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Worth the Paper It's Printed On
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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Every year, on a Monday morning in early February, a shrink-wrapped set of budget documents arrives on my desk with the gratifying thwack that comes only with 9.8 pounds of historical tables and pie charts.

Every year, that is, except this one. This year my budget arrived, to update T.S. Eliot for the digital age, not with a thud but a click.

Under the new budget director, former Iowa congressman Jim Nussle, the federal government is going green and frugal. No more pallets of budget books delivered to Capitol Hill. No more handing out copies to reporters -- most of whom, truth be told, didn't get any deeper into the Analytical Perspectives volume than did the lawmakers.

Instead -- except for those who choose to shell out $213 for a dead-tree set from the Government Printing Office -- the 2,200-page budget will be available only online. This switch to an e-budget, Nussle boasted, saves nearly 20 tons of paper, about 480 trees.

It was all perfectly logical. I hated it.

True, everything a budget geek could want is online. The ever-rosy Budget Message of the President. My favorite Historical Table, 15.1, "Total Government Receipts in Absolute Amounts and as Percentages of GDP: 1948-2007."

But it isn't the same as having the volume -- volumes, actually -- in hand, being able to flip through the tables, to see the columns neatly arrayed without having to scroll up or down to decipher the details. The hard-core budget wonks I checked with weren't having any of this e-budget, either.

"Honestly, I am still using the paper books, as is most of my staff," Tom Kahn, the staff director of the House Budget Committee, told me by e-mail. "Online is much harder to use. It makes the information less accessible and harder to ferret out. Frankly, it is no fun staring for hours at a computer screen to find obscure spend-out rates. You can't underline, can't make a note on a page, and who wants to read a computer in bed?"

Washington is a place where, as the economists say, a non-trivial number of people read budget documents in bed. But you don't have to be one of them to crave the comforting certainty of ink on paper or to wonder about the consequences of having so much of the information we digest migrate from paper to screen.

Because as wondrous as the Internet is as a means for discovering and obtaining information, as useful as the personal computer is as a mechanism for inputting and manipulating data, paper remains -- for many of us, anyway -- the format most conducive to clear-headed analysis.

The Nussles of the world ignore the human urge to underline, to scrawl in the margins, an instinct that traces its first manifestations to cave paintings. There is a clarifying immediacy to holding the document itself, not settling for its online representation.

This phenomenon has implications for both creating and receiving information. My school-age children are being taught to compose at the keyboard; to them, writing in longhand seems as antiquated as dipping quill in ink. Hard for me to criticize -- I am composing, and revising, this sentence on my laptop.

But there is something lost in intellectual rigor by abandoning -- indeed, never really learning -- the laborious discipline of writing out a first draft. Typing fast is not the same as thinking well.

Similarly, the computer is a marvelous tool for gleaning information but not necessarily for absorbing it. To read a document online is to face constant temptations to stray from the text. The alert flashes: You've got mail. The hyperlink beckons: Stray down this path, and you may never follow the cyber-crumbs back home.

In their 2001 book, "The Myth of the Paperless Office," Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper describe how varied workplaces cling obstinately to paper despite pleas to the contrary. "With the Web, people could access more information more easily than before," they write, "but though they used digital means to find and retrieve information, they still preferred to print it out on paper when they wanted to read it."

Those of us in the writing business spend a lot of time these days pondering the future of the printed word. Make that the written word -- maybe just the word. You may be reading this column in the newspaper or online; you may even, much to my amazement, be listening to me read it on a podcast.

I am, officially, "platform agnostic," grateful for your attention in whatever mode I have managed to grab it. But it is more than simple nostalgia for an endangered form that leads me to prefer the paper experience.

Sorry about those trees, Director Nussle. Next year I want my budget books the old-fashioned way. Thwack.

marcusr@washpost.com

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