Momus | Essays

Paper Spends More Time With Its Family

I remember Wired publisher Louis Rosetto, back in the heady days of "the multimedia computer" and "the dot com boom", using a phrase borrowed from biology to describe the way the web was aping previous media forms one by one. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," he solemnly informed the audience at a digital media conference in Amsterdam ten years ago. The web, like a foetus in the womb (according to 19th century biologist Ernst Haeckel, anyway), was taking on the characteristics of ancestral media forms even as it transcended them on its way to becoming, inevitably, the index of all indices and the medium of all media.

It would be easy to portray the progress of computers (this year they can do type! Now the web's doing radio! Hey, it's eaten TV!) as something rapacious, a sign of the enormous ambition of digital culture to be our number one metaphor for reality, our window on the world. And rapacious it certainly is, putting entire media industries out of business, stripping away craftsmen and middlemen alike. But that doesn't prevent digital media from exhibiting a certain nostalgia for the very things they're replacing. For instance, I've noticed computers getting strangely tender, lately, about paper.

Marshall McLuhan, were he around to witness it, would be nodding his head sagely at this weird digital nostalgia for the pre-digital. One of McLuhan's big ideas was that every medium, at the peak of its power, is inclined to forget that it's no more than a metaphor, a representation of reality. In its hubris, the medium wants to be reality. At the same time, it wants to portray all previous media as "just media". Arjen Mulder, writing in Mediamatic in 1999, described the process like this:

"New media derive their right of existence and power of persuasion from the fact that they seem to make possible a more direct perception and experience of the extramedial reality than all previous technological equipment. As soon as a new medium comes on the market, it exposes its predecessor as just-a-medium, while itself it is more than that, namely an open window on the world outside. Photography is nice, but film moves. Film is nice, but television is live. Television is nice, but the Web is interactive. Every new medium attempts to deny itself as medium and at the same time show up all other media as medium and nothing but medium. Every new medium wants to be transparent, invisible, and everything else is opaque. With new media, you look through them to see reality; with old media, you see only their mediality, their technological limitations."

This may sound like hubris and hostility, but it can contain a surprising tenderness and nostalgia for the outstripped media. If transparency is all about power and ambition, opacity (the "revelation" that former media were in fact limited, metaphoric, media-like) can be winning, cute, full of flavour. For what is flavour but limitation? What is flavour but situation; the refusal to be everywhere, the failure to represent everything? The consolation prize for not being the Universal is getting to be the Particular. The consolation prize for not having power is having flavour. The consolation prize for not being transparent is being opaque. Just as photography freed painting to do what it did best—be paint on canvas rather than a "window on the world"—so computers are freeing paper to be white stuff with marks on it. Paper is getting to "spend more time with its family".

I remember the first time I noticed paper coming back as a sort of small, particularised, opaque digital ghost of itself. It was in 1996. There was much talk, at the time, of "the paperless office". People were beginning to refer to paper mail derisively as "snail mail". But computers, as if they felt sorry for the displaced and humiliated paper, began to find other roles for the stuff. More ornamental, decorative, playful roles. I visited the studio of graphic artists Kuntzel & Degas in Paris. On a Mac some kids were playing a Japanese CD-ROM called Pop-Up Computer, a series of games, scenarios and puzzles immaculately and playfully rendered by creator Gento Matsumoto as an A-Z pop-up book.

The following year a Sony Playstation game appeared called Parappa The Rapper. Creator Masaya Matsuura was making a play on words when he combined the phrase pera pera ("paper thin" in Japanese) with the word rapper. Character Parappa moved through a 3D landscape but was himself, cutely, paper-thin. Parappa was followed by other paper-like heroes, notably Nintendo's Paper Mario (2000), a self-consciously retro version of Super Mario. The website of 2004 game Katamari Damacy has a page where you can download pdfs of the characters—a chunky cat, for instance—which, printed out, can be made into 3D paper models thanks to Tamasoft's Pepakura Designer software, a way to reverse-engineer origami from computer data (the Japanese company's slogan is "Let's make paper craft model from 3-dimentional data!") In late 2003 Masaya Matsuura followed up Parappa the Rapper with Mojib Ribon, a game featuring a calligrapher-rapper called Mojibri who raps texts you enter with your calligraphy brush.

