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Literally Psyched

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In praise of paper

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Just how reliant are we on power? Image credit: Gordon Wrigley, Flickr, via Creative Commons.

Exactly two weeks ago today, at around eight in the evening, we—along with the rest of downtown Manhattan—lost all power. One minute, blaring news and reassurances from the mayor and the utilities companies, and the next, total silence. Apparently, as I quickly learned from my still-working phone, a transformer (one of these, not one of these) explosion at a 14th street power station was to blame. A few candles and glasses of wine later, I fell asleep, certain that in the morning, all would be well.

Not so much. By the next day, not only had power not been restored but cell service, too, had gone completely dark. No power. No heat. And, woe of all woes, no internet. No way of knowing what was happening or how long it would last. It was about then that it became clear that this would not be a one-day inconvenience—and that soon, our myriad recharcheable devices wouldn’t be worth much of anything – even if cell service were to suddenly return (it didn’t). And it was also about then that it struck me how lucky it was that I had never converted away from the oh-so-very-analog world of simple paper.

Books, the computer of the past. Image credit: Evan Bench, Flickr, via Creative Commons.

On the first powerless day, I read. I’ve never owned an e-reader, and in the best of times, the clutter of books around the apartment is a bit embarrassing. Now, however, it became a savior of sorts. Everything was there for the taking; nothing would suddenly lose power for good in the middle of a pivotal scene; no book was running short of precious energy that would need a jolt of above-34th-street air to reawaken.

I began with Middlemarch. It seemed an oddly fitting choice for our new pre-technology existence. Soon, I was deep in the troubles of the Brooke sisters and it little mattered that the air in the room was getting progressively colder. All would be well in the Midlands.

In the Midlands, perhaps, but not in lower Manhattan. By Wednesday afternoon, I realized that I couldn’t keep it up indefinitely. I had a piece to file for Friday morning, and a nearly powerless computer with no connection to the outside world was not the best ally. Cell service: still nonexistent.

Here, too, however, the friendly world of the past soon came to the rescue. I have a habit of printing out the research papers that I use when writing, so that I can better mark them up and wrap my head around their arguments. Somehow, reading on screen has never been as effective for me. I’ve often vowed to break myself of the practice, not just to save paper but to avoid the inevitable piles of clutter that grow ever-higher—and then need to be organized in a multi-hour marathon when they threaten to—or do—at last topple over. For once, though, I felt lucky that I’d never quite gotten around to it. I could dig up my research without resorting to extreme measures.

Of course, I would need to make my way to new world civilization eventually. My longhand notes would need to be typed, my facts verified, research gaps filled in, piece proofed and—and this was the most difficult part, with all working networks overloaded with refugees like myself—actually emailed to the editor. And soon enough, I did exactly that, making the harrowing pilgrimage to the upper part of the island that still had that miraculous new invention—electricity—that I had almost forgotten.

A few days without power, and candles lose their romantic glow. Credit: Crystl, Flickr, via Creative Commons.

I would never wish for a return to earlier, pre-internet, pre-electricity, even, days. Not for a second. I don’t romanticize the past or take for granted the incredible advances and conveniences of the present. And I couldn’t have been more overjoyed when power at last returned on Saturday afternoon; it felt like the most generous gift anyone had ever given me. But that single disconnected week did make me pause to realize just how dependent we’ve become on things that can go away in one second of a not-so-freak hurricane—and it made me incredibly grateful for my backwards-looking clinging to those very old-school habits of paper reliance.

In the post-Sandy days, I’ve invested in some backup power devices and have switched cell phone carriers. A few more changes might be in store, as well. But whatever they are, I won’t be buying a Kindle or getting rid of those eyesore stacks of useless papers any time soon. In the worst case scenario, I can always use them as kindling.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sarah Wynde 12:25 pm 11/12/2012

    Needless to say, the people whose houses burned and/or flooded but who can replace their entire libraries with a new $69 Kindle and ten minutes of downloading from the cloud are probably writing posts titled “In Praise of E-Readers”. Paper is not less destructible, it’s just differently destructible. And unlike power outages, losing paper to fire, flood, mold, insects, age and general decay isn’t a temporary problem.

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  2. 2. mkonnikova 1:25 pm 11/12/2012

    @Sarah: Undoubtedly so. I don’t want to minimize in any way the destruction of other forms of disaster–merely to emphasize that we should understand the extent of our increasing reliance on power and technology.

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  3. 3. jasongoldman 7:23 pm 11/12/2012

    At least I have an excuse now for the piles of books around *my* apartment: I’m just ready for an earthquake!

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  4. 4. mkonnikova 8:36 pm 11/12/2012

    @Jason: Ha! Indeed, you do. Disaster preparedness comes first.

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  5. 5. wabro 7:34 am 11/13/2012

    It was starting to feel like I was the only one in my circle of friends and family that does not own some type of E Reader. There is a certain feeling of comfort when I can stand in my library (converted extra bed room) and scan the book shelves. The assembled fiction, facts and history seem to form a connection to the past that a tablet never provides. Maybe the over dependence on electronics also insulates and removes us from that connection to others.

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  6. 6. mkonnikova 10:05 am 11/13/2012

    @wabro: That’s a great point about the connection to the past–I feel the same way. Physical objects have a power that digital ones often lack.

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