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Gladwell reviews The Social Life of Paper

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2002

>From the keyboard (or is it pen?) of Malcolm Gladwell comes The Social Life of Paper, a review of The Myth of the Paperless Office (which seems like a expansion of some of the ideas about paper and the paperless office from The Social Life of Information). Someone (Gladwell? Gleick? Standage? Me?) should write a book called Technologies That Were Supposed to Completely Supplant Older Technologies But Didn’t and Why. Chapters could include “Computers vs. Paper”, “The Internet vs. Television”, and “Amazon.com vs. Bookstores”. What chapters would you recommend (and why)?

Reader comments

J Luke SeemannMar 28, 2002 at 8:09PM

Java vs. HTML

Velcro vs. shoelaces

Segway vs. walking/bicycling/calling a cab

Irony vs. sincerity

Clip-on vs. four-in-hand

Flow-bee vs. scissors

mathowieMar 28, 2002 at 8:22PM

I can’t help but think back to all the early 90’s hype about the “information superhighway” and those commercials by AT&T (“have you ever gotten a haircut while getting your oilchanged, picked up some movie tickets and received a large slurpee from an ATM? You will! And the company that will bring it to you? AT&T”). There were so many things we thought would be ubiquitous today.

computers vs. manual labor (my parents used to tell me as a kid that I needed to know how to use computers, since manufacturing would be entirely computer based in my adulthood - mostly true?)

TV vs. Radio (radio wasn’t completely killed)

Internet Radio vs. local FM radio

Cellphone web browsers replacing Palms/Blackberries/laptops

The web vs. Newspapers (mostly true that web papers replaced paper-based sales of news?)

broadband would be everywhere

set-top boxes on every television

pay-per-view/on-demand TV vs. cable/satalite TV

Distance Learning/computer based training (CBT)/”virtual colleges” vs. honest-to-goodness face-to-face classrooms and real school campuses

“walled cities” online like the well, e-word, aol, compuserve vs. open, non-proprietary standard internet

I know there must be dozens more.

jkottkeMar 28, 2002 at 8:36PM

One to add to my own list:

weblogs vs. journalism (although I don’t know if anyone has actually suggested that weblogs will replace journalism, except maybe certain crackpots, and we all know who I’m talking about here)

JimCueneMar 28, 2002 at 9:16PM

“space age” engines vs. internal combustion
Cable vs broadcast tv
New math vs. “Old Math” (I think Old math is still around)
email vs. real mail
video vs. the radio star
New coke vs. Classic coke
Robots vs. the rest of us
Creationsim vs. Evolutionism

JimCueneMar 28, 2002 at 9:18PM

uh, about the spelling above… sorry. And I don’t think “evolutionism” is a word, but it should be….

paulMar 28, 2002 at 10:51PM

netmeetings vs real face-time.

ebooks vs real books

contact lenses vs glasses (most ppl i know like glasses better)

BrianMar 28, 2002 at 11:48PM

tele-medicine vs. operating from the same hemisphere
Aibo vs. kitten
Minidisc vs. CD
SDMI vs. MP3

evanMar 29, 2002 at 12:12AM

microsoft vs. unix!

geneMar 29, 2002 at 12:44AM

teledildonics v. sex

sorry, it was the first thing that came to mind.

tamimMar 29, 2002 at 1:31AM

Gas heat v. Oil heat
Hydro/wind/solar Electricity v. Oil/Coal Electricity
[Carbon] Fiber v. Metal

I really want to write about GM food v. traditional/organically farmed food; but a vast majority of the farmers (world wide) have already moved into GM farming. [GM] Food v. Cancer just doesn’t sound right as a chapter heading. Also “traditional farming” is not always “organically grown.”

DaveMar 29, 2002 at 1:47AM

An aside to Jim Cuene’s suggestion of New Coke vs. Coke Classic: I was told by my high school AP Government teacher that New Coke is Coke Classic. The Coke people wanted to use cheaper sugar, but it tasted too different to just let it slide, so they called it “New Coke”. When people complained about New Coke’s taste, they just changed the name to Coke Classic.

Well, so says Mr. Kelbough…

jessamynMar 29, 2002 at 1:48AM

the inTARnet as a reference source vs. your public library

sathishMar 29, 2002 at 3:29AM

email vs. letter writing (although, letter writing is in decline, couldn’t help adding it for old time sake !)

online chat vs. chat at the road corner

e-books vs. real books.

mp3 vs. real-life concert.

spam vs. letter-junk

James CarterMar 29, 2002 at 5:15AM

It does my heart good to see the suggestion that irony has not replaced sincerity: hang on in there!

My idea for a chapter would be somewhat less IT based than many so far posted. How about:

domestic labour saving machines (vaccuum cleaners, washing machines etc) vs. the chore of housework

and another, perhaps more sobering:

rational humanism vs. fundamentalist religious bigotry

pixelkittyMar 29, 2002 at 5:41AM

Books vs e-books

How many years have we been told to expect the demise of the paper-bound book in favour of books we can read electronically?

I dont know about you, but I much prefer flicking through a real book than reading anything longer than a few paragraphs online.

hoagieMar 29, 2002 at 7:28AM

the internet vs. libraries (although i think the library is on the ropes)

you know, i remember those at&t ads - a lot of that stuff is happening or about to happen …

TimoMar 29, 2002 at 7:40AM

quicktime VR vs. architectural models

more recent hype:

broadband vs. dialup
3G vs. GSM
indesign vs. quark

Mr NosuchMar 29, 2002 at 8:29AM

Air transportation vs. surface transportation.

