Talking Paper Interview Series: Lothar Müller

Lothar Müller is a journalist and author who serves as editor of the features section at German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. He has also taught general and comparative literature at Berlin Free University, and is currently an honorary professor at Berlin's Humboldt University. In February of 2012, he published Weiße Magie: Die Epoche des Papiers, which in November of 2014 was re-published in English by Polity Press as White Magic: The Age of Paper, with translation from German by Jessica Spengler [read our review of his book here]. The book's 263 pages boil down the history of paper, and its importance as a continuing technology. From its origins in China as a bureaucratic tool, paper travelled west as a commodity through the Middle East and on to Europe, where it was the material inspiration for Johannes Gutenberg's creation of the printing press in the mid-15th century. As the publishing of words has moved from paper to the digital domain, the future profitability of printing daily newspapers has come into question. Yet Müller argues that paper as a technology of information storage will go on. He shared his thoughts on "The Paper Age," and its origins and future via a Skype interview from his home in Germany.

On His Personal Experience with Paper

This is a double perspective I have. The first one stems from my education. I’m a historian of literature, and one of the basic questions of the book was, “Does literature tell us, the readers, something about the material it is printed on, and dealing with, and distributed in time and space?” On the other hand, I have the impression of my daily newspaper work. I was born in 1954, which means I was educated in a pre-digital world. I wrote all my work for university studies within a so-called “totally analogue world.” Even for my PhD, I wrote on paper on a typewriter. So I've experienced the ongoing changes in the situation of the media while working, and was educated in a totally different world. So I belong to this generation with one foot in the past and the other foot in the present. I think this is my perspective on these ongoing changes, because I’m very close to these older techniques, and I had to learn all of these new techniques. Now I’m using both every day. I still work for a newspaper, which is going to be printed on the one hand, and each article I finish is presented in an online, e-paper version as well as a printed version. This is my experience from the last ten years or so, and this changed my approach to thinking about paper, as there are all these very obvious elements in paper that I wasn’t used to thinking about—that it is a space in time, and a space in the topological sense. A sheet of paper ends here and there in its limited space. It’s limited in time and space. And this was so obvious when I began as a reader and began writing that I didn’t think about this. Only later did I start to try and think about these elements, which are the most obvious elements in this technology. And this is getting more and more important now—to think of this tradition in a new way.

On Newspapers

The history of newspapers is, of course, closely link to the history of the printing press. On the other hand, it’s related to the history of the media of communication and transport and the postal system. You have these newspaper titles—in Germany, Rheinische Post, and Washington Post in the States, or The Telegraph in the UK. So there is this link to the media of communication and transport. I think from this side of the history of newspapers, we see that what we now call the “new media” and the “digital media” in distribution and storage is part of this old history of transport and communication media. It’s the newest form of this, and it's a revolutionary one. This revolutionary aspect of this media is not part of the printing press; it’s the other part of newspaper history: the transport and communication system. So we now have a revolutionary change in the fundamental aspects of newspaper making, which begs the question, “What is news today?” In the German and French tradition, we have another word for this. It’s called actualité in French. In the English tradition, you call it “news” or “breaking news.” These are other terms and have a different background, because in actualité, you have what in English-speaking countries is, “what I actually mean," which means you want to tell me what you really mean. In Germany, the term “actual” means “This is brand new. This is news.” So we have a change in the very concepts of newspaper making. For example, producing news is very important for newspapers. But when the news is available to everyone and when the news agencies are transforming themselves in something like Twitter, there is no monopolistic system for newspapers in creating news. So we have a totally different situation because of this side of newspapers, which is linked to the media of distribution of news in time and space. This is totally new. I think this is revolutionary. And this is a difference between newspapers and books.

