The Tablet vs Paper

Paper stimulates the brain while tablets put your neurons asleep

Written by Gunter Pauli
January 4, 2023

Article of 2,300 words

As author of 25 books and 365 fables I have a keen interest in understanding how to best reach my audience. More, how to succeed that my readers remember what I wrote, even how could I influence their thoughts and actions. My first books were published in 1987. These were of course printed editions.
Though, all my books were created on computers thanks to the foresight of my mother who taught me how to use all ten fingers to rattle the content down at a rate of 60-80 words a minute. I enjoyed the arrival of the little MacIntosh in 1984 and a year later I discovered the marvels of desk top publishing (DTP) with this high quality Apple LaserWriter.

From Printing Books to Instant Publishing
The arrival of self-publishing – still on paper – with the capacity to write a book and put it into a print ready format in a matter of days was a revolution that inspired me to start a new business: instant publishing. In that same year 1985 I partnered with Roularta, the Belgian media group to create Roularta Books. We zeroed in on highly popular news items, like how to make use of the loopholes in the new tax law and details of the take over bid of Carlo de Benedetti, the Italian tycoon who tried to take control of the Societé Générale, the largest Belgian holding group.

It took only 2 weeks to write, typeset and lay-out a book that was quickly made available through mass distribution. Our start-up Roularta Books sold 100,000 copies per book through supermarkets and newspaper stands, a record at the time. We soon built a team capable of writing, translating, publishing and distribution a book simultaneously in 10 languages across Europe. We did this the first time in 1986 for the “State of the World” book by Lester Brown which in combination with the American edition surpassed 250,000 copies. Granted, instant publishing is like instant coffee: it has the caffeine but if you want a great morning drink you better take time to brew a better one.

The Financial Press Goes Digital
The ongoing digitization of the media revolutionized the press. As the Secretary General of UPEFE, the French acronym of the association of the financial and economic media in Europe, I had the privilege to be at the forefront of this digital transition with Les Echos and La Tribune (France), Actualidad Economic with Expansión (Spain), Handelsblatt and Wirtschaftswoche (Germany), Il Sole 24 Ore (Italy), Vida Economica (Portugal) and Dagens Industri (Sweden), just to name a few.

Since 1988, this network of 52 financial media groups created a consortium that processed digitally all information on the largest companies of each European country, and subsequently combined this data into the ranking of Europe’s leading companies. Then, we delivered a print ready edition of the combined European enterprises for adaptation to a local audience. The digital world was making fast inroads and changed the way information was processed. This generated a common European advertising platform that outperformed the world’s dominant corporate ranking known as “The Fortune 500” in number of copies, readers and revenues.

Innovations in Print Waste Management
However, while we were processing information digitally, we were still using print to communicate. The floppy disks with the same corporate information just did not appeal to the market as did the printed edition. This changed with the arrival of Kindle Books in 2007, and soon after the iPad and tablets. Since I had started to publish my fables, first in Colombia with the United Nations, then in Germany at the World Expo 2000 in Hanover, with the City of Curitiba in Brazil in 2001, and finally with the Chinese Government, there was an increasing interest to access my illustrated fables in digital format.

At first I resisted. As an avid reader of comic strips like TinTin, I could not imagine reading illustrated stories on a flat screen. I felt the need for tactile contact with paper and an eye contact with color print. How could I enjoy reading grey shades? More, it seemed that I would not grasp the content as easy with as much detail if the reading were made available on a light controlled screen.

However, I sensed the need to innovate and recognized that the cost of paper, not only in monetary terms but also in environmental terms, urged me to think beyond the traditional options. One solution was to redesign the fables in the format of strips and use the cut-offs of the printing presses to create folded stories. My first fable “The Strongest Tree” was translated in 26 languages and printed on such cut-offs at the fraction of the cost of a printed booklet. My stories were available for less than one cent per copy, using the waste paper from the annual report of the Deutsche Bank resulting in a marginal cost of only €10,000 for a million copies. Since paper and ink was for free, the only cost was the folding of this paper strip into an easy to read doubled book barely the size of a child’s hand.
Students learn English without being taught
The City of Curitiba offered in 2001 a unique platform to share the fables. After the decision by Casio Taniguchi, the then Mayor, the Teachers’ Union approved the introduction of my fables as a tool to bring nature, sustainability and science to all children. This required the training of 6,000 teachers and offered a chance to reach 120,000 children with 11 fables translated into Portuguese. We needed 1.4 million copies. A traditional printing job would have broken the City’s education budget.
Inspired by the German example of the year 2000, the folded fables published in English and Portuguese were printed on paper cut offs from the Banco do Brasil’s annual report. This exposure permitted me to finetune the pedagogy and observe that after three years, the children – even from the shanty towns – mastered several hundred words of English – simply by letting their eyes roll over the text. This was the first hint that the printed version was more than a chance to make hands-on reading of Gunter’s Fables available at low cost. This offered an extra value over the printed version, since a digital one which was financially not viable in Brazil

How learning by reading print outperforms digital
Then, the Chinese Government invited me to embark on the greatest fable project ever. When after three years of testing 36 fables in a few hundred schools in Wuxi, the Chinese Society for the Promotion of Science and Technology with the support of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment decided that the fables should be made available to the 5,000 Green Schools with an average of 2,000 children per school. The digital option seemed to be the smart decision forward. The sheer volume of 10 million hard copies seemed to make this project too big in numbers. The Chinese Environmental Education and Communication unit of the Ministry took on the challenge to translate the fables, provide training to the teachers, organize model classes, print and distribute the copies.

