In a world seduced by screens, the future of paper might seem uncertain. But many in the industry remain optimistic – after all, you can’t blow your nose on an email.

Old Mohawk paper company lore has it that in 1946, a salesman named George Morrison handed his client in Boston a trial grade of paper so lush and even, so uniform and pure, that the client could only reply: “George, this is one super fine sheet of paper.” And thus Mohawk Superfine was born.

This premium paper has been a darling of the printing and design world ever since. “Superfine is to paper what Tiffany’s is to diamonds,” Jessica Helfand, co-founder of Design Observer magazine once said. “If that sounds elitist, then so be it. It is perfect in every way.”

Mohawk tells the Superfine origin story every chance it gets: on their website, in press releases, in promotional videos and in their own lush magazine, Mohawk Maker Quarterly. And now Ted O’Connor, Mohawk’s senior vice president and general manager of envelope and converting, is telling it again. He sits on an ottoman in a hotel suite on the 24th floor of what a plaque outside declares is “The Tallest Building in the World with an All-Concrete Structure”. It’s day one, hour zero of Paper2017 in Chicago, the annual three-day event at which the industry, its suppliers and its clients come together to network and engage in “timely sessions on emerging issues”. Attendees are rolling in and registering, and the Mohawk team is killing time before wall-to-wall meetings.

The Superfine story is personal for Ted. George Morrison was his great uncle. His grandfather, George O’Connor, started the company when he acquired an old paper mill at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers in upstate New York. Ted’s father, Tom Sr, took over in 1972. Now, his brother, Tom Jr, runs the fourth-going-on-fifth-generation paper company.

Once Ted finishes the story, we talk about the paper industry – where it’s been and where it’s going. “Years ago, when I used to go to these types of meetings with my father, there were probably 16 mills – Strathmore, Hopper, Rising, Simpson, Mohawk, Beckett … We’d talk about trends in the industry and distributors and things like that, and, um … ” He stops to reflect. “They’re all gone.”

He lets that sink in for himself.

“Because they sat there and made just what they made for 30 years, and it kind of gets obsolete.”

“Paper is Good.” So reads the packaging on a ream of 8.5in by 11in, 20lb, white (92 on Tappi’s T-452 brightness scale), acid-free, curl-controlled, ColorLok Technology®, elemental chlorine-free, Rainforest Alliance Certified™, Forest Stewardship Council® certified, Sustainable Forestry Initiative® Certified, Made in USA Domtar EarthChoice® Office Paper. “Great ideas are started on paper,” the packaging reads. “The world is educated on paper. Businesses are founded on paper. Love is professed on paper. Important news is spread on paper.”

Domtar is right: paper has played “an essential role in the development of mankind”. And yet, for decades, civilisation has been trying to develop beyond paper, promoting a paper-free world that will run seamlessly, immaterially on pixels and screens alone. How did paper get here? Where does it go next? For that matter, why is paper – which does its job perfectly well – compelled to keep innovating?

On 26 March, I step into The Tallest Building in the World with an All-Concrete Structure, ready to find out. Billed as “THE annual networking event for the paper industry”, Paper2017 consists of just three panels and presentations across its three-day agenda. The rest of the time is dedicated to what are called “suites” – well-appointed hotel rooms that serve as basecamp, conference room and informal networking space all in one. Alas, because I am a journalist with zero interest in selling or being sold anything, I score only a few suite dates in my time at Paper2017. Instead, I spend a good amount of my time in a communal catch basin of sorts called the “connections lounge” (CL).


A paper mill in Minnesota.

The CL is a great place to sip $5 cups of coffee and thumb through the latest issue of the Paper2017 Convention Daily, published in three separate editions for each day of the conference, and printed on obscenely large 16in by 11.75in glossy tabloid that serves as an oversized “screw you” to palm-sized devices. It is printed by O’Brien Publications, which also publishes PaperAge magazine, the newspaper of record for all things pulp and paper since 1884.

