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The end of paper

October 19th, 2010

A few year ago, I observed that the paperless office, long derided as a myth was on the edge of becoming a reality for those on the leading edge of technology (immodestly, I took myself as an example). Jumping to the present, global demand for paper has dropped sharply. Granted, there’s a recession on, but that’s only a spur to changes that were going to happen anyway. When and if the economy recovers, i don’t think paper demand will bounce back, except in a few specialty areas.

This is a big deal as far as the world’s forests are concerned. If demand declines to the point where it can be met by existing plantations, one of the main factors pushing forest clearance will be removed.

In this context, I think it’s reasonable to use my own experience as a representative instance of what’s happening at the technological frontier, and will happen more generally in the near future. Today, a fairly typical if excessively busy day, I received 80 emails and two pieces of physical mail. A couple of these involved confirmation that I could use a scanned signature in an email attachment, rather than incurring the delays associated with a paper document and ink signature, eliminating one of the few remaining reasons for physical printing. Yesterday was devoted in part to making space on my shelves by throwing out recent copies of journals to which I have online access. To sum up, my demand for paper is rapidly approaching zero.

This is important in itself, but even more so as a metaphor for the more complex issues surrounding energy. Those who derided the paperless office showed the same lack of imagination as people who now use terms like “baseload demand” as if this were an inherent physical fact rather than an artefact of existing generation technologies and the price systems adopted to match supply and demand.

It’s true that low-carbon energy won’t exactly replicate the services offered by existing technologies, just as screens don’t exactly replicate paper. But, if the prices are right, we’ll adjust our patterns of work and life to take advantage of new technologies and abandon old ones.

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  1. Dave
    October 19th, 2010 at 23:15 | #1

    ‘To sum up, my demand for paper is rapidly approaching zero’

    Except for publishing books* ;)

    *yes yes, I know it’s available on Kindle…

  2. October 19th, 2010 at 23:28 | #2

    I’ve tried to cure myself of the need to physically print long documents in order to be able to flick back and forther and scribble edits directly on them, but it vexes me that I still feel I get the best quality of work done like this in the fastest time. If a tablet of some kind came along with a stylus on-screen input that I could do this, I’d be just about with you Prof Q. Any suggestions, either about technological tools or cognitive adjustments to solve this?

    On a less optimistic note, aren’t you worried that with the established interests involved, any reduction in use of trees to write things on will just see those very same trees cut down and diverted into other nonsense like biomass for energy?

  3. BilB
    October 20th, 2010 at 05:32 | #3

    New realities require new ideas.

    http://www.icyte.com/

    The guy whose product this is an ex business partner who shafted me brutally when the partnership changed from 4 to 3, yielding 2 to 1 (unstable). Consequently we all lost a respectable amount of money as they did not properly understand the product and egos were running rampant. Having said that, if the product here lives up to the claims it is a valuable tool in the paperless office. If anyone tries it let me know if it helps.

    Another super hot product that I encountered in the 80′s in LA was a product called “stripping”. This was software that created a printable data strip on the bottom of documents which could then be read by a scanner to uplift the document’s contents (ie invoices) into resident software. It didn’t take at the time. But you will see its improved version in your Australian passport.

    One problem for the paperless office (a problem for the design industry) is email file size limitations. Not yet smoothly handled. Products such as YouSendIt help. Pdf files are a God send.

    Once the NBN is in place the paperless office will flourish. But only takes on computer self destruct to give us all pause for reflection. Computers really need to be supplied with ghost drives as standard.

    My thoughts.

  4. BilB
    October 20th, 2010 at 05:46 | #4

    I should have added the failed product was an adverising product, a different product to iCyte.

  5. Greg
    October 20th, 2010 at 07:01 | #5

    I’ve always found the “scanned pen-and-ink signature” thing to be a bit weird. Any of your recipients can attach it to any of their own emails, and their recipients likewise. It’s just an image, and its presence doesn’t add a jot to the authenticity of any email or other electronically originated document.

    Digital signatures, on the other hand, guarantee authenticity. The problems are that they’re too hard to use, but mainly that the certificate is far too hard to acquire. I’ve long felt that the part of government that provides traditional identity certificates (birth certificates, passports) should be providing digital certificates (and a backup service) too. Not much sign of it so far, at least here in NZ.

  6. derrida derider
    October 20th, 2010 at 09:05 | #6

    The biggest barrier to a paperless office has long been the screens, which are still not up to this purpose. If we get cheap, large, colour e-ink then it becomes feasible. Backlit screens are great for games and TV, but no-one likes reading and annotating long documents day-in and day-out on one.