What we call “periodical press" is what I mean when I’m talking about newspapers and reviews. Here we are in the world of a periodical press, the mother of news creation. Not books. Books, of course, have an impact on the history of ideas—this is clear. But a book is a totally different type of media as compared with a newspaper. I think we have to emphasize this difference in order to understand the consequence of the ongoing changes in the media situation for both parts of printing books and newspapers. I think newspapers are closer to being transformed in digital media than, for example, huge hardcover books. In Europe, for example, you have a developing market in hardcovers. Of course, there is a close link between paperback and e-books. So we have to define very clearly what are we talking about when we use terms like “book,” because this is a kind of universal term. Are we talking about hardcovers? Are we talking about coffee table books?

Perhaps you know Taschen, the publishing house. They produce very, very huge books—coffee table books in XXL versions. And I think they won't transform their concept in a digital form because they earn their money with this type of hardcover book. But in a daily newspaper, I think all of us are trying to now develop new forms of the old format of newspaper in the new digital world. What I'm proposing is that we have to learn from the history of the newspapers printed on paper, including the techniques and traditions they developed in the past roughly 400 years, in order to create new forms in a new technological environment, so that we transform this model of the newspaper into a new version.

All these digital techniques tend to offer more and more options. Every second, you can choose between two or three possibilities. You're given more and more possibilities in using a tool of a major newspaper—using this or that link, having more audio files, or more links to images and short videos. The problem of the old newspaper was to create a limited space in which you were going to produce a newspaper with the news that's fit to print. This is the process of saying “no” to many, many possibilities that you could use, but you don't want to. So this was at the very heart of the traditional newspaper. They were a medium which said “It's very hard to get in.” To be printed, you have to be very interesting, you have to be well-written, and you have to be brand new. But we don't let any item in. We decide. Now we are confronted with the possibility of integrating all you want. This is a possibility of developing a new media. You have to shorten the possibilities in order to produce a product which has something in common with the old newspaper—that you end here and there, and that it is a limited time and a limited space. Because our lifetime doesn’t develop so much. A day has 24 hours and will have 24 hours in ten years and in 100 years. So this time-consuming aspect of the multiplication of possibilities obviously has to be answered with strategies related to the reduction of optionality. This is the point that we have reached.

On the Tactile Value of Paper

I’m not very sure that the often-said advantage of being tactile is so exclusive for printed papers or printed books. Because dealing with a smartphone, you’re always using your fingers and your fingertips. It’s a kind of tactile affective relationship between most modern people and their technical instruments. This whole touchscreen technology is addressed to tactile responses. So this is another type of dealing in a tactile way with a technical equipment, as the book was in another way. This is not really the difference, and it could be the affective relationship to paper—the smell and all this. This, of course, is historical. This can change. Many people have very affective relationships with their smartphones, tablets, and all of these new technologies. I think this is natural, because we are using our fingertips. With our fingertips, we can create new work. Perhaps you remember this famous Apple ad with Michelangelo's art floating in them,  the fingertip being connected to God, and the creation of the work comes from your fingertip. So this doesn't have to be a long-term difference between paper and new technologies. But on the other hand, being together in a closed-room situation with the media—how the classical newspaper was, or the book was—this is a special type of consuming information. You go through a newspaper. You don’t read page by page, of course. You have your personal strategy in using this medium. And this is part of a given room in which you are entering a book, or entering a newspaper, which was printed. Of course, you could open this closed room toward more information,  letters,  pictures, and audio files. But the closed room has its advantage because it allows you to go deep into a book or newspaper and make movements in this room. These are not only physical movements while reading or going through a newspaper. There are intellectual movements, as well. This is another manner of intellectual behavior and the habits of consuming a medium like a newspaper. We are in an ongoing changement while in these closed rooms, and in very, very open rooms. This is our situation now—we are living in both.

