Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Myth Of "The Myth of the Paperless Office"

Will the office become paperless?  Yes!  In some areas it already is.

This review was inspired by an article posted in Wired Magazine by Clive Thompson, titled, The Myth Of The Paperless Office.  The article made fun of the idea first mentioned in popular circles in the 1980s that paper would be eliminated in the office of the future.  The reviewer used as the basis of his article the 2002 book with the same title by two researchers Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper.

We provide for you a short video presenting the authors.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: http://youtu.be/X8ioIkB-VCE.

Here is another video (http://youtu.be/AUKffAcyukw).

The authors of the book lay out for us the way they see paper being used in the average office.
There is the collaborative process: when one of us finishes some work on a chapter, we print it out and hand it to the other. We read it, mark it up, and then discuss it by flipping through the marked-up pages together. There is the proofreading process: we print out the final version of each chapter to catch the surface-level errors (typos, spelling, and grammar) and, more important, to get a sense of the text and the way it flows. Finally, there is the importance of paper as a tangible object. Ultimately, we want a bound volume in hand-a physical product that testifies to our efforts and that we can hand to family, friends, and colleagues.
The authors ask the critical question, which they first ask themselves, being in a very technologically advanced environment. 
...why, when we have all the latest technology to allow us to work in the digital world, do we depend on paper so heavily? Indeed, why are most workplaces so dependent on paper? It seems that the promised "paperless office" is as much a mythical ideal today as it was thirty years ago.
The History Of The Paperless Office Concept
The authors begin with one of Edison's idea for his phonograph,
...Edison suggested that one of the things that could be done was that managers, instead of dictating to secretaries, could dictate to the device. The cylinder with their words embossed on it could then be sent to colleagues, who would play back the message. They, in turn, could reply by recording their own voices over the first recording. In this way, Edison suggested, there would no longer be paper messages and letters (nor, one might add, a need for secretaries). Hence, this would mark the beginnings of a paperless office.
Vannevar Bush is next when he wrote a now famous and often-quoted article in 1945 titled, As We May Thinkwhere he spoke about the "memex."  This memex device was described by Bush in his futuristic article.
A memex is a device in which an individual stores his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. It consists of a desk, and while it can be presumably operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.
After this, the Xerox PARC research system was formulated by the press (not by its creators) as providing the end of paper in the office.  All of these efforts have failed to replace paper in the office.

On Demand Printing
Clive Thompson made much of this technology.  We agree that it will be around for a very long time.  We also think that it will eventually be doable in people's homes.  But it will be a novelty.  We firmly believe, like Marshal McLuhan, that books are not longer the main way people learn.  A short video is provided to explain how this technology works, specifically The Espresso Book Machine.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link: http://youtu.be/Q946sfGLxm4.

The Real Reality of Paper Consumption
Fascinatingly enough, the last year that the authors of this book measured paper consumption it been steadily rising for decades.  But, immediately after the year 2000 the consumption of paper leveled off  and is now decreasing.  The economist sees the paperless office as coming after all.
...the prediction seems to be coming true at last. American office workers’ use of paper has actually been in decline since 2001. What changed? The explanation seems to be sociological rather than technological. A new generation of workers, who have grown up with e-mail, word processing and the internet, feel less of a need to print documents out than their older colleagues did. Offices are still far from paperless, but the trend is clear.
The article goes on to explain (correctly so in our opinion) that some technologies take longer to become reality than expected.  They cite the example of predictions made about the Internet when it first became available.
The prognostications of the dotcom era were shown to be extravagantly wide of the mark when the bubble burst in 2000-01. But many dotcom business models had been predicated on the wide availability of broadband internet connections, which for regulatory reasons spread more slowly than expected. As broadband grew, many predictions made during the boom—about the value of online advertising and the volume of e-commerce, for example—came true after all, albeit a few years late.
Yes this is not a total reversal.  "Millennials" (Generation Y) still use paper, but there is an increasing awareness that paper usage like in the past does not benefit the environment.   There is a huge effort around the world and in the United States to reduce paper usage.  This can be seen affecting things all the way from medical records to
  1. 78% of Milllenials say they cannot imagine their lives without paper.  
  2. 89% say that they doubt they will ever give up paper completely.
  3. 65% say it is easier for them to read things on paper than on a device
  4. 78% prefer paper books
  5. 71% prefer paper magazines
  6. 52% prefer paper newspapers
  7. 87% prefer a paper birthday card rather an email
  8. 55% prefer a handwritten letter rather than an email
  9. The average millennial used 65 sheets of paper per week
  10. As they get older they use paper more
The authors of this book present some excellent reasons why paper cannot be compared to digital information.  They give us 5 reasons information workers why paper is superior to digital technologies.
  1. knowledge workers may draft a document on the computer, but they want to draft it from a paper version printed
  2. knowledge workers like to review, annotate and comment on document that are on paper
  3. knowledge workers like to use paper to sketch and plan a project on paper rather than on a computer
  4. when knowledge workers collaborate they like to have hard copies where they can juxtapose sheets of paper
  5. knowledge workers like to share paper documents not electronic ones
What is so fascinating to us about these conversations is how untrue they are right now, especially to us.  We will confess that when we were younger before there were any ebooks or even computers, we hated the idea of annotating a paper book.  There were several reasons for this.  First, because we realized that these annotations wold be difficult to locate in the future, especially if many were done in many books.  Second, because we feared lending out the book and possibly losing all our thoughts on the book that were leant with it.  Now with such tools as Diigo and Evernote, as well as PDF annotators, Google Docs, these issues are practically eliminated.

