do some manipulation on their own. To sum up, users can quickly get familiar with the product using the obvious inference from the detectable features given by their cultural encyclopedia, and also make use of other desirable affordances to make their using experience more enjoyable or efficient.

Why haven’t they totally replaced paper yet?

New technologies like computer and e-book have introduced many new affordances to the perceptible material substrate that display two-dimensional sign systems, but the reason why paper is still widely used is because new technologies have also brought about new constraints.

One of the most significant is that electric power is indispensible for the digital re-mediation of the sign systems that appear on paper. If users want to access data that are stored online, Internet is also needed. Robinson on an uninhabited island would not choose a computer over a book though potentially he can access all the existing knowledge of human beings through it. This is not the case for paper. After a book is produced, it can work for a fairly long time in terms of displaying sign systems before its material fails without additional power input, though the content and form of sign systems are fixed. Constraints of new technologies indicate that paper as an interface for displaying sign systems cannot be replaced under certain circumstances, such as limited power input and no access to Internet. We are used to carrying a book with us when we take metros or a long flight.

Besides the difference brought by the constant need of power for digital remediation, paper as a tool for offloading cognitive processes have many other advantages over computer, smartphone or tablet. When we want to take some quick notes, we can just grab a piece of paper and a pen, and start writing. We don’t have to pull out a device, turn it on, intiate a certain software and start writing. When writing is done, we don’t have to go out of our way to do the process of saving. (Everyone using electronic devices for sign system manipulation must have gone through the pain of losing hours’ hard work just because they forget to save it.) If we want to take what we have taken down with us, we just tear the piece of paper from the notepad, fold it and put it in our pocket. In the case of electronic devices, however, we have to take the device that is certainly bulkier than a piece of paper with us because the display and interpretation of the digitally remediated tokens requires specific hardware and software. We certainly can’t fold the devices to fit them into certain amount of space because of the current limitation of hardware.

When we are scrawling on a paper, we can write or draw any diagrams, shapes, or charts as we wish with little restrictions. We can even use shorthand that is only recognizable for ourselves, as long as it is interpretable for future reference. But we can’t do this with computers or other current electronic devices. For example, in Microsoft Word, we are enabled to insert in our article different kinds of charts to illustrate our points, but they are all pre-defined and fixed by the software, so that while using this function, we can just follow the existing patterns, but not handily create our own pattern. Along the way of development of computer, scholars have brought up the idea that computer serve as a platform for users to develop their own tools for manipulating sign systems (Kay & Goldberg, 1977), but this vision is yet to be accomplished.

Different perceptible material substrates for the same type of sign systems also have unintended consequences. Firstly, medium is the message, meaning that “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs (McLuhan & Lapham, 1994), thus the media where a type of sign systems is remediated is not indifferent, e.g. digital media brought about the information overload and fragmented reading pattern (Liu, 2005). Secondly, sign remediated by pen on a piece of paper is attach with users’ idiosyncrasy that is recognizable but does not compromise the original communication intention. For example, handwriting is one’s own way of re-tokenize the type  of signs from written language. Thus, it always enable one more layer of interpretation than the same type of signs that is digitally remediated.

Amazon Kindle and other e-book have done a good job imitating printed books, but not enough–there are still aspects that do not conform with the human beings’ form factors. For example, its refresh rate–the time that devices take to turn to the next page–prevent users from flipping through the pages, which users are inclined to do while reading a printed book.


Contemporary technologies still have a long way to go from totally replacing paper, but I do think they stand a fair chance, for some of the technical problems are on their way of being tackled down. Further development of solar energy technologies might make electronic devices as self-sustainable as paper. Foldable electronic screens are being developed (Gibbs, 2017). With other constraints being solved, I can’t see a reason why future computers would not cover all the affordances of paper.

But the more important question lies in the human beings’ habituated expectation of paper as a perceptible material substrate for static, two-dimensional sign systems. While people who are born in digital age are gradually replacing people who immigrate to it, human beings will become more and more used to the digital remediation of the familiar types of sign systems that bear more affordances, just as people shift from previous writing materials to paper.

Works cited

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Gibbs, S. (2017, September 12). Samsung plans to sell a Galaxy Note with a foldable screen in 2018. The Guardian. Retrieved from