In the recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent Revisionist History podcast, there was a fascinating revelation about the significance of filling in paper forms in a conversation after the show between Gladwell and Tim Harford (from about 43 minutes into the recording).

The short version: doctors in the US in some states have had to fill in triplicate carbon copy forms when prescribing particularly addictive painkillers. The forms need to be ordered from the State, and they need to be sent back to the State. Parts of the US have a similar process but it’s all computerised.

It appears that all of the rigmarole associated with filling, filing and posting paper forms makes doctors think much more closely about what they are providing (and prescribe less) than the equivalent notification being sent silently and digitally in the background. Decisions like these, as has been shown in the Purdue Pharma scandal, can cost thousands of lives.

For some time I’ve argued that the tech industry’s obsession with making experiences frictionless can be counter-productive. This example might be another example.

Sometimes we lose sight of the cultural significance that is bestowed in different media. A letter typed, signed and posted is today, I would argue, an even greater signifier of meaning and intent than it was twenty years ago. If you can actually be arsed to print something, put it in an envelope, find a stamp and put it in a postbox it shows you care more than the type, click and forget of email.

Sure, over time, meanings and significance change – when did you last get a telegram? – but things get lost along the way. We have more messages bombarding us today than ever before, yet so little of it appears of real value.

One thought on “The significance of paper

  1. Agree completely, Matt. I think it’s part of the over-fixation on efficiency in so many parts of the tech ecosystem – reducing time spent, thought needed and friction in processes. There are many places where that’s great, and there’s so many others where deliberately slowing down and making people engage in a different way is useful. (It’s why I refused to engage with much contactless payment until the pandemic kicked in – easy payment makes impluse-buying too easy…)

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