There is no doubt that this book does hit on some critical things that for years made ebooks not desirable.  The authors of this book correctly point out how critical the device is to make electronic reading a pleasant and successful experience.  It would not be until Amazon's Kindle device paid attention to these observations that the first successful reading device appeared.  In their studies of how people read, the authors examined different professions from airline pilot to social workers.  These professions were examined under three factors, mobility, location, and collaboration.  The authors also examined different kinds of reading, light reading, etc.

They noted the connection that exists between reading and writing.  To them, reading occurs more with writing than without.  They identified 10 types of reading:
  1. Reading to identify
  2. Skimming
  3. Reading to remind
  4. Reading to search for answers to questions
  5. Reading to self-inform
  6. Reading to learn
  7. Reading for cross-referencing
  8. Reading to edit or critically review text
  9. Reading to support listening
  10. Reading to support discussion
Limitations of Digital Reading Technology
We found this breakdown very useful.  The authors also noted that much reading is done with multiple documents.  This is especially true in academic work.  They state,
...we found that in terms of time spent in different reading activities, only about half of the time did the reading rely on a single display surface (single piece of paper or single computer screen). The other half of the time these readers were using at least two display surfaces concurrently (and sometimes many more than two). They spread out pages side-by-side, over desks, and onto floors. They often used paper next to a computer screen, or sometimes in conjunction with more than one computer screen.
The authors further elaborate when they discuss the need for flexible navigation.
This last mentioned area of multiple documents is still a problem with digital technologies. 
The authors observed,
...that both paper and online readers spent a good deal of time moving or navigating through their documents. In the task we asked them to do, this navigation served at least three important functions: planning, checking facts, and checking understanding.
The book also discussed what was labelled the need to interweave.  This is not the same as annotation within the text.  It has to do with, 
...a different kind of writing, this time not on top of the text being read, but in conjunction with the text being read. We defined note taking in this study as the writing activities that go on either on a separate piece of paper or in a separate electronic document.
This practice differed from annotating the text in that by, 
...using a separate piece of paper helped to restructure and pull information together. As one reader put it, it provided "a pool of text and ideas that I can dip into to write real sentences." But the notes were more than this because they were also in the form of plans or outlines that were enriched and modified during the course of reading. A key feature of this kind of note taking was that it needed to be done without disrupting the main reading task.
This spatial flexibility is that what digital technologies still have not been able to emulate from the pure paper experience.  This no doubt will be solved in time.  Indeed, now it is being done by a strange mixture of a computer screen and paper.  There is a need for a software solution to this.  Of course it is quite possible that the reason humans work in this manner is because of the nature of the medium of paper itself.  Perhaps with the widespread use of digital technologies, this manner of reading and writing will change and adjust itself.

Although this book is now dated due to the changes that the technology itself has brought on society, the age group concerned, the way that the brain adjusts to its environment, and the evolution of the technology itself, there are still very useful points it brings out.  We recommend that it be read from a careful consideration the authors have put into it.

There is no question that eventually paper will be completely replaced. It is already happening on many fronts with dramatic consequences in how humans learn, retain information and present it.  We have not even discussed the amazing success that Amazon has created with the Kindle in shifting the book publishing paradigm.  The point we feel the book misses is that the information age we are in demands access to information at a pace that paper is simply unable to provide.  But if we are past the information age and are in a new age that is so new it has not been universally named yet, an age when machines will do most of the work that is being done by people now, this will have an even more dramatic effect on what form reading will take.  Prepare for major changes in this area which will sweep away cherished notions.

There are some, who think that the age of reading is over to be replaced by the age of interactive activity (for lack of a better name).  We think this is quite possible.  It must be remembered that paper was not always around.  Men did not always use it to read.  Neither was paper always the medium used by humanity to store information.  The brain adjusted itself to the medium available to it.  It will do so again.


Long Island document scanning said...

Paperless office remains a dream. While many have supported this advocacy to completely lessen paper consumption, its yet to be brought to life.

document shredding los angeles said...

While it would be so nice to have a paperless office, and significantly cut back on our paper use, the technology is far from finished or polished.

Mark Braggins (@markbraggns) said...

Interesting article and links. I'm positive the paperless office will happen, and it's only a matter of time before digital paper feels like 'traditional' paper, but brings with it all the benefits of storage, backup, retrieval, zoom, auto-update etc.

Not an example of a paperless office, but I managed to stop printing altogether two years ago. I blogged about it: http://markbraggins.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/keep-taking-the-tablets/

document storage said...

It's a good idea to make an office a paperless one. This will save not only money but will surely save the nature and our environment.  I hope that this would be implemented for our better future.