Photo Credit: Natalia Osiatynska

Revolutions in Paper

By Jo Guldi | February 13, 2012

Revolutions in bureaucracy and the limitation of political participation has, in modern history, frequently been a reflection of the number of pages of paper which experts produce, a social and political clout, with which to disarm and outrank their political opponents. In debates where peasants with oral traditions are faced down by civil engineers with reams of paper, the civil engineers always win. Paper had been an instrument of overwhelm.

Not everyone always thought so, and that’s one of the reasons for the proliferation of paper in the twentieth century, when many administrators looked to mere quantity of paper as an exercise in opening government. So thought Patrick Geddes, one of the founders of modern urban planning. In one of his last articles in the 1940s he boasted about his contributions to town planning by referring to the hundreds of pages of documentation created by each town meeting. Surely, he reasoned, such a proliferation of paper would open up the reasoning of previously closed sessions to outsiders of different backgrounds or experience.

But in the 1950s and 1960s as the rise of NGOs came to ring conversations about urban planning and international development with coordinated institutions, all of them creating more paper, even the process of finding one’s way to the beginning of an argument became a labor reserved for the few and privileged. Introductory texts to these problems increasingly included an organizational flow-chart, a diagram borrowed from business texts, which served as a map to tell would-be activists where, in the vast continent of NGOs, banks, and government organizations, they entered the conversation.

Paper had been looked to as a tool for broadening the conversation, and it worked, bringing in multiple interests and creating unlimited flows of information. Did it work too well? Was so much paper produced as to make participation by nonelites in the developing world and the wrong side of town nearly impossible, thanks to the disproportionate time of education and reading required to sort through so much paper? That is a historical question, and it can be answered by solving a quantitative question in the stacks: How much paper was produced and by whom?

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