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Behind the Cutting Edge

The Myth Of The Paperless Office

May 2024
6min read


IN 1970 THE FUTURIST Alvin Toffler proclaimed that “making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of machines and violates their very spirit.” Five years later the head of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center began to see the paperless office on the horizon and ventured that in the future “I don’t know how much hard copy I’ll want in this world.”

If he’s like the rest of us, he’s still surrounded by a lot of paper, probably more than ever before. We’ve all been hearing about the approach of the paperless office for decades now, but the paper in our lives has only kept increasing. Technologies have emerged one after another to help us do away with what Egyptians first made out of riverside reeds several millennia ago, including electronic datebooks, ever-shrinking laptops, and the never-quite-ready e-book. We all know that paper takes up precious space, can be in only one place at a time, is extremely hard to index or search through, and lacks all the interactivity and linking ability of hypertext; and because we know this, we feel guilty about our continued reliance on it. Why haven’t we been able to kick the habit?

Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper, two British researchers, decided to find out, and they’ve gathered their discoveries as The Myth of the Paperless Office , published by MIT Press. They illustrate the quandary we’re all in by telling of a manager they met at a hightech research laboratory whose office was a flood of stacks of paper—on chairs, tabletops, desks, and surrounding his computers. He had a seemingly miraculous ability to lay hands on any document in the big mess within seconds, but he was an embarrassment to his employer. Every time the head of the company came around, the man had to take all his stacks of paper and hide them in boxes in a closet. This would slow down his work considerably for a week or two. Which raises a question. Was all that paper really a handicap?

It’s easy to think so. We’ve heard plenty about the advantage of computerized information handling, but we never hear about the virtues of paper. Sellen and Harper have identified them. Take how they describe the disposition of papers on a typical desk, perfectly capturing my own messy office and perhaps yours as well: A primary pile of papers, adjacent to the open workspace at the center of the desk and probably next to the phone, contains what they call hot files, documerits to be acted on immediately. Warm files, still active but of less urgency, occupy the periphery, teetering on a corner of the desk or stuck in a desk drawer. Cold files, the great preponderance of documents that don’t need immediate attention, fill file drawers farther away. Meanwhile, that open workspace amid the piles of papers likely has several individual sheets lying about it; other papers may be spread out on other surfaces or even on the floor.

That bare description begins to reveal some of paper’s hidden advantages. We all know why reading something on a computer screen can be unpleasant: relatively fuzzy type, glare, the need to scroll repeatedly, the screen’s relatively fixed position, and so forth. Sellen and Harper uncover numerous ways paper goes beyond just avoiding those annoyances.

As often as not, people at work read from more than one document at once; this is infinitely easier with paper. Also as often as not, they annotate, and annotation can be done much more easily and in more varied ways on paper —lightly with pencil, firmly with pen, in colors, with Post-Its, by drawing circles around words. People rarely, except at the beach, read by starting at the beginning and proceeding word by word through to the end. They skim, thumb through pages looking at headings, seek particular subject matter, refer back and forth. These things are much harder onscreen.

Paper is also often indispensable for writing because you can have various source documents spread around and because you can easily mark changes and corrections. You probably do your writing on a computer, but you don’t use it without going through a fair amount of paper in the process. Also, computers are ill suited for replacing paper in meetings or anyplace where people collaborate. A paper document can be passed around, can be looked at by more than one person at a time, can easily be annotated while a discussion is proceeding. As Sellen and Harper observe, “Reviewers sitting around a desk could tell whether a colleague was turning toward or away from a report; whether she was flicking through it or setting it aside. Contrast this with watching someone across a desk looking at a document on a laptop.…Where in the document are they? Are they really reading their e-mail?”


Perhaps the most surprising of the authors’ revelations about what we prefer about paper is that we like the simple fact that we can deliver it in person. Handing a report to the boss, and knowing that he’s gotten it directly from you, can’t quite be replaced by clicking the send button and waiting and wondering.

