The new semester starts soon in Germany and also in the USA it is time to get back to school. I would like to take this opportunity to explain what paperless studying or working means to me. What are my concerns, what advantages do I see, and what objections do I have? You could also see this article as my core beliefs in this area. Let’s dive in!
The default for me is digital. This means that 99% of my work is now done digitally, with the only major exception currently being mail that reaches me in analog form. That doesn’t mean that I have to do everything digitally. For example, I often read physical books. And I think that’s a good thing. At least as long as it’s recreational literature. As soon as I want to work with it, I really try to avoid physical copies, because I can’t simply mark or copy passages. In short: When it comes to work, I curse every piece of analogy. In my free time, it’s a different story.
Advantages of paperless work
What do I see as the biggest advantages of a paperless way of working? I see four points in the first place.
- Searchability / retrievability: Whether an integrated search function, folders, tags, or more recently graphs: All of these ordering and search principles are difficult or impossible to replicate in analog. And yet, for thousands of years, mankind has had to organize knowledge in analog form, and has done so. The existence of libraries is the best proof. And yes, of course there are sophisticated systems for organizing knowledge in analog form. But only in the digital world it is possible to quickly search through huge volumes of data or text, or to analyze them with artificial intelligence. And there’s nothing at all wrong with taking proven concepts for organizing analog data, transferring it to the digital world, and thus combining the best of both worlds.
- Shareability: My second point is the shareability of digital goods. They don’t become less when you share them, they become more. What an ingenious feature, if you let it roll off your tongue. Of course, people are currently working everywhere to artificially limit or eliminate this incredible advantage. But in general this advantage remains, of course. And anyone who has ever stood in front of the shelf in the university library, only to find that someone else has already borrowed the last copy of the book relevant for the exam, will be happy when he:she finds out that the library has also purchased the eBook version.
- Space savings and transportability: In my eyes, this is a point that should not be underestimated. The amount of books that used to require entire libraries can now be carried around in your pocket. And even if it’s just for a visit to the university seminar, it’s of course much more pleasant to have just one tablet instead of a pile of paper. And finally, you can’t forget anything at home if everything is in the cloud.
- New workflows become possible: Perhaps the most important point, and one that I often see given too little consideration. Working digitally also means that certain boundaries suddenly no longer apply. Data can be manipulated and presented in a completely different way than it would ever be with physical works. But we need to consider this fact even more when we develop our tools. It’s great, of course, if you can mark up passages of text with a PDF reader. But basically, that’s just the digital equivalent of an analog action. It only gets fascinating when you go beyond that. Apps like LiquidText or MarginNote are worth mentioning in this regard. These apps do more than what would be possible with paper, and thus expand the space for thought and action. They take a known concept, implement it digitally, and then go a step further to take advantage of the digital opportunities to create a thinking tool that would not be possible in an analog format. In my eyes, Obsidian is also such a thinking tool, which expands our possibilities.
What about the environment?
Let’s move on to a topic that is much more controversial: environmental protection. Do we gain more because we save vast amounts of paper, or are the positive effects eaten up again because so much more electricity is suddenly consumed? In addition, there are rare earths that have to be mined and electronic waste that accumulates en masse. And even if sensational news about the huge consumption of streaming etc. was probably a bit exaggerated, it remains undisputed that the Internet and digital services consume an enormous amount of energy. Here’s an interesting study by the International Energy Agency if you want to take a closer look.
We haven’t even talked about the e-waste mentioned at the beginning. In my eyes, the only solution is to consistently use green energy, recycling and the smart placement of server farms. These should, for example, be located primarily where it is already cold, so as not to require unnecessarily high cooling requirements. I realize that this brings further problems and that short distances from the server to the clients are quite important. But that doesn’t help. Then we just have to work on making this factor less important. At least we are seeing some movement among the big tech companies: Apple wants to become completely climate-neutral by 2030, including its supply chain and production, Google even wants to achieve zero carbon by 2030, Amazon “only” net zero by 2040.
Further problems: Haptics, hoarding and the everlasting search for the perfect system
Then a completely different topic: haptics, sensation, directness. There is something satisfying about quickly flipping through a book or attaching sticky notes. For many, it’s certainly more intuitive than attaching bookmarks in a PDF, and I can understand that. There’s just something about flipping back and forth through a book and comparing notes. That’s why I’m a big fan of alternatives to the classic laptop, especially tablets with a stylus.
Another problem is digital hoarding. It is of course much easier to collect vast amounts of material in digital than in analog. With just a few clicks, you can download entire libraries, which you then never use productively. So you need ways and means to actually deal with the collected material. What is needed here is self-restraint, then routines to productively process collected knowledge, and finally tools to make the collected knowledge accessible and retrievable again.
Everyone has to work on self-restraint for themselves. I don’t have a good tip for that. But I do for everything else. It is very useful to always take notes directly on other people’ texts, lectures, etc., in order to deal with the text. Only if you yourself try to comprehend unfamiliar knowledge, you will be able to really absorb it and understand it in the end, so that you can then deal with it critically. The many new tools that have come onto the market in the last two years or so are ideal for combining knowledge. For me, of course, it’s Obsidian. Links, Backlinks, the Graph View and various other plugins are a great help to not only organize my knowledge, but also to put it in relation to each other. I don’t think I could write my PhD as effectively as I currently do if I didn’t have these tools at my disposal.
And that brings us right to the point and the last problem: the productivity trap. With all the nice apps, it’s easy to lose focus. I know this only too well from my own experience, that you suddenly spend hours on the new app and completely forget about the actual work. It’s also a good way to trick yourself, because it feels like work, but doesn’t really get you anywhere. At least not in the sense you intended. If you want to know what I mean, you can watch a video by August Bradley about his Notion System. I’ll leave it uncommented at this point. If you want to read more about it, you can do so in this article of mine that I published a good year and a half ago: Tool or Process?.
What it’s really all about
It’s about finding a way that suits you personally, is fun, makes your tasks easier, and doesn’t cost more (in the broadest sense) than it saves. It’s not about frantically doing everything digitally just to be “consistent”. But of course digital tools also have great value without making everything better than their analog equivalents. The conclusion from these considerations should be that we shouldn’t try too hard to simply copy analog ways of working into the digital world. Instead, we need to find our own ways to take advantage of the special opportunities. Liquid Text or Obsidian are incredibly powerful in this regard. They exemplify this approach because they bring possibilities to the work that would be impossible to implement in analog form.