The NY Times is running a debate on whether (home) 3-D printers are the Next Big Thing. My guess is not, partly for reasons advanced in the debate (making plastic shapes is limited, handling other materials is messy and dangerous) and partly from the observation that home 2-D printers have proved pretty much transitory. I suppose most people have one or two sitting around, but I only use mine when someone makes a mistake: typically sending me a non-editable PDF that needs to be printed out, filled in, signed and scanned. This happens rarely enough that I usually need to download a new driver, which is a real pain (honestly, after 30 years, we still need drivers!?). My guess is that if 3D printing becomes a Big Thing, it will be on the basis of same-day delivery from a special-purpose facility to which we send our customised product requests.
But what really interested me was a sceptical piece premised on bagging out the paperless office as a precursor of 3D printing hype. The line was that it was first predicted in the 1970s, but that US businesses are using more paper now than they did then. This struck me as probably true but misleading for two reasons
(i) the population has grown, as has the proportion of workers who deal with text in one form or another
(ii) the two point comparison conceals a rise and fall.
Point (i) is obvious. A quick check reveals that (ii) is also correct. Paper consumption peaked in the late 1990s and has fallen sharply since 2005. Consumption per person is the lowest on record (going back to 1965). I’m pleased with this because back in 2007, I noted that the much-mocked “paperless office” was become a reality, and predicted that the trend would accelerate (reprinted over the fold)>
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”. Here’s a good review from Kirk McElhearn.
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. 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. Academic 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 one 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 been a feasible alternative to business travel for decades, but as long as you need to book a special building and equipment at both ends, it’s not going to happen on any significant scale. When every office computer has a high-quality digital videocamera attached to a gigabit capacity network, things might be a bit different.