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Paper at Its Peak: The Myth of the Myth of the Paperless Office
2007, Q1 (July 12, 2007)
by Ronald W. Garrison, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

Ron Garrison
Ron Garrison

There’s been a little bit of printer’s ink in my veins ever since my sixth-grade class visited the local newspaper, where I marveled at what went into producing such a complex product every day. And anyone who writes for a living can, like me, describe a long love-hate relationship with paper as the conveyer of the written word. There’s something physically appealing about putting pen to paper, as there is about picking up and reading a well-produced bound document.

But this medium that is as old as, well, recorded history may, like fossil fuels, CRTs, and beautiful gatefold LP record sleeves, have to eventually make way for its replacement. Paper presents difficulties that are increasingly intractable as the amount of information we use grows. We all know this. Yet recently a chorus of voices has emerged, saying that the “paperless office,” a development widely predicted in the 1970s, is a myth. Now, we are increasingly told that such a vision, like nuclear fusion reactors, machine language translation, and a cure for cancer, is a mirage, forever receding into the future, unlikely to arrive in our lifetimes. To some, the paperless office has even become a metaphor for any technology that is promoted as desirable because it is more sophisticated, rather than because of any genuine usefulness.

In my view such a conclusion is, to say the least, premature. Indeed, from one vantage point, we are already 99.997% paperless. The “How Much Information” study, to which I referred in a previous article, concluded that, of somewhere between one and two exabytes (1018) of information produced globally in a year, “printed documentation of all kinds comprises only .003% (sic) of the total.” This means that, whatever difficulties there are in dealing with the other 99.997% of that information, they cannot be solved by paper. If we cling to paper to avoid those problems, we leave unanswered the question of what to do with almost all of the information we generate.

Aside from paper’s inability to deal with the sheer volume of information flow in today’s world, it exhibits other serious limitations, as we all know. It is not readily searchable; important items are easy to misplace; it is difficult and expensive to duplicate in the quantities often needed, making the information on it vulnerable to disasters; and, of course, despite our much-cited ability to carry around books and other documents and read them almost anywhere, the lack of portability of large collections of paper is possibly the most serious problem of all. And for the part of the population without sight, printed pages cannot automatically be turned into speech.

We all know these things. Yet the adoption of new information technologies seems to lead to even larger amounts of printed material. The problem seems especially acute for the circulation of paper documents involved in day-to-day business, as distinguished from longer-term information storage. Mailed documents give way to faxes, and fax is gradually replaced with e-mail, only to result in e-mails being printed for permanent filing. Web sites replace printed catalogs, and MapQuest searches substitute for foldout maps, leading to more printing of information as it is accessed. Old habits die hard.

Printed documents are often generated out of fear of losing electronic information. This is not entirely an irrational fear. The same “How Much Information” report to which I once again referred also said that “magnetic storage is by far the largest medium for storing information, and is the most rapidly growing, with shipped hard drive capacity doubling every year. Magnetic storage is rapidly becoming the universal medium for information storage.” I know I’ve already discussed data media longevity in a previous article, but a sentence like that one, alluding to our reliance on tiny, evanescent magnetic domains for storage, should give us all a creeping sensation of fear. Even beyond issues associated with the physical media, it is all too easy to think you have read information accurately, because the operating system gave you no indication of errors, when in fact there was an error. It’s also easy to think you have backed up data correctly, when in fact you have not, and you have not confirmed that the data can be correctly restored. These are insidious problems that regularly arise to take a bite out of even the experts. So why should the wider population of non-experts feel secure?

They can’t. But they need to develop a solid basis for a sense of security because digital technology, while presenting a whole set of serious but solvable problems, is the only way to avoid the growing problems of reliance on paper. Even the best acid-free paper eventually degrades, bringing to a grim end whatever was impressed on it; it is combustible, edible, and sometimes even soluble; and it cannot easily be duplicated and spread to off-site locations. In the digital realm, many passwords are easily cracked, but ultimately passwords, encryption and other measures offer a real chance for much more security than locks, cameras and guards can ever provide.

Since the transition to paperless techniques is not avoidable, how is it going? Statistics seem hard to come by, and those that we do have seem inconclusive at this point. More than one source I saw referred to a 7% annual growth rate in printed paper, but Matt Bradley (“What ever happened to the paperless office?” Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 2005) said that the rate of growth in usage of plain white paper, which had been about 6 to 7 per cent for many years, had been slipping, and was expected to be under 4 per cent from 2004 to 2005. He refers to the metaphor of the “paper piñata,” used by Paul Saffo (a technological forecaster at the Institute for the Future (Palo Alto CA)), in which a thin paper wrapping surrounds a digital core that is growing more rapidly.

Saffo’s point seems to be that a growing “core” technology will, for a time but only for a time, cause older associated systems to grow as well. So just as a sphere growing in volume will grow its surface area, but more slowly, so the Internet can result in more printing for a time, just as videoconferencing can temporarily lead to more business travel. This does not indicate a failure of the new techniques to live up to their promise, but rather an enabling of more overall activity, with consequent growth in the use of both older and newer components of the system.

Clearly, the inside of the piñata is growing rapidly. Can anything shrink its skin, leading to a decline in the absolute amount of paper use? As always, this will involve the continuing development of technology, and its integration into our working habits. We should keep in mind just how recently computers have achieved any kind of real portability, and how short a time we have enjoyed cheap, convenient mass storage. Improved displays, which have been slow in coming are a critical part of any true alternative to printed documents. But such developments are occurring, and developments in multiple critical areas proceed in parallel. We may see attractive paths to real paperless offices before most of us can even imagine them in detail. In the meantime, we can expect the Internet to reduce reliance on paper documents for reference purposes, and can anticipate that better typography and easier duplex printing will shrink documents by modest but important amounts.

In view of everything now known, from my perspective it appears that the current difficulty in the transition to a world of low and declining use of printed paper does not result from any critical and unsolved problems, and certainly not from lack of a need commensurate with the proposed solution. Rather, it arises from the truly huge and complex nature of this undertaking, the need for many millions of participants to incorporate the new systems into their working methods, and the incomplete development of key technologies involved. There is a familiar pattern here, seen with other new developments such as the Internet: initial excitement, followed by disappointment and occasional reconsideration, then gradually by continued refinement, familiarization, and eventual acceptance. Nuclear fusion, computer translation, and cancer cures are still far from being future visions that belong to the past. Those long-deferred dreams may only be delayed. And like them, the twilight of the printed page may arrive, a bit late but no less welcome.

Ron can be reached at rgarrison1 at nc dot rr dot com. End of article.

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