Note to self: Will there still be paper in 2069?

From media to packaging to currency, David Gewirtz ponders where paper and wood will fit into our society 40 years hence.

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When I was a kid, I loved the Thunderbirds. It was a "supermarionation" TV series, based on puppets. If you've seen Team America: World Police by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, you've seen supermarionation.

The original Thunderbirds gadgets and gizmos inspired me to become an engineer as much as Star Trek did, maybe even more.

Amazon has rebooted the vintage 1960s series in animated form. I was recently watching an episode called "Relic," in which the Traceys (the family on the show) rescued their father's old friend, Captain Taylor, from a base on the moon. There are five Tracey kids, and the show makes great fun of Captain Taylor for confusing their names.

The episode ends with Captain Taylor once again confusing the Traceys' names. Scott asks if the Captain read the list of names he provided and Taylor says, "I'm not much of a reader." Scott, under his breath, mutters "It's just five names on a piece of paper."

Since the series is set in the year 2069 (they mention Neil Armstrong's moon landing being a hundred years before), I got to thinking: would we have paper in 2069? Will someone like Scott Tracey write a list on a piece of paper in 2069, or did the writers create an unintentional anachronism?

Let's think that through. And yes. My favorite Thunderbird is still Thunderbird 2.

Will there be wood?

While paper can actually be produced from many materials, the most common raw material for paper is wood. So in considering whether paper will exist in 2069, we must first ask if wood will.

Short answer: wood had better exist in 2069. We'll still need it.

Wood is an amazingly valuable commodity. We use it to build houses, for flooring, for furniture for utensils, and even for sports equipment. For millennia, humans also used wood as our primary fuel. Burning wood kept peasants and kings warm since the very first pre-human caveman controlled a spark, somewhere in lower to mid-Pleistocene era, about 1.7 million years ago.

Plywood, a form of cross-layered, laminated wood product, is an astonishingly versatile and capable material. Based on relative weight, plywood is actually stronger than steel in terms of static bending strength.

Wood is also a renewable resource. Because it's both so versatile and also so renewable, it's been one of mankind's most reliable natural allies since well before homo sapiens became the dominant humanoid species on Earth.

Assuming we don't destroy our biosphere, and all the forests along with it, wood will undoubtedly be a material that exists in 2069. Here's an interesting thought experiment, which you're welcome to discuss in the comments: if we had to live without either wood or fossil fuels, which would you choose?

My answer is oil. Civilization could survive without fossil-derived petroleum. Yes, we'd lose the Internet, plastics, muscle cars, air conditioning, and many of our modern conveniences. But there's a finite supply of fossil remains in the Earth. At some point, we'll run out.

On the other hand, wood has been a tool that can be crafted, tamed, and managed by individuals, can be grown and regrown, and, assuming we don't completely pave the planet, will be here forever.

Besides, we can breathe without oil. Technically, it could be argued we could breathe better without oil. But without trees, the carbon dioxide/oxygen cycle wouldn't function. That would be bad. It's very hard to sustain respiration without oxygen.

Assuming we don't destroy our planet and kill all the trees in the next 40 years, we can establish with reasonable confidence that the key raw material for the production of paper will be available. That resolves the supply chain element of our question. The production of paper will be possible in 2069.

The future of books

My next question: Will there be a market for paper that would justify paper production? Oddly enough, it's a look at that allows us to answer both no and yes to that question.

It's been half a decade since e-books first outsold hardbound books. E-books, and the Kindle in particular, have continued to see substantial growth. I haven't bought a print book in at least four years. I read all my books in Kindle format, usually on my phone. My wife and I have also systematically scanned thousands more books into PDF format, so we can read them on tablets. The space savings derived from moving books from physical storage to digital storage more than makes up for the effort we've made digitizing our physical library.

The same is true of our paper records. We've been scanning in our paper records for years. Each of us has a high-speed ScanSnap on our desk, so when a new document comes in, it's almost immediately converted to digital form.

There will, undoubtedly, be a small, boutique market for printed books. However, the cost of production is comparatively high. The shipping and storage logistics complicate that even more, so most publishers are turning to digital for book production. The main barrier, from publishers' perspectives, is the control that cedes to Amazon and, to a lesser extent, other distributors like Apple and Barnes and Noble.

Kindle is largely driving this uptake, which is why I mentioned that Amazon has had a huge influence. Amazon also has a huge influence on another paper product: cardboard boxes.

