A Future for Paper

November 19th, 2003

The essay that got away is a favorite character of mine, and shows up in many of my stories. As you can see from the link above, you were going to be treated to a thoughtful, and philosophical treatise on: the future, the idea of paperlessness, and the works of Kristine Smith. However, prompted by Aaron’s revisiting of the topic, here a few notes, and a book review, scrawled by the fading phosphors on a windy, rainy night.

A few weeks back Matt Haughey asked, why are we still using reciepts? We live in a computerized society, why is information still externalized onto pieces of paper? Aaron expounded on the fragility of digital information: digital media’s cycle of obsolescence, the illusion of always on electricity/net, blogs’ rather dismal prospects as bath time reading. Matt Web however got to crux of what interests me about the issue when he said paper receipts are primary keys to a distributed database. You see Haughey’s model requires a centralized database which is implicitly trusted.

One of the core American myths (and to a large, but lesser extent, all of Western society) is the myth of progress — the constant drum beat of the march to the future, a linear progression that renders the old bad, and the new both better and inevitable.


  • books were to be doomed by the information superhighway
  • a love of paper understandable for aesthetic and nostalgic reasons, but on its way out.
  • blogging is supposed to replace/kill old media because it is so democratic/innovative/natural.

One of the favorite tropes of this march of progress is “paperlessness”: the paperless office, the paperless government (egovernment), and, apparently, paperless shopping. A brave new future of the receipt repudiated by the database.

Interestingly current events are starting to wake us, as a society, up to the value of paper. It seems that a central database, affectionate known in the literature as a “Big Brother” model, is vulnerable to a variety attacks, a broad subclass of which fall under the moniker of “Diebold attacks”. Apparently large, central databases, without proper, verifiable audit trails, have some issues. (Google pdf2html version) All of a sudden some people are asking for paper tickets (also known as “recipets”), a total contradiction to our consensus on what the future looks like!

Which makes it fascinating to read Kristine Smith’s scifi trilogy (Code of Conduct, Rules of Conflict, Law of Survival) featuring aging heroine Jani Killian as a “document examiner”, and 2 distinct cultures (one of them alien) built upon (or at least seen through the lense of) paper, paper trails, paper handling, and verifiability. Part religion, part art, utterly techie (such cool gear!), the paper system, and document examiners (dexxies) stitch together the consensus reality of the intergalactic future. The books project forward from trends of today where digital data and records are easily forgeable, and photography no longer meets the criteria of proof in many courts. Dexxies are the hacker-esque trained specialist that keeps the it all working.

At first I was a bit turned off by Smith’s use of words like “shooter” and “skimmers”, they sound like baby talk. No society is going to refer to its weapon as a shooter, not even as slang, sounds moronic, and it is a classic first scifi novel mistake. I almost put the books down at that point, and wrote her off. I’m glad I didn’t as the paper system is utterly unique in my experience of the genre (or any genre). The only futurist I’ve encountered who did take the Micosoftian (think Faustian) hype that we’d all be moving to a paperless existence to heart. Instead she did some original thinking about the evolution of human interactions with information with interesting results.

As a geek/hacker/trained specialist in charge of today’s communication infrastructure I found the paper system to be Smith’s most interesting creation. However her idomeni, alien creators of the paper system, are also quite good, and reminiscent of Cherryh’s Foreigner books. (in fact Cherryh writes the cover blurb for book 3, as Asaro did for book 2, and Moon for book 1) They suffer a bit from “Atevi syndrome” which says that in order to have a really indepth exploration of an alien’s psyche you have to make them pretty damn human, or it is just too alien to be meaningful. Reality is still much more alien then fiction, but Smith is hardly unique in failing that metric.

Code of Conduct is her first book and a bit rough, but over the next two books she settles down to writing good, strong, character driven fiction (which unfortunately seems to have become code for “scifi written by a women”, but I digress) with hackers as heroes, and some genuine insight into the nature of technology.

Lastly, for all I find Smith’s paper system compelling, I would like reiterate my plea for a decent ebook implementation.

  • Writing up these notes would have been greatly facilitated by a full text search feature built into the book
  • I would have felt distinctly less uncomfortable carrying, and reading these books in public if I’d been carrying a generic ebook reader, as Eos has seen fit to saddle them with truly hideous covers as if they got jobbed out to someone who usually works for Harlequin. (Kristine keeps the faith, it only took Bujold a dozen critically acclaimed novels, winning every major genre award, and switching publishers to get a decent cover.)

.pps, in Laws of Survival the rebellious Haarin give a most damning condemnation of the Liberal “play nice” strategy of social change. Warmed the heart.

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