A tale of two writing supports

As Ireland publishes its last fully paper census since 1841, it has become increasingly clear that paper might just turn out to be the most short-lived writing support in history. Stone, clay, papyrus, parchment have had a longer shelf-life than paper. It’s been roughly six hundred years since the slow paper revolution ignited in the West, taking over vellum (parchment), and paper is being not-so-slowly replaced by the digital form, which is not, as Aristotle would’ve argued, a form at all, let alone a ‘support’. If support means, as its etymology makes clear, an underpinning (from the Latin sub, under, and portare, to carry), then we’ve never been in need of a more ‘supported’ form of writing. Think of a word in need of a bra, always at risk of falling down. End of metaphor.

I’ve pointed out many times before that as we transition to all-out digital storage, the risk of data loss is, all things considered, higher than ever before. Whether taken individually or collectively, paper, and especially parchment, is a lot harder to damage and destroy than digital data. If you’re unsure, see what’s faster, that finger on ‘Delete’ or that flame threatening the piece of paper in your hand.

But don’t be afraid, there’s the cloud. And it never rains down on your data. What’s condensing more and more thickly, however, is the idea that dematerialised storage is safe in the very long term, or even that long-term storage is not even a goal worth pursuing. Except by data-hungry companies and governments, for whom long-term storage is the best insurance policy.

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