What ‘Paper’ Says About Technological Change

Relating edtech to Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky

July 20, 2016

Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky

Published in May of 2016.

I read Kurlansky's Paper for two reasons.

First, I’m a big fan of micro-histories.

I’ve read books about: cod, the potato, salt, uranium, chess, coal, undersea cables, the number zero, coffee, the Yugo, cotton, the hamburger, the bagel, and the iPod.  My wishlist (if the publishers ever get around to Whispersync enabling these books) are micro-histories of the banana, rats, spice, tobacco, zippers, gunpowder, the screwdriver, pigeons, aspirin, the pencil, the toothpick, chocolate, tea, beans, corn, and vanilla.  (You can see my full micro-history book list here).

Second, I’m a big fan of Mark Kurlansky.

Kurlansky wrote the micro-history (Cod) that got me into micro-histories.  His books Salt and The Big Oyster are both excellent.

What is different about Paper - and why I recommend that even non micro-history buffs should read this book - is what Kurlansky has to say about technological change.

The argument that Kurlansky makes is that we tend to get the impact of technology backwards.  We tend to think that technology change drives historical change.  Kurlansky uses the history of paper (and printing) to demonstrate that the direction of causality is actually reversed - and that new technologies are usually created in response to specific societal needs.

Paper, like most technologies, was first developed in China - and then was perfected (and diffused) by in the Islamic world.  Europeans came late to paper use and paper manufacturing.  It was not until manufacturing of paper moved in the 19th century from a handmade process relying on rags, to a manufacturing process relying on wood pulp and steam, did paper transition from relative scarcity to relative abundance. 

The reason that paper technology improved was a response to increasing demand for paper.  The spread of literacy, and the growth of the newspaper reading in the 19th century, brought with them a need to vastly increase the paper supply.

As Kurlansky shows us in his history of paper, we should be cautious in making any technological-determinstic arguments about the future of education. 

The edtech profession tends to look towards technological change to understand educational change.  We always think that the latest technology - be it radio or television or the internet or the mobile web or virtual reality - will be the technology that fundamentally changes education.  And each time we hype the “new future” of education, only to be disappointed when the change fails to live up to its promises.

A better approach may be to look at how the demands on colleges and universities are changing, and then to try to understand the future of educational technology through a lens of institutional change.  What technologies will we need to develop to support an aging population, an educational system with lower social/public investments, and a labor market that prioritizes lifelong learning?  How will new educational technologies respond to the growth of postsecondary demand in emerging economy countries?  What might a tomorrow’s edtech look like in an age of stagnating wages, lower fertility, and increased demand for worker’s with high levels of social intelligence and communications skills?

The other big argument that Kurlansky makes in Paper is that new technologies seldom replace old technologies. Rather, the new technology fills an adjacent slot - and the old technology retains important uses.

This has been the case with paper.  The demand for paper books has remained strong, even as the technology and market for digital books has increased.  Kurlansky believes that we will continue to read paper books for many years to come, even as digital book options can to improve.  Some books are better read on paper.  And some people will always prefer paper books.  In fact, digital books are good for lover’s of physical books (and bookstores) as publishers (and booksellers) have incentives to create better experience (nice paper / binding and more welcoming bookstores) to compete with e-books and online bookstores.

In the same way, new educational technologies and digital learning methods are unlikely to eliminate traditional educational practices.  Online learning does not eliminate in-person residential learning.  Instead, online learning increases the pressure improve the residential learning experience.  In-person, face-to-face education is improving both from the competition from online learning, and from the ability to integrate both modalities (in-person and digital) into the educational experience.

Kurlansky’s Paper will be of interest to anyone who is curious about how the paper that they use is made today, and how it was made throughout history.  Learning about the history of printing, newspapers, and typography is a bonus.  Kurlansky is at the top of his game in Paper, and fans of the micro-history genre should make this book a must read.  Anyone interested in the impact of technology on the arrow of history should also include Paper in their library.

What are you reading?



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