I stroll through the CL, drawn to an unmanned National Paper Trade Association table piled high with juicy-looking literature on paper’s many virtues. I take one of each and sit down at a cocktail table to thumb through my haul of brochures announcing paper “myths” and paper “facts”. Above, the glass beads of a chandelier sway almost imperceptibly in the air conditioning.

A tall, thin man introduces himself to me as Neil. “So, what brings you to Paper2017?” he asks. I give my thumbnail sketch – journalist, piece about paper, etc. And now it’s his turn: something something something cloud-based software, something something business intelligence analytics, something something manufacturing profitability improvements. Later I would see Neil approach at least three other tables, on the prowl for potential clients. He tells me he grew up in paper’s Silicon Valley: Wisconsin. His dad worked in the mill and he grew up in company homes. One day a Finnish corporation bought the mill and moved the whole process to Finland, leaving a shuttered plant behind. Neil tells me about his son, who is double-majoring in public policy and English, but who “didn’t tell his dad about the English part”. Dad seems displeased by this: “He made it tougher on himself.” And then, perhaps remembering that he was speaking with a man of letters, he quickly adds: “But, no, I have a lot of affinity for writers, people who write.”

Ts’ai lun, a Chinese eunuch and privy councillor to Emperor Ho Ti, gets the credit for inventing what today we recognise as paper, in AD105. The basic formula remains unchanged. Some fibrous material – rags or wood – is mashed up, mixed with water to make pulp, then strained through a screen. Matted, intertwined fibre remains, held together by the same hydrogen bonds that twist DNA into a helix. This is dried and cut into paper.

The technology spreads from Asia through the Arab world, eventually landing in Europe circa 950. All the glory goes to Gutenberg for his printing press of 1440, but his metal movable type would have been nothing more than an oversized doorstop if there had been no paper for it to press upon. Paper historian Dard Hunter states the case clearly: “If man may now be considered as having reached a high state of civilisation, his gradual development is more directly due to the inventions of paper and printing than to all other factors.”

It is all the more shocking, then, how many times paper’s death knell has tolled through the halls of universities, corporations, governments, newsrooms and our own homes. Like fusion power, the paperless world has been just a decade away for the past half century, approaching but never arriving.

In the mid-70s, Businessweek published an article by the head of Xerox’s research lab that is credited for first putting down (on paper) a vision of a paperless “office of the future”. It painted a not-incorrect picture of future workers going about their business accessing and analyzing information on screens. And yet paper continued its ascent: global consumption grew by 50% between 1980 and 2011.

Why? Abigail J Sellen and Richard HR Harper, respectively a principal researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge and co-director of Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures, have a few solid theories. First, they note that computers and the internet brought unprecedented access to information – information that, while accessed digitally, was still best consumed on dead trees. Second, printing technology became so small, cheap and reliable that just about anybody with a computer could also afford their own on-demand press.

“We have heard stories of paperless offices, but we have never seen one,” Sellen and Harper wrote in their book The Myth of the Paperless Office. “More commonly, the introduction of new technology does not get rid of paper; it increases it or shifts the ways in which it is used.” The catch here is that the book was published in 2002, just before luminous smartphone screens took a hold of the same paleomammalian cortex that steered early Homo sapiens toward fire’s glow.

Since then, screen resolutions, load times and user interfaces have improved dramatically, striving toward a functional ideal that, ironically, looks and feels a lot like paper. Just this year, a startup called reMarkable launched a tablet that offers “the most paper-like digital writing experience ever”. Technology is a snake that eats itself.

And yet! Still no paperless world.

By 9.54am on day two of Paper2017, the CL has reached peak capacity and peak caffeination. Old friends are reconnecting, deals are being done. I’m sitting alone at the cocktail table, waiting for my next suite rendezvous. I see the strictly enforced lanyard-wearers-only policy being strictly enforced on a trio of lanyardless suits. My official lanyard notwithstanding, I feel guilty taking up increasingly rare deal-making space. Time to stretch the legs.

