Why Pen and Paper Are Making a Surprising Comeback

By Mike Elgan  |  Posted 2015-10-29 Email Print this article Print
Pen and paper return

The headlong rush to embrace all things digital has been taking a detour lately. Specifically, we're actually seeing a return to pen and paper. Here's why.

Lately, though, these paper enthusiasts are boldly coming out of the closet and proudly admitting their paper obsessions. In fact, Silicon Valley's dirty little secret is that tech startup entrepreneurs are obsessed with paper Moleskine notebooks. Supporting that trend is the use of smartphones to instantly capture paper content and bring it into the cloud, where it can be scanned and indexed for search.

Evernote is a leader in this department, and it sells a special Moleskine planner designed for paper users to scribble to their heart's content. They can then snap a picture of the pages to bring it into Evernote's searchable cloud.

Remember several years ago, when almost everybody thought that by 2015 all books would be digital, and paper books would be dead and gone? It never happened. Over the past couple of years, eBooks have remained flat at around 20 percent of the market.

Even more shocking: In the first five months of this year, eBook sales fell by 10 percent. During that same period, paperback sales rose by 8.4 percent.

The biggest reason for this trend, ironically, is our obsession with mobile devices. We all spend so much time looking at screens that our eyes need a break, and reading a printed page is a welcome change.

Fraud, hacking and cyber-attacks are also driving us back to the pre-digital era.

In the upcoming election, we're going to see a widespread retreat from touch-screen voting and a return to paper ballots. Voters and election officials are concerned about security, privacy and fraud. And why wouldn't they be? Everybody gets hacked nowadays, and it often takes months to discover it.

Even the IRS is backing off a bit on issuing refunds electronically, and it's starting to print more paper checks.

So it turns out the death of paper was greatly exaggerated.

Return of the Sextant

The U.S. Naval Academy recently reinstated an old course on celestial navigation—using a sextant to navigate by the stars. Similar instruction will soon be rolled out to enlisted sailors as well. The reason for the move is that the Navy wants a fallback plan in case the GPS system is taken offline in a cyber-attack.

This is a harbinger of best practices to come for IT organizations at all kinds of organizations. When Sony Pictures Entertainment got mercilessly hacked last year, they were forced to return to pen and paper to do their work for weeks after the hack. But they weren't prepared to do so.

I think that as major hacks continue, some IT departments will prepare for worst-case scenarios by working some days (or weeks) without a network at all. That may involve plans to return to the pre-network days of sneakernet, or even the pre-PC days of pen and paper.

Several trends in mobile computing, cyber-security and fraud protection are getting people to do things the old-fashioned way: with pen and paper.

The futurists never saw that trend coming.


Mike Elgan, a Baseline contributor, is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger. http://elgan.com/


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