Changes in retail

As traditional brick-and-mortar retail continues to crater, consumers still need their goods. Many of us who are Prime members turn, by default, to Amazon for most of the goods we might have previously bought locally. While many products sold in stores were packaged in paper products, not all were. On the other hand, almost everything sent out by Amazon has to be delivered in a box. A paper-based box.

Ipso facto, there will be a market for paper-based products, if only for the never-ending production of cardboard boxes.

Newspapers and periodicals

Two other traditionally paper-based businesses have been moving online as well: newspapers and periodicals. IDG, for example, shuttered the print editions of Computerworld, CIO, InfoWorld, and others. They now exist only online. Print editions of newspapers have been in trouble since classifieds started moving to Craig's List, circulation decreased, causing display advertising revenue to plummet.

That said, neither print magazines or newspapers are dead. In fact, a study on MediaFinder reports that more print-based magazines are starting up than closing down. Given the costs involved in print, I'm guessing that only a few of these will survive. But even if the entire magazine industry is fueled by well-worn issues living in doctors' offices, there is still enough of a market for paper-based magazines for the industry to hang in there on life support.

An article in Columbia Journalism Review makes an interesting case: they claim print newspapers may be on the comeback trail. Not all buyers prefer doing their reading in digital form. Then there's the entire birdcage industry, which is completely reliant on newspapers.

I may joke, but the fact is, paper has some characteristics for reading that still have validity. I can read a newspaper or a magazine, in my backyard, in the Florida sun. I don't, because I'm a programmer. Being outside in the sun makes me burst into flame. But I could, if I wanted. On the other hand, it's impossible to read my iPhone screen in the sun.

From a business perspective, display ads in print bring in more money, column inch to column inch, than the Web ever will. Sure, ad revenue is dropping in print, but a print ad is more expensive than a virtual one. Plus, there's still nothing in the digital world that can beat the predictable impact of a full page ad in a newspaper or magazine.

Although a viral YouTube video can occasionally beat the impact of a large print ad by millions of views, that viralosity is not predictable. Many YouTube practitioners have developed techniques for increasing the reach of their videos, but the actual impact is based on the mercurial interest of viewers. By contrast, an ad can be purchased for a specific, tangible, and guaranteed audience. Even with the dwindling readerships for newspapers, that still has value.

Show me the money

And then, there's cash.

I'll tell you a secret. Until October 2016, I was convinced paper money was on its last legs. With the rise of credit cards, wireless transfers, online shopping, ApplePay and similar transaction systems, and even Bitcoin, cash seemed an anachronism. Then, one evening, I wanted to buy a sandwich.

It was a few days after Hurricane Matthew had passed by Central Florida. Power was on in some areas, but not others. I was in town, trying to find some more batteries to keep the fans going, and I passed a Subway that was open. I was way hungry. I pulled in and parked, which was a challenge in itself. Because very little else was open, the lot was packed.

I went inside and stood in line for 40 minutes. The person in front of me was turned away. All she had was plastic. The store's card processing connection wasn't working, so they couldn't process credit cards. I, too, had only plastic. I left, hungry and cranky, but with a new appreciation for cash.

It's not just nearly post apocalyptic conditions that will keep cash alive. Cash is generally anonymous. It is more secure from hacking than most anything else. It's sometimes comforting. And, as the BBC reported, it's reliable. I found that out during my hungry Hurricane experience.

I have little doubt cash will be with us in 2069. Yes, it will cost $44.50 for a Venti Mango Pineapple Frappuccino, but cash will still be around.

The future of paper

As the great American philosopher Beavis once said, "TP for my bunghole."

Paper will also be prevalent for note taking, scrapbooking, crafts, wall decor, and even the ubiquitous sticky note. No matter how efficient a smartphone is, the three or four taps to get to a note app doesn't beat the instant visibility of 30 yellow notes plastered all over your desk.

Now, there's a question: Will we still have desks in 2069? As my Magic 8 Ball says, "Reply hazy try again." On the other hand, Magic 8 Ball agrees with me. When it comes to paper, it is certain, it is decidedly so, without a doubt, yes definitely, you may rely on it, as I see it yes, and signs point to yes.

Unless, of course, Kim Jong Un decides to start World War III and nuke the planet back to the Stone Age. Come to think of it, if that happens, we'll need trees and paper even more.

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