The Myth of the Myth of the Paperless Office

9 November 2008

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the role of paper and offline information resources in our overall information experience as humans interact with information. Some recent projects and research at work put the topic back on my plate. It was also part of my talk at the Euro IA conference (see Commercial Ethnography: Innovating Information Experiences).

A while back, I published a short essay on the potential importance of a creating print-friendly web pages. See Printing the Web in Boxes and Arrows (2003). The motivation for that article came from the observation that people quite like to print things from the web, as well as printing things like email. It seemed to me at the time that perhaps there is even a higher use of paper in offices since the web came along than before. So, our experience with a website may extend offline as well, and designers should consider how to best create print-friendly content.

Then, while at the CHI conference this year, I came across two fascinating exhibits related to paper. The first was digital paper, also called interactive paper. The second was iCandy, a program that allows you to print from your iTunes collections. Both of these stood out, particularly at a conference where digital interfaces are the focus of attention. With iCandy, for instance, the inventor was taking something that wasn’t originally available offline–iTunes–and making it available in paper format. Why bother, I thought? Is the experience with iTunes not sufficient? Is there something missing or something better than interacting with my music collection with iTunes? These two exhibits, as well as my own observations, suggest that yes–there is something with experiencing information on paper that gets completely lost in electronic formats.

Even more recently, I came across a post from innovation guru Scott Anthony about Plastic Logic’s new reader device. Interestingly, the hurdle he sees for Plastic Logic with their new reader is an experiential one:

But think about that target user. Hassled executives have defined patterns of behavior about how they interact with documents. They are used to flipping, scribbling, and shuffling through those documents. Sure, the weight of the paper can be cumbersome, but Plastic Logic faces an uphill climb if its device makes it harder rather than easier to review and comment on documents.

The experience we have with print materials is, in Anthony’s opinion, a potential showstopper for widespread acceptance of new reading devices. But it’s not just a matter of habit that we gravitate to read things on paper: there are real benefits of working with a multi-dimensional medium like paper that get lost in electronic formats.

Finally, Peter Merholz just posted about the paperless office again. He reaches back to a previous posting of his in which he disagrees with Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker in 2002 on the topic. Peter makes some good points, but he’s also a little myopic on this one, particularly when making conclusions based on what he sees at his office. The habits of a cutting-edge, digital design office (Adaptive Path) hardly represent how people in other industries and businesses use paper.

I personally don’t foresee the complete disappearance of paper in the office in the near future, but I believe the time will come when online information experiences are rich enough to make it truly more advantageous to read a document from a computer screen than from paper. But even then, paper resources will still have a role. As noted at the end of an article entitled “On its way, at last” in The Economist–the catalyst for Peter’s post–we’ll probably see a re-purposing of paper. And Peter himself mentions such a shift as well in the Adaptive Path office.

Paradigm shifts with other types of media have also seen this type of re-purposing of old, incumbent media. As the radio became widespread, for instance, the initial reporting of a news event stopped being  communicate by lads standing on the corner shouting “Extra, Extra.” As a result, newspapers become more process-oriented. In other words, radio took over the announcing role, and people then got the details of the event from the newspaper. But newspapers didn’t go away.

So I don’t think we’ll see the completely paperless office, at least not on a widespread basis. Sure, some companies may actually achieve a paperless office, but they will be the exception rather than the norm. Instead, paper will come to serve a different role. It will be used for informal communication and extra-work events, or for brainstorming session and other creative exercises, or for official documents that require a signature and a company seal, for instance. There will be less of it, for sure–particularly for administrative things–but a completely paperLESS office is not only NOT in our future, but probably a bad idea.

As David Gelernter said back in 2000 in his Computer Manifesto:

“The ‘paperless office’ is a bad idea because paper is one of the most useful and valuable media ever invented.”

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6 Responses to “The Myth of the Myth of the Paperless Office”

  1. Piet Says:

    In my office we are going more and more paperless since we bought a multi page scanner which is connected with our intranet via ftp and e-mail. Now we have a gateway from paper to screen. The opposite, screen to paper gateway already exists in form of printers. This happens in a causal way, not very planned. And it will not end in a paperless office, but rather in an office with less paper. BUT archiving is now nearly 100% done digital.

  2. James Kalbach Says:

    Yeah, that’s my point: less paper doesn’t equal paperless.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    In so far as it’s an obvious point that it’s rare for new technologies to completely replace old ones, the observations about a paperless office are hardly surprising. Most houses are being built mainly from concrete, but a fair few are still made with bricks almost 100 years after concrete was first introduced. So it will be with paper, the QWERTY keyboard, and many many other things.

    As to the current use of paper in the workplace – this is surely a solid case of “it depends.” I’m sure that some industries are very paper-orientated. However, I can honestly say that I have seen no “Hassled executives … flipping, scribbling, and shuffling through those documents.” Thumbing their blackberries and shuffling PowerPoint slides maybe, but not paper in any significant amount.

    But it depends.

  4. Juan Rico (Mexico) Says:

    Indeed, paperless currently implies less paper. Otherwise, in the future, society won’t need even screens. Now I think it would be enough to “print before you ink”.
    Greetings.


  5. James,
    Interesting post and I find myself agreeing totally with your point that a paperless office is probably a bad idea. Must admit that although I like to scan stuff on the screen if I really want to take something in I always print it off and read it.
    Seems to me that they are looking at paper usage in the wrong way. Rather than trying to make electronic paper they should be looking at inventing re-useable paper. Rather than recycling paper could be ‘washed’ and re-used on site

    Just my 2c

    Patrick


  6. [...] I’ve written on this topic several times already. My now-old “Printing the Web” story over at B&A really marks the beginning of my interest in how we experience information on paper. It’s based on observations of real human behavior, namely that since the advent of the web and widespread personal computing we’ve not at all seen a decrease in the use of paper. This is also at the heart of a recent post on this blog. [...]


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