Whatever Happened to the Paperless Office?

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer wrote about reading the news online versus on paper. After publicly swearing off of the NYT’s print edition, Shafer admitted that he’s back on print, and loving it (or, at least, accepting it). It’s a nicely considered piece, as he talks about how print offers certain advantages, such as how it’s easier to remember what he’d read about, and easier to avoid distractions and make it to the end.

In one respect, what he’s describing are affordances, inherent traits of an object that enable you to do something. The concept of affordance comes up a lot in research on how we choose what we use, such as reading print or reading online. Paper has certain affordances (permanence, easier to control, you can scrawl in the margins, etc), while digital has its own (Shafer points out that you can search easily and read news from far away). It gets really interesting when one technology starts to borrow affordances from another, such as the Kindle’s enabling readers to make notes or highlight text.

Anyway, Jack’s piece is worth a read. And it reminded me of a short piece that Wired commissioned me to write for the Future That Never Happened package last year (but which, sadly, was bumped for space). Lucky for you, I’ve dredged it up.

Whatever Happened to the Paperless Office?

As businesses started adopting word-processing systems in the late ‘70s, everything about the office was predicted to change. Within just a couple of decades, the modern office would be a paperless one. Or, as futurist Alvin Toffler put it after composing some of his 1980 book The Third Wave on a new computer: “…making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of such machines and violates their very spirit.”

Of course, Toffler copped to printing out his drafts. And we’d all go on to violate the spirits of our desktop helpers on a daily basis as paper consumption rose year after year. (Probably didn’t help that as we bought all those computers, we were also picking up printers.)

The real problem with the paperless office was that the notion was flawed to begin with. Paper can be inefficient at times, but there are reasons we keep coming back.

As the researchers Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper describe it in their 2002 study The Myth of the Paperless Office, paper has some special “affordances.” That is, it isn’t just a container for text, but can be touched, marked, repurposed, displayed, skimmed, and can cling urgently in the form of little yellow sticky notes on the edges of your monitor. While digital has key strengths like storage and distribution, paper has proven useful in other contexts, like collaborating with co-workers.

True, our consumption of uncoated free sheet—what we feed our printers—has started to decrease in recent years, suggesting more of our paper work really is becoming bits in the cloud. But we still bought almost 10 million tons of the hard stuff last year. It’s going to take a long time to shake the habit.


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