Boy and his dog, in a cardboard box

Paperless for life: can’t go, won’t go digital

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From Acts of Parliament to engine filters, there are still plenty of things that remain wedded to paper. Here are 10 examples of things that can’t go paperless.

First wedding anniversary gifts

Traditionally, first wedding anniversary gifts should be things made of paper. The tradition is thought to date back to Victorian times and there are various theories about the meaning underlying the practice. According to one, the ordinariness and relative fragility of paper symbolises aspects of the early months of marriage.

Love is all you need. And some money. Love and money. And maybe a Swiss Army Knife. They're really handy.

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Car engine filters

Air filters used to keep vehicles’ engines healthy are typically made using a type of pleated paper. This is described as being more efficient and cost-effective than any rival type of material. These filters do an important, if somewhat boring, job.

An unhappy car mechanic

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The post

The internet has transformed the way we shop, but if you are purchasing a physical object online, it will still normally have to be sent to you. That entails packages, envelopes and, much of the time, postage stamps. In the same way that the web has failed to kill the post, the much-hyped paperless offices have yet to predominate. In some cases, concerns about cyber-security vulnerabilities have actually led organisations dealing with sensitive information to eschew email in favour of using supposedly superceded technology such as fax. Faxes are harder to hack than emails because fax machines transmit data via the telephone network, which is more inherently secure. UK government guidelines around handling transfers of sensitive Whitehall material mention using “secure fax” as well as security-cleared postal couriers to send some types of data.

Bills, bills, bills

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Certificates and other official documents

Marriage certificates, birth certificates, university degrees, passports. These are just some examples of documents that, in the UK at least, are yet to go digital. Perhaps the most significant documents of all, UK Parliamentary Bills, have traditionally been printed on vellum, a kind of prepared animal skin, before being signed into law by the Queen and stored as Acts in a specially air-filtered room in Parliament’s Victoria Tower. This centuries-old tradition is now being tweaked for reasons of cost (paper will be used instead of vellum). In a similar vein, the Article 50 letter that began the Brexit process was a paper document hand-delivered to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. Since the Lisbon Treaty does not specify exactly how an EU member state should notify the bloc of its intentions, Theresa May could presumably simply have sent a text message instead.

Queen Liz 2, rocking a sweet hat

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Wasp nests

It’s not just humans that make paper, some insects do it, too. Numerous species of wasp are excellent paper-makers, constructing their homes by scraping off bits of fibre from fences and tree bark and mixing this up with their saliva so that it forms a wood pulp, which is then layered onto the nest by other members of the same wasp colony. As the wet cellulose fibres dry, they become paper buttresses that help hold the entomological structure in place. Wasps have yet to harness the power of digital technology and even if they did their nest contruction process would be unlikely to go paper-free.

A wasp's nest is its home

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Ancient documents and paintings

The likes of Ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls and Vincent van Gogh’s artworks can of course be viewed online, but digitisation is no substitute for the real McCoy if you want to carry out radiocarbon dating, lift fingerprints or examine binding to try and uncover more about the history of such objects. Digitising even fairly routine archival material presents problems because of the built-in obsolescence of various file formats. Yes, you can digitise a library, but how do you ensure it will always be convertible into a format that allows it to actually be viewed? Paper presents no such worries.

Some Van Gogh sunflowers, yesterday

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Handwritten notes

For students living in flatshares, what better way is there to indicate ownership of food in the fridge than by quickly slapping a note on it saying “This is my cheese” or “Hands off my muffins”? In the near future, ‘smart’ fridges might reel off an inventory stating who owns each item, but nothing truly screams “Mine!” like a passive-aggressive sticky note. Handwritten notes serve a vital function in criminal courts too. During trials, jurors can ask questions only by scribbling down words on a piece of paper and handing this to the judge via an usher as they are forbidden from taking electronic devices into courtrooms.

Some Van Gogh sunflowers, yesterday

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Arts, crafts and children’s gifts

From handholding cut-out paper dolls that can be scissored and unfurled, to the intricate origami figurines of Japan, or the Pinatas of Mexico, there are countless examples of hobbycraft activities that would fall flat digitally - though they could potentially be practised using materials other than paper. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking up e-quilling or digital brass rubbing. Similarly, the tactile nature of paper means that no one has yet invented an electronic pop-up book or a ‘touchy feely’ children’s classic of the ‘That's Not My Owl’ ilk. At birthday parties, younger children are often more enchanted by wrapping paper than by the presents themselves, though concerns about sustainability means there could now be a market for reusable wrapping paper. This would have the added bonus of meaning parents could avoid having to shell out money for fresh wrapping paper every year before Christmas. If the gift is clothes, however, it may still need to be wrapped using acid-free tissue paper.

Ecstatic children opening Christmas presents

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The Sefer Torah

Not technically paper, but it illustrates the point about religious texts. The most venerated objects in the Jewish religion, Sefer Torahs are handwritten copies of Judaism’s holiest book. Because of the painstaking process involved in creating them, only a tiny number are produced at any one time. They are written entirely by hand by a specially trained pious scribe using ink and a quill on parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal. The Sefer Torah contains 304,805 letters. If there is a mistake in even one, the whole document becomes invalid and the process must begin anew. In some congregations, Jews kiss the holy object as it is paraded around. It is stored in a special cupboard called an Ark. Once an individual Sefer Torah becomes so old that it is deemed to be beyond repair, it is given ritual burial, as are other sacred Hebrew books. Would anyone treat an e-book with such reverence?

Happy Jews, cavorting

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Wallpaper

Thought to have been first developed in Europe in the 13th century, this medium of interior decoration was later worked with by the likes of the Victorian design William Morris, who urged people wishing to make their house into a home to “think first of the walls”. It took a long while for it to be taken seriously as an art form in its own right. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which contains a grand collection of wallpapers from around the world, points out that wallpaper has frequently been deployed as a metaphor for “sham and show” by novelists and literary snobs.

Hipster with stupid moustache and dog in a striped t-shirt

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Can you think of any other examples of objects that can’t go paperless? Email jloeb@theiet.org with your suggestions.

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