Out on the sidewalk, I turn around to peer up the length of Paper2017’s homebase, The Tallest Building in the World With an All-Concrete Structure. When the building was completed in 2009, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, Blair Kamin, wrote that it was “not vulgar, respectable enough, but still short of Chicago’s soaring architectural standards”. Kamin was less kind when the building later unveiled a finishing touch: five serifed, all-caps letters, spanning nearly the length of half a football field, spelling out the developer’s name: T-R-U-M-P.

So bad was this sign – slung low on the facade, where no other Chicago building had dared to brand before – that the building’s architect reportedly emailed Kamin to say, “Just for the record, I had nothing to do with this sign!” Kamin called it “as subtle as Godzilla”, and a “poke in the eye”, and pretty much everybody in Chicago agreed. It really is a terrible sign.

Curiously, despite his name hanging hugely on the outside of the building – not to mention printed on every napkin, coffee cup, water bottle, pen and pad of paper inside – Trump is mentioned to me only twice during Paper2017. Once is in terms that remind me of the weeks of pained post-election analysis about how urban elites had failed to heed the struggles of the working class: “When you get out in the rural part of our country, and you see what’s happened … regardless of what your political affiliation is, I can tell you, Donald Trump tapped into something,” says Mike Grimm, CEO of American Eagle Paper Mills in Tyrone, Pennsylvania (population 5,301).

Grimm talks about the role the mill had played in the town’s history. His own great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, worked in the machine room. Grimm remembers the paper mill’s whistle directing not just the shifts of the mill workers, but also the lives of the town’s residents.

And yet, in 2001, the mill shut down, as its large corporate owner consolidated. It was a blow to the region, but two years later a group of former mill managers pooled their resources and reopened it as American Eagle. “Especially today, when you lose that type of income out of a small town, it just can’t be replaced,” Grimm says.

A non-professional can only take so much discussion of sustainable wood procurement, the neuroscience of touch, “connected packaging solutions” and the potential for using paper sludge and fly ash to offset oil-based polypropylene in plastic composites. Halfway through the conference, I ache for news beyond Paper2017, and start thumbing through the headlines on CNN, Fox News and the New York Times. Regret sinks in immediately. I retreat back to the appropriately mobile-unfriendly and bathe in the insular warmth of headlines such as “Pratt Industries Officially Opens New Corrugated Box Factory in Beloit, Wisconsin”, “Sonoco-Alcore to Increase Prices for Tubes & Cores in Europe”, and “Mohawk’s Tom O’Connor Jr and Ted O’Connor Earn AIPMM’S 2017 Peyton Shaner Award”. That last article, really just a reprint of a Mohawk press release, contains this lovely remark from a paper industry colleague: “[Tom and Ted] are lions in our industry that represent the first family in paper with old-fashioned values and exciting new products and services that make this crazy business fresh and fun. When the O’Connor family succeeds, we all succeed.”

On the third and final day of Paper2017, the industry’s sobering choices are laid bare before us in two sessions featuring analysts from RISI, a market-research firm that considers itself “the best-positioned and most authoritative global source of forest products information and data”.

In the first session, we learn that the global demand for printing and writing (P&W) paper has been in steady decline since 2008. These are the papers most of us think of when we think of paper: the uncoated mechanicals, the uncoated freesheets and woodfree, the coated mechanicals and coated woodfree, the coated freesheets – ie, what composes directories, paperback books, newspaper inserts, low-end magazines and catalogues, direct (junk) mail, envelopes, brochures, photo printing, menus, posters, stationery, legal forms, and the iconic 8.5in by 11in office copy paper. They are suffering the combined assault of social media, email, tablets, e-billing, e-readers, laptops, smartphones, online forms, banner ads etc. Worldwide demand for P&W paper fell by 2.6% in 2015, according to RISI. Preliminary data suggests it fell by 2.2% in 2016, and RISI forecasts it will continue to fall by another 1.1% in 2017 and 2018.