  7. David Douglas
    October 20th, 2010 at 11:28 | #7

    I wonder if, from an energy consumption point of view, whether this declining paper use is not counterbalanced by a switch from (1) CRT to LCD screens; (2) ever larger screens (in width and pixel count) and (3) multiple screens and power hungry graphics cards fed by ever larger power supplies.
    I have not printed to serve my own reading needs for many years – not since I went dual screen 17 inch CRT. However, in search of ever increased productivity, I have probably come to exemplify the trend (1-3).
    On this score, I am under no illusions that while my energy consumption has probably doubled, my productivity increases are more modest: from which it follows, my energy intensity has increased. At least, sundry screens can be turned off when only one application is in use. I console myself on the grounds that: my computer system serves also as my TV and home entertainment system and increasing connectedness reduces my need to travel and when I travel I am now far more likely to use public transport. Now we just need a clean source of energy that assuages any residual guilt over my office energy intensity.
    c-sez – I can’t confirm that my strategy will be more productive for everybody. However the following is a summary of these techniques: use monitor stands that allow me to turn screens to vertical; use search tools that can search for text in folders, PDF’s and Word documents, use OCR software to convert PDF’s to text; use voice recognition software to quickly scrawl my own comments within texts.
    I’m well aware that many people prefer not to read from backlit screens. However, I do not know of many people who still prefer to hand write papers and books. The benefits of using a text editor appear to outweigh the costs of sitting in front of a screen. My daughter infinitely prefers to read a book, yet will sit in front of a screen for hours in a range of other pursuits. I have long preferred to read from a screen due to a long-standing but improving neck problem. I consider that holding up books and reading papers on a desk create more postural problems than an ergonomic seating position facing a screen positioned at the correct height. Eye strain can be reduced by turning the contrast and brightness of the screen down very low and setting the desktop background to black and document backgrounds to grey.

  8. ken n
    October 20th, 2010 at 13:37 | #8

    I don’t think your figures are correct JQ. Be careful of the reasons given by a company for poor results, especially when it says demand is down.
    These figures show strong demand in all categories.
    http://www.cepiprint.com/en/our_stats_9.php

    I have also been surprised at the slow arrival of the paperless office. I suspect that the growth in high-speed printers has outweighed the ability to get by without printing stuff. Whether the wish to have it on paper is a cultural hangover that will pass I don’t know.
    I buy audio books and books on Kindle but I can’t say my purchases of dead tree books are less than they were.

  9. Donald Oats
    October 20th, 2010 at 13:46 | #9

    As soon as good light laptop + fast enough screen + big disk combo arrived, the opportunity to use the computer as office arose. Through the broadband, as slow as it is, the possibility of using videophone conference calls arose. Now both large memory (eg 4 to 8 GB of RAM, 1 to 2 GB of Video dedicated RAM) and a massive increase in external disk sizes means it is finally possible to carry around a physically small external drive holding your entire office work and a massive library to boot.

    Personally, I already have a large paper library of books, but in anticipation of even better video/reader technology I may move towards e-books now. However, there is still something about a book that I like, and it will be difficult to let them go. Writing by hand into a notebook rather than on a tablet is still my preference, but very soon I might move across to using one of the “micro” notebooks with the smaller screen instead of pen and ink. The Z-series of Sony has a couple of powerful and lightweight laptops in it, which could be a better alternative, but Xmas is coming and I’ll wait for the next round of laptops from all manufacturers.

    In 10 years time this thread’s discussion will seem so quaint… :-P

  10. Jim Birch
    October 20th, 2010 at 13:53 | #10

    I probably print something once a week, but I do collect wads of uncollected printouts from the printer every now and then to scribble on.

    One big personal objective of going paperless is to not have a lot of bits of paper to look after. Filing isn’t personal stength. I have a dual receptacle filing system for all bits of paper: (i) the bin, and (ii) a reflex box that anything else I just might want to look at again sometime goes into. This takes a year or two to fill up. I can’t really imagine storing text in systems without free text search. I love wiki-like applications and I trend to useless without some good task management software. I do take a notebook to meetings.

    One key thing that makes paperlessness work for is a lot of good quality screen space. I run two 20 inch monitors as a single work space at my desk which allow me attend to several linked sources at once. (One guy here has four… ) And as David says above, turn the brightness down; in a well lit room the screen should be about as bright as a piece of off-white paper.

  11. ken n
    October 20th, 2010 at 14:01 | #11

    “In 10 years time this thread’s discussion will seem so quaint…”
    Perhaps DO or perhaps people will look back in amusement as we do at those in the 60s who expected personal jetpacks.
    Forecasting the technology is not too hard. Forecasting what consumers will pay money for and how they will use it is just about impossible beyond a couple of years.
    If you can forecast ten years out you will soon, as they used to say, be sitting in the South of France with your feet in a bucket of champagne.