It's not just Japanese computer games which have gone all retro-sentimental with the traditional paper metaphor. Flash games on websites are doing it too. Hokusai Manga Construction Kit is a drawing game based on the wood-block prints of ukiyo-e artist Hokusai (1760-1849). You can place pre-drawn elements—popular actors from the Floating World, courtesans, houses, bridges, mountains, letters—and make your own mangas. Perhaps best of all is OSUG, a very tactile Japanese calligraphy game. I promise you'll have hours of fun splashing "ink" around on its "paper"... or should I say its paper metaphor? The real thing, tired of trying to represent the whole world on its frail white pages, is currently having a great time just being itself. Paper has retired and is finally getting to spend some quality time with its family. And meanwhile we're paying warm tribute to its unique, irreplaceable qualities in the very medium that emulates and replaces it.

Posted in: Technology

Comments [20]

"Photography is nice, but film moves. Film is nice, but television is live. Television is nice, but the Web is interactive." The new media also transform our understanding of the old media such that the old becomes art instead of craft. Photography liberated painting from strict representation to become abstract and impressionist; television made movies into art as well, and digital printing makes us reverse woodtype, lead, and letterpress.

Latest related event: Zinio, on Mac's Panther OS, let's you read magazines on-screen with hyperlinks and everything. But it's so odd looking ast pages designed for print as if they are intended for the screen. I told a co-worker it was like fixing up your horse-drawn buggy to run on gasoline.
Isaac B2

"With new media, you look through them to see reality; with old media, you see only their mediality, their technological limitations."

Another good example of how newer media make us hyper aware of attributes of older media: Tivo. The arrival of "interactivity" has made the time-bound TV schedule feel limiting. In this case, the grafting of new onto old seems to have worked well. In the case of the Zinio reader, perhaps not so well.

there will always be ink on paper,
it just looks and feels good.

Akira Yoshizawa, origami artist and Japanese National Living Treasure, died last week at 94. (Sorry. I can't think of a graceful way around stating what was his official status. "Living" is, of course, no longer accurate.)
Gunnar Swanson

hey! love this little meditation on paper. it's hot at the moment (see Frances Richard's nice essay on paper in Cabinet's Paper Sculpture Book!)...one question though--wasn't parrappa the rapper the work of rodney allen greenblatt? i remember seeing a toaster featuring the cute little guy and the game as well in the cooper-hewitt's first design triennial in 2000.
debra parr

there will never be a new media that eliminates an existing one. written language did not destroy the oral tradition, the printing press did not discourage hand writing, etc. It is only natural that new media in some way or another refers itself, full of nostalgia, to what has come before.

Thanks for the Cabinet tip, Debra, I love that magazine and will check out the Paper Sculpture Book!

Rodney Allen Greenblatt did character design and animation sequences between the game sections for Parappa the Rapper, but the game was conceived and created by Masaya Matsuura.
Nick Currie

the printing press did not discourage hand writing

No, but it did put an end to manual copying of books. As for discouraging handwriting, computers sure have. When was the last time you actually put pen on paper and wrote a letter to someone you correspond with regularly? But I bet you either typed or emailed one not too long ago...

As the penetration of the new technologies increase, that of the old ones DO decrease. I dare say that one day, way off in the distant future, the new technologies will be so ubiquitous that they will actually eliminate the old ones.

Abacus > Calculator > Computer?
Sharpened flint > knife > potato peeler?
Catapault > Canons > Ballistic missiles?

I'll even dare to say this:
Papyrus parchment > paper > digital paper?

It's just a matter of penetration and time.


i never said it wouldn't decrease, I did say it wouldn't destroy or discourage. I'm sure you were taught hand writing at some point, and if you have children, you would expect that they would be given pencil and paper. Usage has changed, and one is certainly EASIER than another. My point was this: it's a building process... not a system of replacement.

the thing about the computer is that it can SIMULATE all other media that came before it. it is a sort of meta-medium in that it can take all aspects of previous media into itself and simulate it fairly well (though of course it is still a simulation). it is at once printing press, typwewriter, paint studio, film studio, sound studio, and new media studio. by being a tool that is the site of both production and distribution, i think it is hard to say that new media or digital work is 'just another medium'. of course only time will tell. but future media will probably be produced with the computer as well.

i think it is hard to say that new media or digital work is 'just another medium'

Of course, that's exactly what McLuhan said every new medium wants you to think about it. "I am not just a new medium, I am a window on the world. A simulated world? A metaphor? Well, okay, if you insist. As long as I get to be the dominant metaphor, the central simulacrum."

