The myth of “The Myth of the Paperless Office”
The “paperless office” is one of those catchphrases that gets bandied about for a while, only to disappoint and eventually be used in a purely derisive way. As Wikipedia says, it has become ‘a metaphor for the touting of new technology in terms of ‘modernity’ rather than its actual suitability to purpose’. The death of the phrase was cemented by a 2001 book, by Sellen and Harper “The Myth of the Paperless Office”. This book wasn’t a snarky debunking but a fairly sophisticated analysis, pointing out that a sensible analysis of task requirements could allow a significant reduction in paper use. Here’s a good review from Kirk McElhearn. But it was the title that stuck. No one would ever again refer to the paperless office with a straight face.
Six years later, though, looking at my own work habits, I find that I have virtually ceased to use paper, in all but a couple of marginal applications.
The office is still full of paper, but a lot of it hasn’t been looked at for years. For example, I have filing cabinets full of photocopied journal articles, and a good indexing system for them, but I hardly ever use them. It’s easier to download PDFs for all the articles I want on a topic, and read them onscreen, rather than checking to see if I already have a file copy. And I’ve hardly added any in the last five years, so it’s only inertia that keeps them in place.
There are still a couple of exceptions. For example, I still use paper in intra-office editing, where it’s easier to handwrite suggested changes on a draft than to use digital markup (especially as I avoid Word wherever possible). But I could easily do without paper altogether, whereas without email I would be crippled.
So, I wonder if I’m an outlier, or just on the leading edge of a broader trend. A bit of digging produced the finding that (US) office paper consumption peaked in 1999, and has been in decline since then.
The annual rate of decline (-0.9 per cent) is unimpressive in itself, but striking when compared to the growth rate of 5.7 per cent observed from 1985 to 1999, at a time when talk of the paperless office was particularly prevalent. Compared to the ‘Business as Usual’ extrapolation of the previous growth rate, office paper consumption has declined by around 40 per cent. My guess is that the decline is accelerating. Journals have nearly abandoned paper submission procedures for example, and I assume that similar things are happening in other lines of work. The disappearance of faxes is another illustration.
Of course, the “paperless office” myth wasn’t just a prediction that digital communications would replace paper on day. It was a sales pitch for a top-down redesign of work processes, which, for the reasons given by Sellen and Harper, was never going to work. Some uses of paper became obsolete long before others. For example, it was a decade or so after the widespread adoption of email that it became generally feasible to use PDF attachments (still a problem of you’re on dialup and some fool sticks a 2Mb glossy ad into their FYI circular!).
I’m interested in this story in itself, but also because of its implications for energy use. Just as with paper, there’s a widespread assumption that energy-intensive methods of doing things are essential. This is assumption is reinforced by the long lag between the point at which things become technically feasible and the point at which the necessary infrastructure is in place for their widespread adoption. For example, videoconferencing has long been a feasible alternative to business travel, but as long as you need to book a special building and/or equipment at both ends, it’s not going to happen. When every office computer has a high-quality digital videocamera attached to a Gigabit capacity network, things might be a bit different.