Why Print?

June 9, 2010

I was listening to an old Sitepoint podcast which is about the future of publishing in a digital world. More specifically, it’s about how and why print publishing can stand alongside digital publishing, especially when the latter offers free, easy-to-store content at your convenience.

The podcast offers a host of technical and, as they term it, ‘rational’ reasons why print often has the upper hand (the primary one being better resolution in print, allowing better photographic reproduction and less eye-strain for reading text). A reason I would add is that, when the library shuts down or the company folds, those paper records have to go somewhere. They need to be intentionally destroyed. But for bits and bytes, when you pull out the plug, or the software moves on, to all intents and purposes they are destroyed without the slightest effort. This is a big factor in the open source movement, of course, and why I’ll always work in open standards.

The Irrationality of Print

But what of the less rational aspects? Kevin Yank and Derek Powazek talk about the feel of a book, and the smell of a brand-new magazine (that’s acetate or something isn’t it?). Powazek also mentions sneaking a peek at his dad’s Playboy collection when he was young, and the whole immersion (in 70s cigarette adverts for example) was part of the experience. They found something irreplacable about an object.

Where they really hit the nail on the head is with the fact that we live in a real world, of things. We’ll always be a slave to things (aren’t we just? – gadgets, cars, jewellery), and there are so many associated feelings with things. You can put things on shelves. You can display things. Show things off. Replace things, throw things out. You can make a statement with things. Have a clearout.

Bits are invisible, abtract. You can delete data from your hard drive, but what does that mean? It just reinforces the temporary nature of these ephemera. No one knows when you’ve had a clearout of your hard drive (except maybe your IT department…). There’s no statement in it, just practicality. And there’s the thing: Computer files are nothing if not practical. A pratical way to store, transport and view data.

What’s a stunning photographic vista if you just pop onto your PC every few months for another look? Put it on your wall, however, and it’s less practical and more expressive. It tells people a little about you – your tastes, passions, opinions. Your bookcase can become a talking point as visitors browse. Just as your record collection did (or does, if you’re like me).

For print too (and to some extent art and records) there is indeed a wider experiential element. The smell of the magazine, yes, but also the quiet of a room wherein a person reads a book, deep in its pages. The act of placing a record on a turntable. Digging through a shoebox of old photos, or flicking through a scrapbook of newpaper cuttings.

This isn’t just consumption of information, this is cultural experience. You can’t reduce a visit to Macchu Pichu to a list of smells, feels, sounds, images and conversation. You must go there. It’s not necessarily rational, and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s not useful as such. At the very least, print will be the thing which lasts, which gets passed on and talked about. Bytes are tools to carry the message, but print will always be the medium of experience.