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.

23 thoughts on “The myth of “The Myth of the Paperless Office”

  1. The best use to which paper can be put now, as a result of technology, is complaining.
    I’ve found that if one writes a letter in complaint, then posts it, a hugely disproportionate response is made trying to rectify issues you have.
    I can only assume that they take the letter writing, something costly relative to email or phone calls, as signifying greater or deep seated complaints rather than momentary frustration.
    And a 50 cent stamp gets you better results.
    Paper has a last hurrah as the tool of strategic complainers.

  2. quite right, nm- a registered letter is harder to ignore. but for real results a small packet of white power via fed ex seems to get action- try it.

  3. Pr Q says:

    The disappearance of faxes is another illustration.

    I hate fax machines with a vengenance. All mankind needs to rise as one an take-up the use of scanners, preferably with PDF and RTF format options. Obviously this needs to be accompanied by digital signatures or some such security measure.

    Pr Q says:

    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.

    I’m sure Pr Q is aware of Pr David’s classic paper on this, The Computer and the Dynamo, which spells out how the vast potential productivity improvements of electric power generation took one to two generations to flow through to the industrial system. This delay occurred because of the long lead times for re-tooling and upgrading factories from steam turbines to electric dynamo power sources.

  4. I share Jack’s dislike of FAX machines. Goodbyes here won’t come too soon.

    You mentioned in a book review the other day, John, that you were happy reading even novels from a computer screen. I still prefer a hard copy and much prefer a hard photocopy of a journal article to read, scribble on and underline.

  5. While my legal research habits are hugely net-cetric, I still use a LOT of paper. I find it much easier to read any long, complex document (e.g. a High Court case) in hard copy. As a result, I often print things out to read.

    But I tend to store paper less and less. My main means of finding things is X1, which searches my hard drive. I really only keep paper copies of things so that I’m not killing trees by constantly printing out the same document and discarding it. As a result, my paper filing isn’t by topic, but pretty much the way the document would be filed in a library. For example, all my Commonwealth Law Report printouts are kept in a series of folder labelled “CLRs”. If a case is relevant to an area, I do a quick word document to that effect and save it in my research notes folder. When I need material on that topic, an X1 search will bring up that very short word document (along with anything I may have written on the topic). That will give me the CLR citation and I then check to see if I have a copy of the case, if so, I don’t printing it out from LawBookOnline unless I need multiple copies for court.

  6. I find much the same as Atticus in my work in bank regulation. I keep most of the information I need in one electronic form or another for easy search and index and only print out the things I know I will be referring to often (the Basel II Accord at nearly 400 pages is an example of this) or longer draft documents I need to edit. Clients are now often accepting reports and other documents in PDF form and most of the documents that need to get submitted to government can now be done in PDF or online.
    A good example of this is the new disclosures that banks have to make quarterly. Under APS 330 they can be made simply by putting them on the bank’s website in a readable format. Excellent.
    I hope that in the next few years ASIC will follow the lead and the huge amount of high-gloss paper consumed in company annual and semi-annual reports will be reduced by allowing publication online. Another good move would be “incorporation by reference” where all the paper you get when you take out a financial product can be cut to one or two pieces with the web addresses of the documents that give you all the information. Some product disclosure statements go to close to a hundred pages that need to be given to the client by statute but you know they are not going to be read.

  7. I get all my students to submit assignments online now, which creates a certain amount of resistance … mainly through lack of confidence in using the university software though, not through love of paper. Marking on screen provides much better feedback to students with the bonus that they can actually read it.

    Nevertheless I’m the minority and most of my colleagues insist on traditional methods because they ‘don’t like reading [2500 word assignments] on screen’ … this from people who wrote their PhD theses on screen. Go figure.

    In other areas paper has virtually disappeared, e.g. banking, payment of bills, enrolment in courses. The trend can only accelerate.

    Next: routine use of voice messaging with video for business calls using VoIP or applications like AIM. Don’t know why it’s not happening already … the kids take it for granted in social networking.

  8. That’s a surprising graph. At first I thought it must be wrong. After all, a 2006 report published by Statistics Canada reported that:

    “Not only is the notion of a paperless society defeated by existing data, but a visit to any modern office workplace will confirm that printers everywhere continue to spit out massive amounts of paper, and paper recycling bins are full.”

    But according to John Maine of RISI, in the US there really has been a decline in copy paper per office worker.