I mean, come on, every futurist magazine since the 40’s was showing off all the jetpacks, flying cars and levitating whatzits that’d we’d all have in the year 2000, and I don’t know about you, but I’m still taking the damn subway.

John BaichtalMar 29, 2002 at 8:51AM

Economy cars vs. gas guzzlers
PC vs. Mac
CD vs. vinyl

Seems to me that there is a counter-revolution that goes with every revolution.

Examples: flatscreen vs. CRT, DVD vs. VHS.

When the innovation catches on, the old technology gets way cheaper and in doing so experiences a boom in sales. If I had to buy a new monitor, I could spend $600 on a 15” flatscreen Studio Display in Graphite or $175 on a 19” Sont CRT that doesn’t match my G4’s color scheme. I remember when displays were $100 an inch.

MattMar 29, 2002 at 8:55AM

Internet Appliances vs. My Crappy Toaster

Jim RainMar 29, 2002 at 9:02AM

The EU vs. France (or Germany, Italy, Greece, etc.—the Euro notwithstanding.) (It’s not technology obviously, but it’s the same genre.)

Seth RubinMar 29, 2002 at 10:04AM

Wankel Rotary vs Piston engine

me3diaMar 29, 2002 at 10:26AM

Digital vs. Analog
Cellular vs. Land Line
Virtual Reality vs. Reality
Every Musical Format vs. Each Other
Every Musical Genre vs. Each Other
Digital Photography vs. Film Photography

veenMar 29, 2002 at 10:55AM

I think the more interesting question is how new technologies refocus existing technologies. Radio didn’t go away when television arrived, but it certainly changed. Do you listen to much radio drama these days?

There is some irony in this. Newspapers were once the place for breaking news — “the first draft of history.” Now that we consume most information through other, instant media, newspapers have become the place where stories are investigated and given depth. What did the papers have left to say on Sept. 12 last year? They had already turned to reflection and analysis.

So I still get regular mail, but email has virtually eliminated the friendly physical letter (except from grandma). And I saw instant messaging almost immediately replace certain emails when I decided to adopt that technology.

Virtually every list above makes me more interested in how the existing thing changed when the new one arrived.

Bobby DragulescuMar 29, 2002 at 11:29AM

global village vs. private development
electricity vs. gasoline
Star Trek future vs. the more likely Star Wars future
intelligent consumerism vs. the increasing SUV market
flying cars vs. the increasing SUV market
portable mp3 players vs. whistling
cloning vs. sanctity of life
reuse, reduce, recycle vs. inconspicuous consumption
the homo erectus vs. this
self defense vs. running away

MikeMar 29, 2002 at 11:39AM

The inventors of things almost never know what their invention is going to be good for. They go into it thinking it will improve something that came before, but in fact, the new invention usually just opens up new possibilities they hadn’t considered. The old stuff remains valid for the things it was good for (which probably wasn’t what it’s inventor intended either), so it stays around.

Brian Eno has talked a lot about this in terms of synthesizers and computerized mixing equipment. Synth designers were always building in presets that supposedly emulated traditional instruments like violins or oboes. These always sounded awful and soon musicians discovered that the best sounds to come out of a synth were the ones that didn’t sound like anything else.

dooceMar 29, 2002 at 11:44AM

Britney’s boobs vs. all that is natural and good

Jason ShellenMar 29, 2002 at 11:52AM

Olestra vs. Fat

Virtual Reality vs. Reality

Avatars vs. Humans

Smart cards vs. Not so smart cards

Video via PC vs. Dedicated Video link

Paying for content vs. Peer to Peer

rebeccaMar 29, 2002 at 12:20PM

telecommuting vs. showing up at the office

spork vs. spoon and fork

fat removing lotions/creams/drugs/machines “as seen on tv” vs. getting off the sofa and exercising

spray-on hair vs. the hair club for men

robots maids (like rosie on the jetsons) never came to fruition, either, darnit.

TomMar 29, 2002 at 12:36PM

Quadraphonic vs. Stereo

8 tracks vs LP’s

Can you guess when I was a kid?

ThayerMar 29, 2002 at 12:46PM

Seems as though you have enough ideas to write a pocket book (along the lines of Paranoid’s Pocket Guide, but more intellectual). Each page (or so) could be another new invention versus old. I can already see people reading it on the subway.

Possible title: “Why Hype Pops”

atMar 29, 2002 at 2:10PM

New Economy vs. Old Economy
Color Photography/Movies vs. Black & White

I like the color/b&w issue because new technology came along and fundamentally altered the context and meaning of the previous tech (b&w), but did not demolish it.

vacapintaMar 30, 2002 at 9:00PM

Why did some “revolutionary” technologies fail to take hold?

Off the top of my own head

synthetics vs. cotton
3-d movies vs. flatscreens
webvan vs. grocery stores
Palm pilot vs. sticky notes
erasable pens vs. regular pens
1.4 M floppy disks vs. all other portable storage media
polaroids vs. regular photography
tv dinners vs. cooking
microwave vs. oven

nickMar 31, 2002 at 10:04PM

Actually, I do listen to radio drama. The Archers, goddammit. But. Beyond radio vs TV — and yes, radio has been revitalised by having the instant response of phone and net, not TV — there’s:

flipping vs scrolling(we’re not ready to abandon the codex)
databases vs notebooks
rolodex vs PDA
verbal vs aural
voice-over-IP vs phone
newspapers vs web news (who *really* does the crossword online?)

and so on.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.