Ink on skin

When automobiles were first invented, they were called "horseless carriages". They were framed as a variation of the existing technology. Once horse-driven carriages were obsolete, they became an amusement ride in settings that replicate the bygone era. All attempts were abandoned to provide efficient transportation and to compete with other purveyors of horse & buggy services.

When printing ink was invented, it was put on paper. Ink on paper created bound or folded publications. Ink was eventually threatened by toner cartridges. Toner on copier paper could make one copy of an original with much less set-up than the plates on printing presses.

Tape players, VCRs and DVD players then offered viewers several buttons that print publications do not have: Stop, Fast Forward, Pause, Rewind, Eject. This did not bring an end to "ink on paper" because reading the printed word can make all these moves without pushing any buttons. We can always skip ahead, jump around, reread and put down the document. Talk of the "paperless office" was premature.

Then came Web 2.0. Print publications (books, magazines, direct mail, handouts, forms, worksheets) are getting compared to the functionality of our online experiences. Paper usage is getting factored into global warming. Here's some of the reasons "ink on paper" sucks:

  • There's no way to select, cut, copy and paste to a clipboard or open document
  • There's no search window to find what we just read, vaguely recall or want to find other mentions of
  • There's no comment box or ways to annotate the text that the author will see
  • There's no zoom button to enlarge the portion we're examining
  • There's no way to show what we're reading to someone who happens to be in another place right now
  • There are no hyper links to open other windows and connect different ideas in our minds with ease
  • There are no animations to watch that illustrate the ideas in the text, add an audio dimension to the experience
  • There's no way to tag what we're reading with our own words to come back to this exact spot with the click of a mouse the next time we want to see this
  • There's no way to save a printed document without cutting down a tree, burning up some petroleum and releasing some carbon into the atmosphere

So were approaching the time when ink will move from paper to skin. We'll use ink for decoration, instead of information transmission. Mass production of printed pages will be replaced by individual craftsman creating tattoos. The act of using ink will resemble the scribes of the Middle Ages painstakingly copying illuminated manuscripts. Paperless schooling, business and journalism will overtake the low-functionality of ink on paper.

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  1. What a really useful list. I often find myself discussing the relative merits of text on screen versus the printed word and this will help a lot.

    However, there are some benefits that the screen cannot yet match: (1) the much higher resolution of print on paper makes it easier to read; (2) the reflected light rather than projected light makes it easier on the eye; (3) orientation on the page and within the overall document is improved; (4) books are collectible objects in a way digital documents never could be; (5) books feel and smell better than screens; (6) books don't need power or batteries.

  2. Thanks for jumping in here Clive. Your list superbly articulates my lifetime love affair with books. I agree that reading screens will never be a match to my reading experience with a book in hand. These distinctions are similar to the feel of money compared to credit cards, and the delights of cooking compared to prepared meals. The emergence of more free lancers, cottage industries and "inefficient" craftsmanship signals the shift away from mass produced consumption to these more satisfying, individualized experiences. I'm noticing my reading experience on screen is not as pleasurable, but it seems more functional. It's much easier to combine my digital reading experience with my authoring, searching, quoting, linking and archiving experiences. Meanwhile, I'm still reading two books a week and enjoying it immensely.