But there’s more to paper than printing and writing. Market trends session No 2 focused on global paper-based packaging and recovered fibre, where the outlook is much brighter. There is talk of an “Amazon effect”, paired with a slide showing several boxes within boxes and paper padding used to ship one tiny bottle of vitamins. Big Paper is learning to sustain itself by encasing e-commerce gold. The internet taketh away, and the internet giveth.

You’re seeing more paper in food and drink packaging, too. RISI chalks this up to increasingly negative public attitudes toward plastic packaging. Plastic-bag bans and taxes are popping up all over the place. RISI illustrates the trend with a photo of a sea turtle ensnared underwater in plastic wrap.And then there’s tissue. It may not be the first thing we think of when we think of paper, but Big Paper is indeed very much in the business of selling toilet paper, facial tissue, paper towels and “feminine products” – and business is good. You can’t blow your nose into an email. In the end, we are material. We have inputs and outputs. We require physical receptacles. And more of us are on the way. RISI foresees a 3% annual rise in global tissue demand through 2018, and a 1.4% rise in global paper demand overall.

Even Mohawk, which is firmly planted in the printing and writing segment, is optimistic. “We tend not to listen to all this,” says Ted, back in the Mohawk suite, holding up the Paper2017 program. “Trends and this and that.” He shakes his head dismissively. According to Ted and Tom, Mohawk has been growing by around 3% or 4% a year.

It seems Mohawk might understand something that others in the industry do not. While many larger paper companies were reacting to the prods of market wonks and consultants by reinventing themselves as manufacturers of toilet tubes or Amazon packaging, Mohawk had been doubling down on its original value proposition: making really great paper. Amid the chaos of beeping, buzzing and blinking, Mohawk now stands out as a quiet, focused manufacturer of the world’s simplest publishing platform – one that actually gives its users pleasant haptic associations.

It’s not that Mohawk ignores the digital revolution; rather, they have made a choice to sell the ethos of paper to the digitally fatigued. Melissa Stevens, Mohawk’s senior VP of sales, hands me Mohawk’s Declaration of Craft, an absolutely gorgeous piece of printed material chock-full of new-agey thingness. Its thesis: “In an era of impermanence, an extraordinary movement has emerged. A movement of makers where craftsmanship and permanence matter now more than ever.”

Mohawk’s communication strategy is built around this “maker” movement, which is illustrated with hipsters throwing clay in their basements, forging wrought iron and side-hustling in saxophone design. It’s impossible to tell if this is brilliant marketing or sheer impudence, or both.


The staff of paper company Dunder Mifflin in US sitcom The Office.

My mind keeps returning to one particular episode of the The Office, the great sitcom that followed (in its US version) the employees of Dunder Mifflin, a small paper sales company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Pam Beesly, the receptionist, is having a bad day. The handful of friends and co-workers who have shown up for her art show mostly just yawn at her still lifes and exurban landscapes. One character dismisses it as “motel art”. But just as Pam is about to leave, her boss, Michael Scott, shows up. He has had a rough day, too – he has been made a fool of by his own subordinates, and by business-school students smugly assured of paper’s doom.

Pam’s art mesmerises Michael. “My God, these could be tracings,” he says, pure of heart. He insists on buying her painting of the office. Pam’s eyes grow wet. So do Michael’s. “That is our building,” he says, “and we sell paper.”

It is the best scene in the series. I watch it, and I feel the victory of earnestness over a world of naysayers. We cut to Michael back at Dunder Mifflin, hanging the painting of the office in the office on The Office. “It is a message,” he says. “It’s an inspiration. It’s a source of beauty. And without paper, it could not have happened … ”

He pauses to consider this. “Unless you had a camera.”

Imagine that, instead of paper, the computer and all its accoutrements came first. In a flash of divine perception, a Chinese castrate under Ho Ti’s reign conceives of binary systems, electronic circuits, vacuum tubes, capacitors, Boolean logic, transistors, integrated circuits, microprocessors, keyboards, floppy disks, CD-ROMs, zip drives, HTML, CSS, Javascript, modems, routers, email, wifi, AoL, Google, Friendster, Napster, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, gifs – all at once. And so, for nearly two millennia, the human race lives in a paperless, digital world.