For example, cinema is a closed-room situation. It's a cave in a classical sense. It's a Platonic cave—the cinema. Of course, you can have films on your personal computer or even on your smartphone. They’re very small, but of course you can use it in this way. But it's a totally different situation. This has to go with what I call the multiplication of options. For example, here in Germany when I grew up, we only had three programs on TV, and they were all run by the state. Then in the '80s, we had private offers in TV, and all of a sudden, we had 20 or 30 programs. Then we had the technology to change the program by just pressing a small instrument without walking to the TV. This was a multiplication of options related to using the TV. You could decide to mix it up—go from watching the news, to a football match ten seconds later, to a film. This is totally different in cinema. You don't have the option of three films together, or to change the end of the film, or something like that. You have to be there. You can stay or leave—these are the options. This is, of course, a quality of cinema. You could say it's a disadvantage, because on the other hand, you have so many options. But of course, it's an advantage of the cinema to be in a room where you don't have to decide, or you only have one decision to make. This is something that brings you to another situation with regard to this film. The other side, of course, is that you pay to get in. It's not so easy to leave. Paying means you have a reason to stay. This is the reason why all of these European newspapers—and it's the same in the States—are now trying to develop models of getting money for their online offers. They want people to come in, and they don't want them to leave fast. Of course, to have to pay is an instrument of having people stay longer.

When Die Zeit, which was the leading newspaper here in Germany, started to print pictures on the front page, they encountered protests from the readers. Then they started using color. And then you had the discussion in the letters to the newspapers where the readers said, “We want a highbrow newspaper. We want to be addressed as intellectuals, and color is a central element.” This is about ten or 15 years ago. It’s very, very close to our present now. Things have changed very fast. That’s the end of the story. Now, nobody asks why pictures are on the front page of Die Zeit. Everybody accepts this, of course. It would be ridiculous to argue about that. But ten years ago, it wasn't. It was a very, very strong discussion. Strange, isn't it?

On the Printing Press

One element of this story that is often told—by Marshall McLuhan for example—is the huge success of the printing press as model of western innovation and technical development from the early modern times to the 20th century. I think that emphasizing the function—the role of paper in this process—leads people astray slightly. Because with Gutenberg’s invention, you had printed books, and later, printed newspapers. On the other hand, you had something new, and that was the unprinted paper. The invention of the printing press had a double effect—there were lots of printed books, more and more in the centuries after Gutenberg. On the other hand, there were more handwritten manuscripts not being published—they were unprinted in the age of print. I think this is an interesting relationship within the cultural history of these last centuries, because the relationship between handwritten manuscripts on the one hand and printed books and newspapers on the other hand is not only that these manuscripts were produced in order to be printed. With the huge world of handwritten letters, for example, only a part of this huge work was printed, and it was not meant to be printed. You had lots of private letters that were destroyed or forgotten, or they vanished in a way we never will know. So this was a very huge sphere of handwritten paper in these last years. The approach of McLuhan emphasizes one side of this process—the printing press, and its impact in general. But seen from the point of this real paper, you have to add this other side within the era of the printing press. You have a modern type of handwritten manuscripts from the 15th century to the late-20th century and even in the beginnings of the 21st century. From handwritten to typed scripts, and mixed forms of typed scripts with handwritten remarks and variations, the whole space of modern manuscripts is a very, very interesting one. We have the philological departments of our universities. We have institutes for studying the history of the modern manuscript, and it's a very interesting one. It's actually linked to this history of the printing press, and its relationship of tension between printed and the unprinted paper. This is interesting because in the sphere of handwritten paper you find the analogue prehistory of digital small tools—what the historians of ideas and historians of culture now call “the small tools” in intellectual production. A small sheet of paper with a notice on it is forgotten, and then two years later, you find it. And from this, you are producing something wonderful. And it’s this small sheet of paper you had nearly forgotten. These processes of intertwining between the printing side of our modern culture and the side of unprinted paper was one of the aspects I was interested in. Because in the history of literature, you find so many stories about these relationships. In printed books, you'll find thousands of stories about unprinted paper, and that the unprinted paper is the source of the book that you are reading as a reader. For example, the whole genre of the epistolary novel is based on prevailing with this difference, because Samuel Richardson and his followers knew that they were writing for readers who had printed books in their hand and tried to look through the pages in order to find the handwritten letter he faked writing. So it was an interesting process. For example, in these literary reforms, you'll find the history of reflection about these two modern-speaking channels of writing and information and circulation and story. This was what I'm interested in telling the history of.

