Tag Archives: long-form media

The Invitation of the Blank White Page

paper commons wikimedia.org
Source: Wikipedia.org

It’s a medium with many virtues we tend to overlook: low cost, portability, and compact storage of text, images and data.

Although the precise origins of paper are hard to identify, some authorities place it in China about 105 AD. Plant fibers gathered and poured into a water bath were spread and carefully removed by a screen underneath, leaving a thin layer of material that could be dried so it would accept paint or ink. Papermaking eventually migrated to Egypt and Iraq, and then to Europe. “Paper” made in what is now Egypt was usually produced from papyrus or parchment (an animal skin), the only tools for capturing language recognized in the Koran.

While Egyptian papyrus (from which the word “paper” evolved) was initially the preferred material, it required more resources and woodworking skill than was practicable elsewhere. Eventually, near the end of 780s dried fibers of fabric became the dominant ingredient, partly because it was less susceptible to forgeries than all the other alternatives, and because it could more easily be sized with oils made from animal by-products. Sizing produced a smooth surface able to hold ink.

This and much more is told in Lothar Müller’s new book, White Magic: The Age of Paper (Polity Press, 2014)He notes that even before the invention of the printing press in 1450 there was a steady stream of written material made by copyists, as well as “printers” using ink transfers from individual wood blocks. Hand copied books were numerous, along with items such as block-printed playing cards with monarchs painted on their surfaces.  In the 14th Century it appears that nearly everybody played cards.

Arguably the most potent effect of the ability to make paper was not necessarily the book, but the ledger and the formal contract. Spain as the center of Phillip II’s empire is given credit (or maybe it should be blame) for creating one of the first paper-based bureaucracies.  Decrees, written petitions, contracts and files were committed to the page. Still made from rag fibers until higher demand would require the substitution of wood pulp, paper made possible major advances that are frequently still used: the keeping of governmental and business ledgers, the practice of double bookkeeping, and the increasing use of correspondence by mail. In the latter case, a chain of effects followed wider access to postal systems, triggering the development of better roads and predictable timetables.

All of these advances are based on a medium with virtues we tend to overlook: low cost, portability, and compact storage of text, images and data. These conditions were the essential prelude to the printed book, which was made possible especially in the West because of the ease of creating standardized type based on the small Latin alphabet.

Not surprisingly, print formalized the idea of authorship, turning writers into long-form storytellers, and readers into linear thinkers.  The availability of paper from mills sprouting up everywhere contributed to the flowering the enlightenment and, later, distribution of scientific research based on the premise of world-wide peer-review.

Müller’s study of paper and the book notes that the story of these media is not over.  Paper gives history a durable record not yet equaled by digital files. He also reminds us that books are things. They can be owned, passed on, or resold. Many of us still draw satisfaction from their visible and tactile presence. By contrast, the electronic version is more accurately described as a licensed product. As such, it’s not quite the object for independent use that is a defining feature of its enduring paper counterpart.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu


Too Much Noise on the Line

If you are old enough to remember The Carol Burnett Show and her famous remake of “Gone with the Wind,” you can probably also describe the momentary loss of picture or sound with some version of the phrase, “There’s too much static on the line.” We tend to see the world through the vocabulary we’ve acquired, so some form of this expression hangs around, even though we now think of it as a holdover from older forms of analogue media. Listen to AM radio today and there can be so much static that it may actually drown out a station. Scratches on an old 35-millimeter print of a film or dust lodged in a cherished vinyl LP are similar versions of the same problem: what audio engineers call a bad “signal-to-noise ratio.” It’s still true that if you still have a land-line phone, you may also find that there are times when you sound like Sheriff Andy Taylor trying to be heard over an old wall phone at the far end of Mayberry.

“Too much static on the line” might seem like a complaint whose time has passed. After all, digital media generally have the potential to strip a message of extraneous noise. But it would be a mistake to think that we’ve licked the problem, especially if we can see its significance in slightly larger terms. I’m struck by the fact that the very devices that carried the promise of freeing us from bad connections have done just the opposite. If anything, those weighed down with various forms of the latest digital devices are now assaulted with more stimulation than we can ever accommodate. In our age, the fragile line represented by a focused consciousness is easily overwhelmed by visual and aural noise.

Talk to a friend while they are surfing the internet or texting someone, and you sense that there’s definitely too much static on the line. Ask someone to do their desk job while they are also trying to process a barrage of useless e-mails, cell messages and Tweets, and they’ve got more than their powers of concentration and discernment can handle.

This has become a familiar and much-discussed issue, especially among older adults who see what they describe as the distractions and attention deficits of the young. To be sure, our children will survive, and no doubt help us tame the twin Twenty First Century monsters of information overload and empathy fatigue. But it’s also worth remembering that many enduring achievements in life tend to come in broad swaths of linear development. The mind works best when it has time to put our heads around a challenge and master its demands. We know this when we’ve finished a great novel, witnessed the performance of a sprawling but magnificent symphony, or taken in the words of a provocative thinker who was given a generous  space of time to lay out their views. To reduce these efforts to anything less—especially because of a felt need to accommodate more truncated bits of “information”—is to produce its own kind of mental static.

There’s an important lesson in the fact that a number of great composers wrote their best works in fevers of concentrated effort. It was continuous and sustained chains of invention that gave us the Jupiter Symphony and the gathering brilliance of The Messiah. We can be thankful that Mozart and Handel didn’t have the distractions of 24-hour cable news, Facebook pages to fret over, or e-mails waiting to be answered. It is undeniably true that we have reduced the presence of unwanted electrical noises that dogged the transmissions of  older media. But they’ve been replaced by relentless and insistent demands on our attention that represent their own forms of noise.