  12. Emma
    October 20th, 2010 at 14:23 | #12

    @derrida derider
    I dunno. I’ve read, annotated and edited long texts on screens for years, 8 hours a day. Depends what you need to do to make a living. A double screen helps, so you can have lots of windows/tabs open at once.

  13. el mono
    October 20th, 2010 at 15:41 | #13

    John i can think of at least one of your colleagues whose office is more paper than anything else

  14. jquiggin
    October 20th, 2010 at 17:09 | #14

    @Ken N, your source shows a partial recovery from the recession, but the attached report shows that total deliveries dropped 10 per cent between 2000 and 2009 and states “Total Western European capacity for mechanical publication papers was reduced by 4.4% (1.3 million tonnes) last year. 2009 represented the third consecutive year of capacity contraction, after the previous two years saw capacity cut by 1.7% (2007) and 1.4% (2008) respectively. With total capacity standing at 27.3 million tonnes in 2009, it was the first time the level has dipped below 28 million tonnes since 2003.”

  15. ken n
    October 20th, 2010 at 17:54 | #15

    OK, JQ, we will see. Capacity is different to demand.
    Newsprint is the wildcard. It depends on what happens with newspapers.
    Kraft swings with the economy. Coated paper seems to be growing strongly.
    I agree that office paper should decline rapidly but I am not sure it will.
    People are bloody unpredictable. They just won’t do what the forecasters tell them to do.

  16. Alice
    October 21st, 2010 at 07:24 | #16

    The paperless office hasnt arrived. The auditors still need a paper trail. Any amount of business invoices can be emailed now but they still get printed out at the destination. Show me a paperless storage system for transaction documents like invoices and credit notes and delivery dockets from suppliers that auditors can inspect later. The world needs an electronic accounting storage system that becomes the industry norm…and then what do you do about security levels.?..hackers can still hack and managers can still rort (especially those with the right security levels). Its difficult to forge the original printed transaction document.
    Accountants havent really arrived at the paperless office yet. If there is less demand it must be coming from elsewhere.

  17. October 21st, 2010 at 11:46 | #17

    Much of the demand for recycled paper is from China, which uses much more recycled paper as an input for its paper production than most other countries. This will further drive down demand for wood pulp.

    Newer e-readers have much better display resolution than old ones, making formats such as PDF practical. I expect this trend will continue, and new low-power image display technologies such as PixelQi should continue this trend.

  18. Ken Lovell
    October 22nd, 2010 at 16:25 | #18

    Alice we’ve certainly reached the age of paperless education, at least at my place. I suspect one or two Jurassic colleagues still visit campus in the dead of night to print off assignments before they mark them, but otherwise the whole process from enrolment to graduation does not require a single sheet apart from exams.

    Given the average student used to submit two assignments per unit per session, for a total of 24 units, with an average of maybe 10 pages per assignment, the paper savings are enormous. And that’s without counting the savings in study guides, assessment instructions, unit readings and so on which are only provided in hard copy upon request (with a small and diminishing number of takers).

  19. Alice
    October 30th, 2010 at 18:45 | #19

    @Ken Lovell
    But Ken

    Marking assignments on screen is something I am yet to do and its enough to make this tutor hit the road with my eyesight intact.

    Horrible thought Ken. But then these days there are a ready set of replacement tutors / ;lecturers straight out of each graduation isnt there and being casual…(mostly) they cant complain about working conditions (or what gets added to their responsibilities in any data entry sense…??)

    I hate to be so cynical Ken but Ive seen universities turn into the worst of all kid factories when it comes to churning and burning potential new young academics. Soon I warrant they will be competing with JB hi fi or rebel sports to get em even younger to take the classes…

    So when senior academics in schools go on the paperless office drive and / or similar efficiency seeking drives or try to find economies or savings against their own sessional academics or less senior staff just because its in their bonus points income remuneration system….well I cant help woondering whether the senior academics like HOS are brainwashing uni managements or uni managements are bullying HOS?

    Ive even seen telephones disconnected in sessional academics office (as well as computers unplugged and hauled out just to save a few cents).

    Be careful what you wish for when you say some of us are dinosaurs. I dont necessarily share the same desires for a paperless office as you in universities if it makes my now one less secretary for the school).

    Ive been teaching in unis for 14 years as a sessional. I dont recall ever getting paid more to actually data enter marks or data enter anything. Come to think of it there are lots of things I dont recall getting paid extra for to do with marking these days (Like pick up and delivery or paying for my own internet technology at home so the uni doesnt have to and I am forced to to maintain contact, or marking to some now absurdly nitpicky and way off the mark marking guide).

    I hate to be a dinosaur but there you have it Ken. Want to pay for my internet access?

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