Old science-fiction and new research agree – paper is mightier than computer

“A paper computer?” said the general. He looked pained.
“No, sir,” said Shuman patiently. “Not a paper computer. Simply a sheet of paper. General, would you be so kind to suggest a number?”
“Seventeen,” said the general.
“And you, Congressman?”
“Good! Aub, multiply those numbers and please show the gentlemen your manner of doing it.”
“Yes, Programmer,” said Aub, ducking his head. He fished a small pad out of one shirt pocket and an artist’s hairline stylus out of the other. His forehead corrugated as he made painstaking marks on the paper.
General Weider interrupted him sharply. “Let’s see that.”
Aub passed his paper, and Weider said, “Well, it looks like the figure seventeen.”
Congressman Brant nodded and said, “So it does, but I suppose anyone can copy figures off a computer. I think I could make a passable seventeen myself, even without practice.”
“If you will let Aub continue, gentlemen,” said Shuman without heat.
Aub continued, his hand trembling a little. Finally he said in a low voice, “The answer is three hundred and ninety-one.”
Congressman Brant took out his computer a second time and flicked it, “By Godfrey, so it is. How did he guess?”
“No guess, Congressman,” said Shuman. “He did it on this sheet of paper.”
“Humbug,” said the general impatiently. “A computer is one thing and marks on paper are another.”
From The Feeling of Power, by Isaac Asimov

Asimov’s story, dated from 1957, takes place in a far-future, when a long-embattled Earth is engaged in a computer-directed war with Deneb. By then, writing numbers, let alone performing calculations on a paper, is a lost art.

I recalled this story when I saw NPR’s “In A Digital Chapter, Paper Notebooks Are As Relevant As Ever”. It begins with a confession of a notebook nut, who wonders:

“Am I an analog dinosaur, or are there others out there like me?
The first stop in my investigation was, frankly, discouraging.
At first glance, a Starbucks on the campus of George Washington University points to the dinosaur conclusion. So plentiful are the laptops and tablets that they outnumber the double-mocha-half-caf-triple-shot-Frappuccinos.
But when I look more closely, I spot plenty of paper here as well.”

Anyone who visited a coffee shop near university is familiar with the sight of students holding double-latte/mocha/cappuccino, while typing or scrolling their tables and laptops. Personally, I haven’t seen that many paper notebooks.

What about classrooms? As an article titled “Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension” points out, laptops in class have been controversial, mostly due to the many opportunities for distraction that they provide (online shopping, browsing Reddit, or playing solitaire, just to name a few). A recent study by two psychological scientists, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, has examined how effective laptops are for the students who diligently take notes. In one study, 65 college students watched one of five TED Talks covering topics that were interesting but not common knowledge. The students were either given laptops (disconnected from Internet) or notebooks, and were told to use whatever strategy they normally used to take notes. The students then completed three distractor tasks. After 30 minutes, they had to answer questions based on the lecture they had watched.

The results revealed that while the two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions. The notes from laptop users contained more words and more verbatim overlap with the lecture, compared to the notes that were written by hand. Overall, students who took more notes performed better, but so did those who had less verbatim overlap, suggesting that the benefit of having more content is canceled out by “mindless transcription.” “It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently,” the researchers write. The researchers also found that longhand note takers still beat laptop note takers on recall one week later when participants were given a chance to review their notes before taking the recall test. Once again, the amount of verbatim overlap was associated with worse performance on conceptual items.

Mueller and Oppenheimer summarized their results in a paper titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking”.

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

So, one of the benefits of using paper and not a computer is that one synthesize rather than merely transcribe. To me it’s amazing that Asimov suggested that much in 1950s, before the dawn of personal computers, laptops and tablets.

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