Printing is seen as a big moment in the history of technology yet the role of the material upon which words were written, or printed, is as important, and easy to underestimate. To write, and importantly, to be widely read, one needs a medium for distribution. The media upon which writing was written includes; clay, potsherds, stone, bones, shells, papyrus, silk, bark, parchments, slates, paper and eventually electronic screens. Scalability has come first through the use of easily available natural materials, then the manufucture of papyrus and paper and finally the digital revolution where massive scalability comes through electronic replication.
Papyrus – write one side
The medium used to record writing has undergone several important advances, all with powerful pedagogic consequences. The move from clay to papyrus was significant as it was portable, lighter, easier to flatten out and sheets could be glued together to form scrolls of great length, up to 6 meters and longer. It was also better for brushes and pens, easier to write on and produced faster, cursive writing. The downside was that it was expensive, as supply was limited largely to the Nile delta in Egypt, who kept the method of manufacture a secret. It also had a vertical and horizontal grain, so could only be used on one side.
Parchment – write both sides and folds
Parchment started to appear in the 1st century AD, from Pergamum in modern Turkey but was eventually made everywhere.. In Europe, papyrus suffered in the damp conditions, whereas parchment (animal skins) were far more durable, could be folded, stitched together in codexes (manuscripts) and because it is opaque can written on both sides. It can also be scraped clean to be used again. Again, like papyrus, it was difficult to make and remained expensive. One bible could take hundreds of calfskins selected from thousands of skins, many of which are blemished.
Paper – cheap, mass production
The use of cheap wax tablets and slates, allowed schools to distribute cheap, erasable, reusable writing technology to all learners. But it was the availability of cheap paper that allowed mass printing, replication and scalability. Paper, invented by the Chinese around 105 AD, used rags, hemp, bark and meshed fishing nets to produce the first dried and bleached paper. It moved beyond China around the 7th century but only reached Europe via Moorish Spain in the 12th century. It is cheap paper that made printing possible.
Indeed, paper manufacture became much cheaper in the 19th century when Fourdrinier (1799) and Gilpin (1816) produced machines that could output paper in huge, wide rolls. Then in the 1860s paper produced from wood pulp, rather than rags, and the price plummeted. Book prices fell by 50% and the demand for clean, white pages led to the addition of bleaching with chlorine. Cheap paper could be printed and distributed on new rail networks. Newspapers flourished and postal services led to mass letter writing.
For learning, cheap paper gave us books for the dissemination of knowledge but also empty notebooks and exercise books for students to take notes, practice and do exercises. It is paper that put mass writing in the hands of learners.
Third largest polluter
Of course, paper has many uses. It's everywhere; books, newspapers, wallpaper, lampshades, cups, plates, paper bags, hats, insulation, filters, toilet paper, kites, playing cards, origami. It has been a transformative material.The downside is that paper production is a massive, global polluter on land, water and air. It is the third largest industrial, polluter in North America, the fifth biggest user of energy and uses more water per ton of product than any other industry.Paper in landfill sites accounts for around 35% of all waste by weight. Recycling helps but even the deinking process produces pollutants. Paper production still uses chlorine and chlorine based chemicals and dioxins are an almost inevitable part of the paper production process. Water pollution is perhaps the worst, as pulp mill waste water contains is oxygen hungry and contains an array of harmful chemicals and harmful gases and greenhouse gases are also emitted. It may seem as though reforestation is a plus, but these are low biodiversity environments.
Paper is also unstable and decays. The acid was to prove fatal for many books as they decayed on shelves. This has led to mass digitisation process that have the added advantage of making the contents accessible on the web and searchable.
Paper to screen
With screen technology, the age of digital abundance could print to screens anything, anywhere at any time, giving unlimited scalability, even the capability to redo and edit writing by the writer and eventually even the readers (wikis). From seemingly nowhere, new technology, came along and didn’t just result in adjustment but profoundly reshaped, almost destroyed, even wiped out traditional paper technologies and practices. In the same way that the railways were wiped out by the automobile, as the railway owners didn’t see that they were in the transport not railway business, so paper-based newspapers, books, journals and encyclopedias have all been transformed by the web.
News not newspapers
The ready access to news on the web continues to crush the newspaper industry. They forgot that they were in the ‘news’ and not ‘newsPAPER’ business. So entranced were they by the technology of paper and printing that they at first refused to believe that this new kid on the block would survive, then reacted with blunt negativity. You still get huge amounts of sceptical coverage around web-based activity in newspapers, as journalists clearly feel threatened and are part of the old, paper paradigm. The shift to the digital printing presses turned out not to be the saviour of newspapers, merely a false dawn of cost cutting before the real dawn broke, where distribution to a global audience costs virtually nothing.
Texts not books
The book business has been reshaped, largely by Amazon. First came the switch to online ‘One-click’ ordering and delivery. Amazon’s vast stock, low prices, smart use of scalable web technology and ease of use, shot it to a dominant position very quickly. Then camee-book readers, such as the Kindle, that started to reshape the very nature of the book itself. The traditional industry forgot that it was in the business of texts, not books. Suddenly, e-books were everywhere, downloadable, for free to your Kindle. The texts were readable, you could carry as many books as you wanted, especially when travelling, as the weight was zero and it had good battery life.
Knowledge not encyclopedias
A rather simple piece of software, wiki software, was used to devastating effect in Wikipedia, which literally wiped out the competition. A centuries old tradition of capturing knowledge in volumes, that were indeed physically volumous, was brought to a shuddering halt and collapse by a combination of smart technology (wiki) and a new practice afforded by another technology, the web. Once again, the publishers saw themselves as being in the encyclopedia, not the knowledge, business. Wikipedia trounced the traditional paper versions on every count. It’s free, searchable, bigger, weighs nothing, requires no storage, is multilingual, updatable, and copes with disputed knowledge on the edge of the more certain core.
Paper has had a good thousand year run but it is increasingly being challenged by electronic screens. None of the traditionalists realised that their true core business was not in the delivery of paper but the delivery of text and graphics. They delivered atoms not bits. But atoms are expensive to produce, distribute and store, whereas bits are all but free to replicate, distribute and store. This has had a profound impact on learning, with more pedagogic change over the last ten years than the last thousand years.