Then, sometime in the middle of the 20th century, scientists at MIT, Stanford and the US Department of Defense begin to search for a better way to store and share their ideas. They experiment with mashing up old rags and wood to mix with water, draining the mixture through a screen and drying the matted fibres into sheets. The breakthrough makes its way into civilian life, and by the turn of the millennium most people in the developed world carry a pad of paper in their pocket.

Perhaps, in this version of events, we would regard paper as the superior technology, and not just because of novelty. After all, paper loads instantly. It requires no software, no battery, no power source. It is remarkably lightweight, thin and made from abundant, recyclable materials. Its design is minimalist, understated, calm.

Throughout Paper2017, people try to convince me (and perhaps themselves) that the Office-inspired stereotype of paper as aloof and backwards is wrong. Paper isn’t boring, they tell me; in fact, it’s an “exciting time for the industry”. They coopt the technophile’s word cloud – “innovative”, “disruptive”, “smart”.

And yet, at the very same time that it tries to showcase its innovative credentials, paper is also promoting a nostalgic counter-narrative, filled with references to family, American values and smalltown workers. Not unlike that of coal mines or auto plants, this story imagines paper mills as monuments to the fading promise of American industry.

Paper will survive in some form (packaging, toilet paper etc) and so, I’d wager, will both of these narratives. Meanwhile, as writers like me fret about the battle between digital and paper, the industry is shifting, like so many others, from a steady stable of family-run mills to a business model that breeds perpetual uncertainty, interpreted by consultants and navigated by anomalous corporate marketing entities. Behind all the optimistic talk of restructuring opportunities and rebranding initiatives, traditional careers in American paper are vanishing: according to the New York Times, Wisconsin alone has lost 20,000 paper factory jobs since 2000.

There aren’t many representatives at the conference of workers like Neil’s dad, who had actually manned those mills for generations; there are, however, plenty of consultants like Neil, who speak the language of metrics and markets effortlessly. I used to believe, probably like most people, that paper was just a simple canvas for my ideas. By the end of Paper2017, I want to believe that making paper could be everything: an artisanal craft and a family-run business and a developing-world growth opportunity and a packaging revolution. Yet I can’t help noticing how familiar are the marketing creeds I hear over and over at the conference: a 21st-century blend of techno-speak, nostalgia and nonsense.

The other time someone at Paper2017 mentions to me the man whose name hangs on the side of The Tallest Building in the World with an All-Concrete Structure is on the conference’s final morning. A friendly man from Belgium with a South Asian accent plops down in the armchair across from me, just outside the CL. I had met him briefly on the first day of the conference, and when I idly remark that there seems to be a lot of excitement in the paper industry these days, he quickly replies: “Excitement? Or fear?”

The man has some cursory relation to paper – he is in the import/export business – but it is a bit foggy to me. When we get on to the topic of technology, disruption and automation, he paints a much bleaker picture than I heard in any of my other conversations at Paper2017. Robots will one day replace truck drivers, and then chefs, and then even your primary-care physician, he says, absently spinning his smartphone between his left thumb and forefinger. In that case, I ask, what do you tell your children about their future career prospects?

“Be a salesperson,” he says. “If there is artificial intelligence, then they will be selling the robots.” He winks and smiles, and flips his smartphone again. “This is how it will be.”

I must look uneasy about all this, because he then tries to reassure me. He points to Europe as an example of a place where governments are getting ahead of this trend, requiring that employers pay extra into social security if they replace a human worker with a machine. He says he knows less about the situation in the US, but feels things would be OK.

“You have a nice president who is a businessman,” he says. “He’s not a politician. There is profit or loss in business, so you either win or lose. Some people don’t like that, but I think it will be good.”

Via The Guardian