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Death of Paper != Death of Printing

Summary: the “death of paper” debate as predicated by the entrance of the amazon kindle and other ebook readers, and the worries of newspapers and publishers plagued by craigslist, on-demand publishing, and dead subscription models often avoids examining the technology which created the medium to begin with: the printing press of old, versus the circuit board printer press. Which creates more physical waste, and which creates more information waste? skip to conclusion.

In the “Ovlerlooked Argument of the Day” category, all the talk around the death of paper, death of print, and such ilk, primarily based on the growth of alternative information delivery technologies, (aka the internets, amazon kindle, sony ebook reader, etc), often subscribes to a couple particular aspects of the trope:

  1. Hastening the death of print and printed information is contributing to market turmoil:

    The business model of new technology is altering the delivery infrastructure and human relation to information associated with the new information channels. The neurotic seat-of-the-pants maneuvering of the newspaper and publishing industries as it negotiates the simple playoff between market economics of competition in the face of infrastructure changes in the technology of information delivery (hint: what is the daily delta of the ratio between the percentage of paying consumers of the old and the new mediums, what is the daily delta of the profit in each of the medium/customer ratios, and what is the equation that best predicts within a certain timeframe the delta?) seems important, but isnt it clear this is a problem for marketing, profit/loss quants, and middle and upper management?

  2. Hastening the death of print and printed information can contribute to progressive environmental change:

    WASTE IS NOT ECONOMICAL: In her majesty’s United Kingdom, collection and storage of paper waste is costing the country 5x more than the value of the waste as it continues to pile up at a cost of £2million per 100,000 tons. In March, 2009 the heap is at 200,000 tons and is doubling every three months. By the end of the year there will be over 1,000,000 tons which could cost the UK £20million to store. [ source ]

  3. … and so on. And its a good argument to use for strategic reasons: green makes green, has good social capital, and it really does save trees, etc.

But these focii overshadow the background engineering problems and mathematics of information transfer: comparing any two information delivery technologies in which one has a much wider bandwidth creates an increase in capacity for both information complexity, and information redundancy, as the need to avoid encoding errors must increase. The question to be left to the mathematicians is does this alter the ratio of entropy in the new channel, (The entropy rate of English text is between 1.0 and 1.5 bits per letter, or as low as 0.6 to 1.3 bits per letter, according to estimates by Shannon [Shannon-Hartley]).

So, the question to be answered as it relates to waste of the information channel in a production state is, does the new channel technology generate more or less physical waste, even as the overall bandwidth of information transmitted increases, irrespective of whether or not that information has higher or lower entropy associated with it?

First, lets examine two situations and their associated, boundary condition qualities: (excluding the illiterate, of course.)

    One small bookshelf of books per person, with allowance that books may be shared:

    • Lower overall complexity at the level of the individual.
    • Higher block-level information quality, lower entropy at individual level.
    One kindle or ebook reader per person, with access to all possible books:

    • Higher overall complexity at the individual level.
    • Lower block-level information quality, higher entropy at individual level.
An Earlier Example: Entropy and Bandwidth in moving from stone to writing.

Now, lets examine the associated infrastructure costs of the two mediums:

    One small bookshelf of books per person, with allowance that books may be shared:

    • # of trees to produce a book
    • # of monks/loggers/pulp processors/humans employed to create the physical books
    One kindle or ebook reader per person, with access to all possible books:

    • # of printed circuit boards to produce a single physical kindle version
    • # of highly specialized graduate students in a lab to design the circuit boards
    • # of highly specialized robotic processes to create the boards
    • # of highly specialized graduate students in a lab to design the highly specialized robotic processes
    • # of technology angel investors with 3rd round financing under the belt
    • etc…

And finally, the physical waste associated with the two channel options:

    One small bookshelf of books per person, with allowance that books may be shared:

    • # of books reused at library bake sales vs. # of books molding into dust and abandoned in landfills.
    One kindle or ebook reader per person, with access to all possible books:

    • # of printed circuit boards person must continue to buy to upgrade the kindle, and who they give last years model to, vs. # of printed circuit boards broken, discontinued, and sent to India, China, or Peru.

If anything can be said around the “death of paper” debate, its that the infrastructure analysis is severely absent from how it gets discussed in the media and elsewhere. People have new ways of using information, its true, but information itself still uses people in much the same way. For every discussion of the “Death of Paper”, and for every book that gets placed into the amazon kindle or sony ebook reader environment, it only highlights how tool-dependent our concept of information is. Every book that is not printed on paper is still printed on a circuit board. And at one circuit board per person, with hardware bugs showing up during nearly every product lifecycle, it only shows the power of the Printing Machine over the printer itself, and thus, ultimately, over the printed information.

So to call for the death of paper based on paper waste, or to call for the death of paper based on information waste, remember: printed circuit boards, 1 per person, vs. a bookshelf, and higher information redundancy with wider information channel bandwidth = higher information waste with the printed circuit boards. whats the tradeoff? power and ease of access, but only for those in a position to use it.

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Rise of the Printer


August 25, 2009
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