There’s also the side of being a medium of storage. Long-term storage with paper is now a very crucial point in libraries. We know the possibility of papers in long-term storage of information and documents. For example, in Germany, the public libraries do both. They digitalize their old manuscripts. But of course, they don’t throw away these old manuscripts. They’re very much interested in conserving them and spending lots of money in restoration programs of these old documents. Some of these new documents are produced in both formats. Because, for example, with some treaties or written materials of high importance, you want to make sure that in two, three, or 400 years, you still have them. Until recently, paper is a very interesting medium of long-term storage. This is one part of the history of paper which will not end in the next five years. Perhaps the newspaper will end in the near future. But this long-term storage function of paper, I think, is a very crucial one—even in the future.

On Paper’s Impact on Government Bureaucracy

I think the modern bureaucracy found its medium in paper. I tried to show that this has very deep roots, getting down to the culture of Arabian paper. For example, the format of the paper has a semantic element, which means that you have to choose a certain paper in order to write to a person in a higher or lower position, or you have to have space between the text and your signature, and the space means social distance between writer and the receiver of a letter. So all of these physical elements of paper were integrated into social structures and bureaucratic routines. This is interesting because it’s part of the combination between paper as a physical substance and its cultural functions through the times. And especially in bureaucracy, this is a very dense approach to using all of these spacial elements in paper as part of bureaucracy and symbolizing relationships of power between people and, for example, government. So you couldn’t have modern bureaucracy in the ages from early modern times to the 20th century without paper. It was kind of a basis. The other way around, the bureaucracy was one of the reasons why paper was developed and grew in its importance. The technical development in the history of paper making had something to do with the needs for paper, and bureaucracy is a very, very prominent example of this. Another very prominent example of this are the newspapers in the 19th century, because they couldn’t have had their development from the mid-19th century on without developing not only the techniques of printing, but in the same process, the technologies producing paper to get more and more paper in a given time. You had to produce more and more paper in order to get food for the periodical press—periodical means daily.

On the Origins of Paper Itself

Paper sprang, of course, from China, and it was said to be a certain high officer in the government in the first century in China who created this new material in order to have materials for the bureaucracy. This was the beginning, and then paper went westward over the centuries. For me, the most important part of this history seen from a European point of view is the Arabian culture of the middle ages. Because when the Silk Road brought paper from China westward, you had a product traveling. This was the first step. The second step was the faculty to produce this product in the west. In this process of going west regarding the faculty of paper making, Arabian culture was the transmitter for the European culture. Here you have the interesting phenomenon where you have a developed culture of paper making and paper use in the Arabian culture around the Mediterranean Sea without the printing press. It's a kind of an experiment of world history of culture. "Show me what you can do with paper, but I won't give you a printing press. Show me what is possible with paper without print." So there is an American tradition in doing research on this topic. One title is  Paper Before Print. This is a very interesting phenomenon, because it shows paper as a medium in itself before being linked to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. For me, it was very astonishing to learn how many functions of paper were developed without the printing press.

The whole thing we talked about regarding the importance of paper—to bureaucracy, the symbolic meaning of space, and formats of paper for the social relations between, say, Arabian-culture Caliphs and everyday people—were developed without printing presses. This was paper in itself shining its capacity as a medium of storage and circulation in this culture, and this is a process of hundreds of years. In overviews concerning the history of paper, one can often find this sentence: “Paper came from China to Europe through the Arab culture.” In this sentence is a hidden history of 400 years. So in these hundreds of years of paper before print, you have a great story about paper as a medium in itself, and this is a part of the history of paper. When you have this approach, you see that Gutenburg's invention was not the invention of one medium—it was the combination of two. This is very important to understand, because nowadays, we live in the age of separation of these two elements. We live in the age of separation from the printing press. While we have paper, we don't need the printing press anymore. We have new substances for organizing the transport and storage of information. This is the point of view I use in looking back into the history of paper with the consciousness of today. I don’t want to go back. I want to get some inspiration in order to understand my own present, while looking back at the history of paper and print and their very complex relationships over the last 500 years. This is what I’m interested in. We all live within both worlds today. 

Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.