“Zines huh? People still make those things?”
I often have that conversation. Journalists, academics, librarians, artists and, well, just about anybody paying inordinate amounts of attention to the digital ebb and flow of culture will respond that way. Ask me what the magazine I work for is all about. Go ahead. I dare ya.
The problem is paper. People are very eager to assume that paper is on its way out. And zines, not to mention small press books and comics and the many other ingenious ways indie artists find to communicate to the broader world, all start with paper. They might not all say it, but I know what they are thinking: Paper is dead. Didn’t you get the email?
Well you know what? I did get the email. And then I printed it out and taped it to my wall to use as a dartboard. That’s how wrong it is. The belief that paper is dead puts a bull’s-eye on our foreheads. It’s that pervasive. As a result, all of us interested in culture made out of paper are in the position of constantly counteracting a misconception that does harm by automatically characterizing entire genres and age-old methods
of communication as archaic and useless.
What follows is not just a defense of paper. Consider it ammunition. Poison darts you can carry to the endless battle against techno-fascism.
SO, HOW TO ARGUE FOR PAPER?
First of all, size up your opponents. Who are they? What are their weaknesses? The digital junkie taking pictures of his nostril hair with his iPhone for a web-based interactive project spanning three continents with seed money from Silicon Valley. He believes nobody reads on paper anymore. “All I need is my phone. I read my magazines online, my news online, when I want a book I just download it! It’s fast, it’s convenient… it’s, basically, awesome.”
Yeah, I’m sure that must be very awesome but do you really want everything to be sold as an e-book through Amazon for the sake of your comfort and convenience? By expecting everything to come to you digitally, you’re standardizing culture and repudiating individuality by allowing all communication to be filtered through several
different layers of corporate ownership. The result is conformity. It’s all so flat and heartless.
Paper has texture. People are making depositories of information that are also gorgeous, affordable objects that will last a lot longer than your next blog post.
That should do him in. He’s lost the signal on his iPhone and can’t formulate a response without Google and Wikipedia to tell him what to think.
INTRODUCING OPPONENT #2:
We’ll call her The Caring Arts Professional. She is concerned that you are missing the boat, that you don’t understand the social and cultural transformations taking place in the digital age, that you’re stuck on paper out of some misguided nostalgia.
Paper is actually a very valid reaction to global cultural shifts. More and more artists and creators are actually turning back to paper. The physical object gives their work value and a kind of metaphorical heft at at a time when everything seems increasingly insubstantial.
You can work primarily in paper and still have a digital presence. It’s just that the digital brings you to the physical. That’s desirable these days. A lot of this work is handmade and limited edition. It’s handcrafted. It actually creates a market because of its scarcity. If you have social media and a blog, what’s the end point? What’s the goal? More followers? All you are ultimately doing is generating traffic and data for corporate
behemoths. Paper gives you a goal. Something to measure how effective you really are at reaching
people and inspiring them to check out your work. I mean, no matter how interesting you are, your Facebook page is never going to be a collector’s item. If you publish something, something handmade and limited edition, and
you use the web as just another marketing tool, you get the best of both worlds and you leave behind something with the potential to really last. A lot of the material that was published in the ’70s through to the ’90s is now considered highly collectable.
Now she gets you, and she wants to know how much you charge for your zine.
INTRODUCING OPPONENT #3:
Then there’s the Leftie, also known as the Environmentalist. These types will want movement. Transformation. An assurance that they are on the right side. When he was taking his four adopted Liberian children on their annual
sustainable walkabout through the mountains of British Columbia he was extremely disturbed.
“They’re logging the forests! What does paper do to the ecosystem?”
That’s one of the great myths about paper. Do you really think that all those e-readers and tablets and
smart phones are better for the environment? Every single one of them is made with nonrenewable rare minerals and requires unsustainable amounts of power derived in large part from burning coal or other fossil fuels. Plus they have short lifespans and invariably end up in the landfill leaching toxic chemicals. Not to mention the growing masses of data farms that have to house all those e-magazines and e-books and blogs. We’ve got hundreds of huge buildings using the same amount of electricity as a small city with more to come.
The whole phenomenon of people getting back into making zines and other paper objets d’art is about the local and the sustainable. It actually connects to the local foods movement, to ideas like slow food, and to ideas around makerspaces and hackerspaces and coding parties. People are reinvigorating artesian traditions. Doing it
yourself. In an age of the placeless digital, people need their cultural output to have a physical
dimension. In some ways, the digital era has reinvigorated paper. After all, if you are still, now, bothering to actually print something, what you have to say must be pretty important.
His response: “That’s an interesting perspective. Paper as a green medium. Do you mind if I do my fourth master’s thesis on the return of the zine?”
So there you have it. Your very own guide to defending paper. Pull this out and tape it to your wall.