After three years of working with the fables (from number 1 to 108) with the aim for children to learn science, to understand emotions, to master arts, to develop logic and to build a new generation of entrepreneurs for the common good, the question finally arose if the digital version would be at par in learning with the printed version. So, the fourth and the fifth series of fables (from number 109 to 180) were made selectively available to schools both in print and tablet format. The Academy and the Ministry jointly studied the uptake of the content, the follow-up in the studies, the capacity to pursue logic, and most important, the motivation to pass on to action. The results were astonishing: children reading from a hard copy outperformed the youngsters working with digital versions on tablets.

The shift from reading in 2D to reading in 3D
The key question that the pedagogues asked was “why”? A broad series of debates followed and the arguments were very conclusive: a tablet mobilizes 1,000 times less neurons than the printed books.
“How come?” is the obvious follow-up question. The scientists, especially the experts in neuroscience were convincing in their arguments. When one reads on a tablet, one reads off a screen, with a controlled light. This makes the reading easier by looking at the text and the illustrations in just two dimensions. This clearly reduces the need to activate the brain. More, the infrared controls check permanently the light conditions and continuously adapt the brightness of the screen to maintain a comparable surface intensity further facilitating an easy read. Is this good?

The immunologists from the Academy added to the debate arguing that the immune system needs to challenged. If a child is completely protected from viruses or bacteria, then the body would not know how to defend itself when a viral attack is imminent. The sports’ teachers joined the debate and pointed out that muscles that are not used regularly loose their vigor and even their mass. Regular exercise is required to keep fit and healthy. The same logic should apply to brain activity: a more intensive use of neurons would also secure more vivid learning. According to leading brain experts like Rodolfo Llinas, Professor at the Medical School of New York University deliberate activation of brain cells could even stimulate the creation of neurons, and increase their interactions.
Holding a printed page never provides a flat surface. The curbing of the paper-based text and the illustrations with changing light conditions force the brain to activate more neurons. The eyes skating over the text continuously force the brain to respond to the different angles of reading, which creates different shapes of each letter, the different colors of the illustration, and the different light intensities. It is a given fact that a shift from a perception of 2D on a flat screen to 3D of a book requires one thousand times more “pixels”, thus activating more neurons. This implies that reading print contributes to a super activation of the brain.

The digital Guardian vs the printed Financial Times
While I had started to read more and more news on digital screens, I decided to test this Chinese experience based on the distribution of my fables with myself. The results were not surprising: whenever I read The Guardian on my phone, the content would be ephemeral. Whenever I read The Financial Times, especially the opinion pieces, on the distinctive salmon colored paper, the content and the arguments would linger with me for much longer.
While this personal experience is only an anecdote in the overall research on the impact of digital versus printed reading, the science behind the observations with millions of children led to the bold decision by the Chinese Government: children between the age of 3 to 15 will read Gunter’s Fables in all 795,000 Chinese schools in printed format only.

It is an amazing privilege for a foreign author to have a small “Gunter’s Fables Library” in each school with at least three series of 365 fables in English and in Chinese. The start of my fable writing was in 1999 a humble few fables in Medellin, Colombia sponsored by the local Rotary Club. Now I reached millions of children with a positive view of the world, discovering nature and turning every child into a little entrepreneur for the common good.
To my surprise, in 2019 I was voted one of the Ten Best Science Teachers of China, and I do not even speak Chinese. When I challenged the Government officials on this improbable result, they argued that the online voting was coordinated by Alibaba. There was no way anyone could have guided the public at large towards one or the other teacher. Rather, the Government saw in my popularity an additional proof that learning and remembering from print outperforms any digital version of the same content.

Policy Advise : Smart Kids need to read Printed Books
Children are born with an incredible innate capability to learn. Everyone has the right and the capacity to be intelligent. Today, all policy makers sense the urge to create a computer literate generation. Therefore, it is common to make children work with tablets and computers. However, this new understanding of the importance of reading print versus digital should urge policy makers to be less focused on digital, and secure more reading of print. Print activates and perhaps even produces neurons, maybe a thousand times more. This subsequently stimulates the brain and renders us more alert, perhaps even more joyful.

The fact is that our eyes are made for a perception of reality in a 3D format. Forcing the brain to absorb knowledge in 2D simply turns it lazy. That is not what we expect from an enhanced learning environment. Be reminded, the attention span of children we want for learning competes with videogames and TikTok. This observation most likely does not only apply to children in their forming years, this also applies to adults who desperately need to stimulate their brain. Too many amongst us have become muttons, following polarized information, increasingly living in fear. There is a lot of room to maintain an independent mind with the formation of opinions and a lifetime learning, preconditions for a resilient democracy. The conclusion is that we all should return to the habit of reading a book regularly, glancing through newspapers and magazines daily. Reading print may one day be celebrated as one of the best tools to boost logic with mindfulness and to avert forgetfulness with indifference. I am returning each day to my favorite newspaper stand in town and get a few newspaper copies. My brain feels challenged.

About the author

Gunter Pauli is an entrepreneur, and since over a decade chairman of Novamont, the European leader in bioplastics. He translates innovation in science and business into fables. In 2019, he was elected one of the ten best science teachers in China.

For more information

Photographs are available on request