The fact that we can't currently imagine a new, next medium which is not digital and computer-centred doesn't mean that there won't be one eventually. Computers are not "the end of media history".
Nick Currie

It is fascinating how new media:

1) can reveal the true essence of older media
2) create new applications and opportunities that remain true to that essence.

"The fact that we can't currently imagine a new, next medium which is not digital and computer-centred doesn't mean that there won't be one eventually."

Agreed. As long as computers rely on electricity for power, they are more fragile than we sometimes think.
Steven K.

i think the statements from both steven k. and nick currie work to undermine the specific nature of the computer as a medium. the computer as 'just another tool' or medium argument ignores how the computer is a very different 'meta-tool' that is definitely unprecedented. unlike previous 'new media', the computer encompasses, simulates, and adds to all media that comes before it, which is not the case of print, radio, film, and television.

im not sure how film has created new applications and opportunities for say, print, that remain true to the essence of print. perhaps you could give film titles as an example, but the nature of a controlled pace decided by the director is something you would never find with a book, which is accesible from any page, and the sequence of page turning and timing in the hands of the user. also, typographic structure doesnt seem to work with film or video in the same way it does with print. i do agree that print and film can inform each other, but reveal the true essence of each other? im not sure about that. all mediums are specific. but then agian, all of them can now be recreated on the computer.

all previous media supported narrative -- a plot or series of events that makes sense. the sequence of frames of film supports very well the linear development of a story. however the database and iterative nature of the computer, of things always being rewriteable and never in final state, turns its products, whether print or film or websites, as iterative manifestations of things rather than final and unique products.


Niccolo, back in '96 or '97 I had a discussion with a designer who abandoned print design in favor of new media. I remember him praising the end of print. I countered with the argument that the growth in digital media will be directly proportional to the growth in printed products if not add to the growth of more printed material.

Manuel, you've changed my opinion on the computer as 'just another tool'. I've proposed that for years. But I think you're onto something . . . . the computer as "meta-tool." As a meta-tool the computer spawns an organic narrative with incredible potential. Which is exciting because the more iterative manifestations available the more final and unique books, magazines, posters and other products will be produced. Every story has an ending which means people will still be drawn to the tangible, final record (be it painting, poem or price tag).
Matt Mulder

More rainy day fun with paper can be had with Sophia Vyzoviti's Folding Architecture. And paper can spend all the time it wants with the family in Shigeru Ban's paper house. When epaper and flexible displays hit the consumer market the Holland Paper Biennial will only get better.
Jo Steffens

Thank god for the video game references. Because in 100 years there will be games not computers. Computer will be something like transisitor or electrronic or klenex for that matter. of course there will be databases, catalogs and applications (friendster and flickr are after all just really good databases) but video games are the really the kicker and once fully online will be the realized medium like film with sound. i know this is off topic, i am just thanking Momus for bringin up games in context of new media and even mentioning Katamari Damacy. Briiliant game.

yes i appreciate video game references too. but what is a video game, but a database of all of the possible actions and outcomes a user can make? perhaps sequences, or narrations, are different each time, but ultimately there are a limited number of those possibilities as well. each use of a game is a different iteration or combination of the possibilities inherent within that game, but the game itself, all its components and lines of codes, contains the entire possible world of that particular game. this is why programming is described to beginners as a way to describe the world. because a program creates an aspect of the world, but tells the computer how to do it. this idea of all possible iterations in one game is also inherent in a lot of borges' writing, particularly garden of the forking paths. a character in the book dreams of a novel in which all possibilities exist simultaneously.

minimalist artists like sol lewitt and robert morris worked with the idea of generative ideas. they viewed their work as manifestations of particular ideas, but only one possible iteration of it. their works were never final, and in fact, to buy the piece, one bought the instructions on how to build it, not the final piece itself.

if you think of books as coming in editions, it works the same way. like encyclopedias (tho those are pretty much gone now), or reference materials.

Does this explain why Huffman of Huffman encoding and so many other early information theorists so enjoyed origami as a hobby? In origami, the medium is the message. The next step, computers as art.

Paper fans, see our web site (www.artonpaper.com). We are a magazine devoted entirely to paper-based arts.
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