Remember the Computer

A Look at reMarkable

One of the more innovative ventures in novel human/computer interaction lately is reMarkable. The reMarkable is often described as an e-ink tablet, but that does it a disservice — the reMarkable is not a good tablet, but it’s not trying to be, it’s trying to be better paper, and that’s the standard it should be judged by. This isn’t a review of the reMarkable, because I haven’t had the pleasure of using one. Instead of reviewing the product, I want to use it as a lens into the future of how we will interact with computers.

The experience of using paper and pencil is the standard to beat when designing a tool for committing the ideas in a person’s head to the physical world. I’ll be going through some of the great properties of paper and pencil, but they are not all unique to that medium. Many of the digital alternatives to paper share these properties, but before comparing paper to its alternatives, it’s important to understand why paper is such a great tool in the first place.

In terms of versatility, paper only limits you as to what sorts of marks you can make by how precise you can be with your hand. That’s a skill that we make every child spend years refining, and can be easily augmented using even makeshift tools. If you can’t find a ruler, you can usually find something else within arm’s reach that you can use as a straight-edge. Paper also offers a very ergonomic writing experience, because of how easily you can move and rotate it while your writing to find a comfortable position. The same features make paper possible to use when no comfortable position is available — in a pinch you can write against a wall.

Paper offers a great experience for reading. I myself don’t mind long reading sessions on computer screens, but I understand that many people find long periods staring at an emissive screen causes eye strain. And reading isn’t just about absorbing information from a page, you also need to find your page. As a physical object, paper lets you leverage your superior spatial memory to find the information that you need — it’s much easier to remember where a page is in physical space than it is to remember the precise page number.

Paper is also super cheap! That’s not strictly part of the experience of using it, but it certainly has downstream effects that help shape it. Because it’s cheap, you’re more likely to take it with you places you would be hesitant to take expensive electronics, paper is barely more resistant to water than a laptop, but it’s less nerve-wracking to bring to the pool because you’re at least not at risk of losing your paycheck. And the cheapness contributes to the sense of freedom to move your paper around while writing; you can move your iPad too, but when doing so you have to worry about scratching up the pristine aluminum surface on its back. No such worries with paper.

But many people are choosing to replace their paper notebooks with computers of one form or another, and it’s not just so they can browse Reddit in the lecture hall. A paper notebook is lightweight and easily portable, but if you have to carry a computer with you regardless, it’s still adding unnecessary bulk. And that’s assuming a single notebook is enough to store all your material — computers scale to larger volumes much better than paper. But the main reason you might prefer a computer is that fundamentally, paper and pencil are tools for recording information, and our information-age civilization has developed fantastic tools for manipulating information, but information recorded on paper is not easily accessible to these tools.

Search. You can’t grep dead trees. This is the single greatest disadvantage of paper and pencil relative to computer media. The ability to search through the full text of a large corpus is a fantastic boost to the power of human intelligence, on a scale comparable to writing itself. Writing enhances the capacity and fidelity of our memory, search enhances its recall. A product that managed to recreate the experience of writing on paper as faithfully as possible while adding capable search facilities would, I suspect, capture a comfortable marketshare in the digital note-taking space.

Beyond search, you have integration with other digital media. Computer-based alternatives to paper can allow embedding of — for instance — video, or links to documents on the web. Computers can also make collaboration easier, allowing multiple people to work on the same “piece of paper,” even when separated by oceans. And let’s not forget data security; paper notebooks can be lost or stolen or dropped in a lake, and so can computers, but unlike with paper, the data on computers can be easily backed up. And for sensitive material, computers can encrypt and password protect your data, while paper notebooks can at best be stored in a safe while not in use.

One last thing: paper and pen is terrible for editing, and pencil is not much better. With pencil, you can erase marks, which is great for fixing mistakes that you notice as you make them, but because there’s no way to move the marks you make on paper, if you only notice an error after you’ve filled in the rest of the page, there’s not much you can do. You can’t insert a new paragraph in the middle of a page unless you’re willing to erase everything below it. Moving stuff around on the page is not an issue for a computer, and computers can also provide layers, which are extremely handy for sketching.

To summarize thusfar, paper and pencil is a brilliant medium because:

But digital alternatives are compelling because they allow:

reMarkable’s marketing pushes the idea that computers are an endless source of distraction, and that writing on paper lets you escape. I suspect the reMarkable’s designers considered the experience of writing on paper to beat the experience of writing with the available digital alternatives, so if their digital alternative can emulate the paper experience as faithfully as possible, it’ll be best-in-class. I have no privileged access to the designer’s motivations; the anti-distraction minimalism might well have been a post-hoc marketing angle rather than the original motivation. But the product the developed seems pretty clearly the result of a design process that started with trying to turn a computer into paper, and then adding back computer features only sparingly.

If you want to turn a computer into paper, you use an e-ink display. That’s the technology that makes Amazon’s Kindle devices look so much like paper, and it’s the soul of the reMarkable. E-ink solves the eye-strain issue that many people experience when reading from a conventional computer display, and it also can be much less of a drain on battery — great for a device that considers itself in competition with paper. But there’s a reason that e-ink is only found on niche devices: it’s really slow at changing what’s displayed on the screen. To avoid getting too technical