    But even if paper use is slowly declining, we’ve got a long way to go before we return to the consumption levels of the 1970s — and even further if we ever want to reach the paperless office.

    Personally I’ve got a long, long way to go. I spent most of the weekend sorting out my home office. I was buried in paper. I have hundreds of journal articles, reports and book chapters. Every month I accumulate more.

    So I bought a new bookshelf, a new set of combs for my binding machine, a box of hanging files for my filing cabinet, a new laser printer, and a new pack of nalclips. It’s all much tidier now.

    I think I’m addicted to paper… paper, highlighter pens and little yellow post-it notes…

  9. I do three things on paper:

    – make notes in meetings or on the phone

    – journal article reviews – I have no good way to make marginal notes on-screen

    – mathematical derivations

    Everything else never leaves the laptop. I would probably stop using paper for even those three tasks if I had a dual laptop/tablet computer with a screen you can write directly onto. It is extremely convenient to be able to take my entire office with me just by taking my laptop.

  10. hc, everything you ask for can be done in Word – admittedly, non-textual scribbles aren’t worth the effort! It’s very easy to annotate pdfs – I can even do this in Preview on my Mac, and there are any amount of programs out there for PCs (Acrobat Pro does the job just as well, but it’s a bit dearer.)

  11. My documents are now all prepared, archived and saved in Google Documents. In a short time I believe I will have no need for document storage on my PC.

    When the network becomes the computer and when we have widespread use of signing documents electronically then not only will paper decline but so will the “PC”.

  12. Cscoxk, are you comfortable with the knowledge that a single company has unfettered access to such a vast amount of information? It’s a very faithful user who places such trust in fallible humans.
    Even if you think that the Company Google is above suspicion, there are fairly regular reports of security flaws that could be exploited by hackers etc.

  13. Paper still rules the bureaucracy in ever greater quantities. If you send an email to the Minister, it will be printed out and we will send you a hard copy response (after finding out your address somehow :-)). Rumours have it that the new building we recently moved into only just takes the weight of paper we have.

    I use electronic storage to find documents but nothing beats paper for knowing who endorsed what when! Yes – if they built a decent low maintenance system it could save paper but the most recent e-Ministerials system involves repeated printing documents out of the system and then rescanning them in. Paper covers your rear end rather well indeed.

    Implementation of 4c4p (electronic commerce for procurement) means we bunnies have now not only to hand in hard copies of our documents for approval – we also have to scan them!

    Paper is indeed very useful for commenting on documents – easier to read and notate. Groups work better on paper etc as many have indicated before and email means that many more people can comment on them – such consultation!!

    All this means that we will be the last if ever to convert. BUT those of you relying on your electronic files for posterity – remember that our paper files will be very slowly rotting in some public record archive while Google with all those electronic files and CDs etc will have long disappeared into Cyber heaven or hell (try reading a Zip drive archive now).

  14. lesleym, I was a victim of such a security hole, from google no less. I must say, google were very unhelpful in resolving the situation. I no longer store any documents with third parties, and I only use third-party email for non-personal, non-sensitive communications.

  15. Jonno,
    The “somehow” is normally the electoral roll, cross referenced with the phone book – and then printed out in both alphabetical and address order. No great mystery there.

  16. I’m fascinated by your graph, but would like to know where you obtained your data?

    I’ve seen too many articles saying “paper consumption keeps rising” and I’d like to be able to have some facts at my disposal.

    Could you share your sources please? Thanks!

  17. Jonno, I pity your experience. Our bureaucracy manages to work fine electronically until the Minister’s office, and emailed replies are sent all the time.

    I still wouldn’t ever read a novel on screen.

  18. Interesting article. As usual, I’ve printed it out and will read it in full when I get home.

  19. Even in 2005 I preferred paper to reading from a computer screen: 5 years of commuting on Sydney public transport, and the lack of a laptop with a decent screen, meant most reading was from paper copies on the trains and buses.

    Now though, having had a year away from the demands of the modern life in the emerald city, I am finally moving away from paper. With massive data storage, high speed internet, wireless networks, drawing tablets and excellent quality laptops, I just don’t need to store paper to anywhere near the same extent. In my home office I can do far more now than was possible in the traditional office.

    For me though, the best innovation is the huge uptake in digitising of articles and data archival by researchers. It is now possible to have someone’s entire publication list stored away on my external hard-drives, *and* the research data too. There is no longer a pressing need to be unduly selective in what is stored due to time and space issues.

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