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Paper Chase

In a pithy irony within our golden age of irony, state election officials around the country are seizing on a voting strategy that a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable: paper ballots.

We know that Russia will try to influence the 2018 elections, whether through the primaries that begin this month or the November midterms. In their quest to undermine American democracy, they’ll use the tried-and-true method—spreading misinformation using social media platforms—and give hacking into electronic voting systems another crack. They may have other things up their sleeves, but unless Robert Mueller announces more indictments, such things will probably go under the radar.

This week, America’s fearless leader reiterated his refrain that Russia had “no impact on our votes” in the election that put him in office. He did, however, indicate that the nation should guard against meddling in the midterms. “One of the things we’re learning,” he said, “it’s always good to have a paper backup system of voting. Called paper.”

This came a day and half after the Oscars, where the plot of one of the best picture contenders—Steven Spielberg’s The Post—is driven by a paper trail that leads to a paper’s trial. In some sense paper is the movie’s literal hero—the physical steward of words that cannot be disappeared with a single click, like a tweet.

The film offers a neat bookend in a scene where Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg illicitly photocopies parts of what would become The Pentagon Papers that he’s snuck out of the Rand Corporation’s files with another near the end of the film where The Post’s gleaming printing machines spool out this content for public consumption as if signing Handel’s Messiah.

Also, the clandestine copying is done after hours in the back office of what looks like an indie movie theater, presumably because it possesses one of those IBM monsters. That scene tells you all you need to know about the future: the technology that aided and abetted mass dissemination of information and ideas (whether photocopier or film projector) would eventually kill the venues of consumption.

The death of print journalism we can understand in terms of supply and demand. But there is a parallel development in supply and demand that is dooming anyone seeking to publish anything using ink—the skyrocketing costs of paper and wood pulp. One factor driving the current price increase is the growing global demand for paper-based packaging for e-commerce purchases.

To put it simply: The more FreshDirect packs each of your pears in little cardboard teepees, the more the pages of the New Yorker resemble (now-extinct) onion skin typing paper. Though a single issue costs $8.99, you can see right through each of its pages.

Even with newsprint, which has always sold relatively cheaply, surviving newspapers are being screwed. Because newsprint is expensive to make, scale production is the only way for paper mills to go. But with declining demand from shuttered papers, many U.S. mills have stopped making it. The Columbia Journalism Review has a good piece on the insult-to-injury effects of the Trump administration’s tariff on Canadian newsprint, which is used by around 75% of U.S. publishers, most in the Northeast.

The current paper crunch seems a far cry from the America of two decades ago, when some thought the road to hell was paved with a surfeit of paper. A 1997 Seinfeld episode has Kramer waging war against both Pottery Barn and the U.S. Postal Service for sending and delivering three of its catalogs in a single day (“Pottery Barn is in for a world of hurt”).

To Al Gore, spiritual father of the “information superhighway,” paper itself was in for a world of hurt. Paper was the big thing many remember from his eight years as vice president. His push for The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 laid the groundwork for making the government digital and lessening consumption of paper documents. Gore made going all-digital seem patriotic. I’m sure he felt something when the IRS finally stopped mailing paper forms, though it came a decade after the Supreme Court and Florida Republicans used paper (i.e., incompletely punched chads) to pry the presidency from his hands.

The demonization of paper since the 1990s stands in stark contrast to paper’s critical role in our nation’s birth. When an independent America was still a twinkle in the colonists’ eyes, paper was in short supply because it could only be made from cotton and linen rags. With no H&M stores creating landfills 24/7, rags to keep the presses rolling were in short supply. The classifieds in colonial periodicals had one plea: desperately seeking rags. The paper shortage became so acute during the Revolutionary War that skilled papermakers could obtain secure exemption from military service.

A year into the war, an anonymous, fanatical, and genius pamphlet was printed in Philadelphia. Its seventy-seven pages of hard-to-come-by paper sought to convince the colonists that it was their destiny to declare independence from Britain. Sixteen editions of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense came out in rapid succession in January 1776. Ben Franklin bought 100 copies, and he and fellow Philly elites like Benjamin Rush and Sam Adams promoted the pamphlet’s ideas any way they could. The city’s congressional delegates sent copies home to their colonies, where the text was immediately copied out by hand, printed, and distributed locally. That’s how paper worked then. You could say that Common Sense brought the future United States of America from rags (literally) to riches.

And here we are in 2018, with five states—Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Delaware—using electronic voting machines with no paper trail and a president doing nothing more than reminding us of a thing “Called paper.” He is right about its existence. Now all he needs to do is grow a spur-less spine and heed the words of the Revolutionary paper-meister Thomas Paine: “The cunning of the fox is as murderous as the violence of the wolf, and we ought to guard equally against both.” §

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