Sellen and Harper look at two activities in which common sense says that a paperless process might work much better: air-traffic control and writing up police reports. The way air-traffic controllers use slips of paper to keep track of planes in the sky has long been a popular example of the dangerous backwardness of a sclerotic bureaucratic system. The authors reveal that the system actually has numerous hard-to-duplicate advantages.

The controllers’ slips of paper, each about one inch by eight and carrying information about a specific flight such as speed, altitude, heading, and destination, are typically held on racks next to controllers’ radar screens, and they not only keep track of planes for the controller but also let his or her assistants know what to do. Sellen and Harper identify five specific advantages of the slips. First, slips can be angled or otherwise positioned to draw special attention. Second, they can easily be rearranged when planes’ relative positions change. Third, they can effortlessly be written on while a controller is also doing other things, such as talking to a colleague or a pilot. Fourth, they can provide a large amount of information that anyone around can see at a glance; you instantly know how many planes are in a given controller’s sector. Fifth, they make immediately clear what a controller is doing whenever they are marked or moved. Moving them around onscreen would likely be far more cumbersome. Quick jotting would have to be replaced by entering information into the computer. A rack holding 50 strips at once would be hard to reproduce onscreen. And so on.

The only way to do away with the strips is by greatly simplifying controllers’ jobs, for nobody has found a way to handle and share such complex information on computer screens. And simplifying the controllers’ jobs has indeed begun to happen in places, by having planes stick to strictly defined flight paths in unvarying predetermined order on courses that never cross. Even then, when computers have taken over, the controllers have continued to keep paper flight strips for backup and for a record in case of litigation.

Many police departments have introduced electronic information systems for crime reporting. Sellen and Harper studied one case in which officers were issued laptops. The idea was for the cops to enter information while interviewing crime victims and then upload the data to a database. Two essential problems quickly arose. First, the police found they spent so much time dealing with the computer interface that they fell short in listening and talking to victims, an essential activity both for offering comfort and for picking up subtle clues to what exactly had happened. Because of this, most of them reverted to taking notes on paper and entered them into the computer later. Second, the goal of prompt reporting was compromised by the fact that police kept revising their reports after filing them. To local politicians this made the police look incompetent; actually it just confirmed that crime reporting by its nature must unfold over time.

You can’t know right away what exactly was stolen in a burglary.

Sellen and Harper conclude that in the future “new technologies will usually shift the role of paper rather than replace it.” They offer many sensible suggestions for making computers and paper cooperate and even provide a measure of progress: “Wastebaskets will have an even more important role.… A full bin will reflect the fact people are working effectively because they are using paper at various stages in the document life cycle, particularly in the knowledgeintensive stages. As they move on to other stages later in the life cycle, the role of paper diminishes.” In other words, we’ll use plenty of paper when we’re preparing information, then throw it out.

That leaves one big question. If the paperless office is such a chimera, why does anyone even think of such a thing? For two basic reasons. The first is that people who can profit from the idea keep selling it to us. The Web site of Automated Information Solutions, Inc., explains that if you seek “better organization, and streamlined operations, then you should definitely consider going ‘paperless.’ It’s the way of the future.” But that really tells us nothing. Marketing is successful only when someone is selling what someone else truly wants. Which leads to the second reason.

All technologies come down to our trying to get what we want, what we desire, whether it’s faster travel, better health, a stronger golf game, sturdier office buildings, new kinds of entertainment, or simply money made from inventing. And much of what we desire comes down to taking control of our lives, doing what we please without being overwhelmed by what we don’t please. We get overwhelmed by paper—by bills, reports, newspapers, magazines, books we should read, and so much else. We can’t help dreaming of a world where we can attain all we want from paper without expending the time and space it consumes. We want the benefits of paper without the paper itself.

Someday, somewhere down the road, that may happen. But for now, at least, it looks both unlikely and pointless. One might have well have dreamed a century ago of the typewriter’s making the pencil obsolete.

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