Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Death of paper has been greatly exaggerated

August 11, 2012

When I was a kid, eager futurists predicted what wonderful technologies we’d all have someday.

In an era when we were still transitioning from vacuum tubes to transistors (never mind integrated circuits), almost any cockamamie forecast seemed plausible. Nuclear power was a fad then, and we were supposed to get such handy devices as nuclear-powered lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners within a few years.

Arthur Summerfield, the postmaster general in 1959, supposedly predicted rocket mail that would supplant the slower airmail. As NASA cranked up its operations and began a vigorous PR initiative, we began to ponder a possible future of ingesting pills for meals instead of steak and potatoes.

Jet packs promised to free us from the drudgery of walking to the store. And of course, a favorite prediction was the flying car. It’s still an Internet meme to shout in print, “I want my flying car!”

For businessfolk, the worst prediction had to be the paperless office, a prognostication that dates back to 1975. Every time a new technology emerged and plunked itself down on our desks, it was hailed as yet another step toward that most elusive of nirvanas.

The arrival of the desktop computer seemed like the perfect way to reach that goal. But along with computers came printers, and rather than reducing paper usage, the computer actually worsened it. As printers got smaller, they became more numerous, and the use of paper soared.

E-mail was supposed to throttle paper costs, too. But it hasn’t. In “The Myth of the Paperless Office,” Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper mention that the use of e-mail increases paper consumption 40 percent. They argue that paper is a convenient and pleasant way of toting information around.

I have to agree. I dislike reading documents from a screen, and I often print out materials so I can read them by flipping the printed pages. It’s not just that screens have lower resolutions, although that’s indeed bothersome for me. It’s that I actually enjoy being able to control my reading material by folding, underlining and leaving coffee stains on it.

If you see someone perusing a stapled stack of papers in the corner, he has to be reading them, or at least faking it. If you see someone staring at a mobile device, he could be reading, or he could just be playing Angry Birds. Paper makes you look informed and engaged, even if you’re not.

But most business paper isn’t meant to be read through while you wait for a latte; it’s meant to be stored, such as contracts, legal papers, human resources data, financial records, and the like. It’s intended for lookup, not learning. Electronic records have made huge inroads into the physical storage business, but have a very long way to go to stamp it out. Why?

Part of the reason is that electronic storage isn’t all it was promised to be. Retrieval is a constant problem. The number one complaint about electronic storage is that, “I can’t find what I’m looking for.” The same is often true of paper storage, too, but at least you can look busy whipping through file cabinets scrambling to find those records.

Another part of the problem is that humans tend not to trust what they can’t touch. Paper is reassuringly tangible. If it’s torn, burned or lost, you can generally tell right away. Not so with electronic records, which can become corrupted years before the disaster is discovered.

While paper companies needn’t break into a cold sweat just yet, it should be noted that paper use is finally declining. Some of this is probably due to the recent recession. When the business river becomes sluggish, so do sales of office supplies.

But some observers have said it might also be due to a changing of the guard—we older fans of paper giving way to a younger set more comfortable with reading things on a Kindle or iPad instead of from a manila folder.

Much of it is also undoubtedly cost. Storing paper documents isn’t getting any cheaper, but storing them electronically is. An entire filing cabinet can now be collapsed into one flash drive that runs about the same money as a stapler.

An entire office’s records for the year can be crammed into one external USB drive that might set you back a couple of hundred dollars, and by swapping them out you can store divisions’ worth of paperwork. Compressing the data saves even more space. Existing paper can be scanned, and there are services that will do it for you in bulk. New documents can go right into PDF form, which is itself compressed.

I agree with the experts who say office paper isn’t going away, but it can be turned into a rarity. As with so many things, it’s a mixed blessing.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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