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Pursuing the paperless office

The paperless office idea is a sign of the tattered edge between technology and culture. Pursuits hed: Pursuing the paperless office dek: the paperless office idea is a sign of the tattered edge between technology and culture. by Nelson King

Don’t you dare make a copy of this page. Don’t you know that we’ve been planning to have a paperless office–if not a paperless world–for more than a decade? People have said this is a barometer of civilization; that we will spare our forests by becoming accustomed to digital visualization. I think they mean that in the future we’ll read the morning paper on a computer screen at the kitchen table. Imagine, if you will, what this would be like.

“Pass me the viewer, I need to see the want ads, dear.”

“Is your own screen broken, dear?”

“Yes, Billy spilled his TofooFlakes on it yesterday.”

“Well, you’ll just have to wait until I’ve finished with the CryoColumn. I think Aunt Harriet has finally done it and had herself flash frozen.”

Ah, yes: the ineffable difference between physical and logical reality. With computer monitors we talk about split screens, but you can’t hand it across the table like the sports section. Most computer monitors are solo-user devices, and as anyone who has stood behind a user while squinting at the screen knows, monitors are hard to share. Obviously there are some qualitative differences between information on paper and on screen, despite the arguments in favor of ditching paper for the digital alternative.

This is not the first column in which I’ve had the urge to deal with the topic of the paperless office. Only yesterday, a colleague of mine watched glumly as a tower of piled magazines slumped onto his computer and suffocated his mouse. He muttered, “So much for the paperless office.” As we plow forward into a world of mind-boggling and potentially earth-shattering technologies, it’s good to be reminded that the cutting edge isn’t always clean. The paperless office idea is a sign of the tattered edge between technology and culture.

Everybody knows that despite the advent of electronic documents, Web pages, e-mail and other appurtenances of communicating in the digital era, we still use a lot of paper. And how much paper is that? Hewlett-Packard, one company that hit it big with printers, estimates that during 2001 in North America alone we will spit, spew, and trundle out 1.2 trillion sheets of printer paper. This doesn’t count paper coming from fax machines, photocopiers, and other devices-another trillion sheets, no doubt.

Are we obsessed with paper? There is an aesthetic to it. Some paper looks good. There’s also a certain sensuousness; some paper has a pleasant texture or even smells good. Fess up, have you never held a piece of parchment and carefully felt its texture? This doesn’t mean we have emotional attachment to paper. Perhaps some people have a fondness for it. Mostly though, it’s far too ubiquitous. We take it for granted. In fact, most of it is rubbish, eventually, thus adding to our problems.

I know we’re comfortable with paper as a medium for transmitting information. It’s light, flexible, relatively durable, inexpensive, and allows for a great deal of variation in how the information is presented. We like that. Surveys indicate that people retain information on printed matter 30 percent better than on-screen information. That’s probably because we’re accustomed to the layouts of printed information, we scan it more efficiently; but it could also be a result of better layout. Most screen documents and Web pages are too small and too cluttered to provide comfortable and quick reading.

Recognizing the optical and visual shortcomings of current display devices (TV, computer monitors), there’s plenty of work being done to make improvements. A lot of them involve making the display more paper–like: flat, light, and portable. Characters in the movie “Red Planet” use a screen device that unfolds like a thick map or scroll. This technology isn’t too far off; several manufacturers are working on similar technology. If and when I can take such a display into the bathroom, I’ll probably be satisfied.

From the figures I’ve seen, it seems like the printer industry is driving the fantastic increase in the use of paper. Like two-car garages and a television in every room, the concept of a printer on every desk seems to have taken hold. For one thing, printers have become relatively inexpensive. Very good printers cost between $100 and $200, which puts them well in the range of discretionary income, even for corporations. Printers also are fairly durable and make good hand-me-downs. The boss gets the big honkin’ color laser printer (which she needs like a new Gucci purse). The secretary gets the boss’s big honkin’ black-and-white laser printer. The office assistant gets the secretary’s inkjet printer. The intern gets the dot-matrix printer. Naturally, all these printers need paper, and because they’re so convenient, people print most everything.

We’re also not lacking for innovative ways to use more paper for computers. A fine example is the burgeoning print-your-own-photos movement. For most of the history of photography, the vast majority of people have had their photographs developed and printed (on paper stock) by somebody else. The great yellow father (Kodak) made a huge chunk of its profits by doing just that. But now we’re entering the age of digital photography, with digital cameras becoming common, of good quality, and relatively inexpensive. Because digital cameras are designed with links into a computer, and the computer can easily run software that lets you manipulate the photos, it’s quite natural that people would also want to be able to print their photos.

They can, they are, and they will by the millions. Anything from 2-by-2 to 8-by-10 photo sizes are now printed by millions of people. In the past two or three years, a whole category of printers has appeared that specializes in printing photographs. You can just imagine the glee of the paper industry. Not only is this a new market but also one that will increasingly use more sophisticated and specialized (and expensive) papers. Of course, the commercial photo-printing business will decline (and with it, the use of paper) but I don’t doubt that the average person printing photos wastes much more paper than a commercial photo developer does.

Printing digital photos should be something of an oxymoron, but it’s not. We’ve traditionally shared our photographs by means of pasting them on a piece of paper. This is both convenient and effective. If I own an art gallery, will I want to install 50 to 100 computer monitors to display somebody’s photos, or would a $5 print on a simple frame suffice? However, what if I own a gallery that specializes in photography, and the show changes every week? With a different cost perspective, maybe computer monitors become more viable. For similar reasons, people are finding that posting their photographs on a personal Web site or sending them via e-mail is a good way of distributing them.

At issue is the validity of paper as an appropriate medium of information transfer. How many people have shopped the Internet, located a product and possibly a store, printed the information about it, and then gone to the store to purchase the item, clutching the printout of information as a guide? I do this regularly, even though I could transfer the information to my PDA. Why? Printing is easier–essentially one push of a button. When I get to the store, all I need to do is pull the folded sheet from my pocket. The electronic version would require capturing the information from the Web page into a file (with images, this isn’t always so simple), then transferring the file to the PDA. When I get to the store I have to fire up the PDA, search for the file, display it and then navigate around a screen that doesn’t hold the whole Web page. In this case, unfolding the paper is easier, because essentially I have only one piece of information to deal with-I don’t need a whole database system to retrieve it.

What I’m arguing is that this issue of the paperless office isn’t really a matter of old technology versus new. The delivery methods for content are simply different. One or the other is more appropriate, under certain circumstances. In short, it’s a false issue. There will be no paperless office until the circumstances are such that paper no longer fulfills certain roles better than a digitized version. That day may be a while in coming, if ever. Let’s put it this way: Given the recent history of the dot-coms and NASDAQ, if you had to buy some stock, would you choose tech companies or paper mills?

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