The myth of “The Myth of the Paperless Office”

by John Quiggin on June 23, 2007

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.
Officepaperdemand

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 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 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.

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{ 41 comments }

1

Carl Caputo 06.24.07 at 12:10 am

One data point: Writer John Scalzi doesn’t own a printer and has never appeared in Analog because of it. If there’s a leading edge to a trend, he’s there with you.

2

otto 06.24.07 at 12:59 am

I’m just about to move office and have come to decision that I’ll throw out almost all my paper files as part of the move, since I keep downloaded pdfs on my hard drive, the only significant exceptions being photocopied articles or book chapters found in foreign libraries which are difficult to replace.

But I don’t like to read on-screen – I still print the articles out.

3

Tom S. 06.24.07 at 1:06 am

John, I’m actually curious how you index your paper journal articles.

4

vivian 06.24.07 at 1:08 am

I got out of the printing habit when I had to buy my own paper, and when my university limited the number of free pages a term. Even though it was easy to override the limit with a phone call. My “Bleeding-edge-tech” husband prints multiple copies of everything, on paper he buys and lugs home from the shop.

He also does loads of video and phone conferences, but claims they don’t replace the fly-there kind, because at those the real work gets done in the hallways and bars, and there is no video analog. (Blogs come close – CT has (including commenters) a lot of the people I’d chat with at conferences – but perhaps not in all fields?) Ironically, of course, at business meetings, too many people ignore the presentations in favor of their blackberries. The whole mess needs a major rethink.

5

Tim McG 06.24.07 at 1:32 am

A couple of points:
1) The major benefit of paper is its juxtaposibility: until 60″ high-resolution screens become standardly affordable, you won’t have the ability to lay out four or five documents on your desk and switch back and forth between them (there’s a recent study–don’t have time to find the cite, but I believe it was referenced in an NYT article on using two monitors on your computer–showing that the single biggest productivity increase companies could get from their workers was by giving each of them 42″ LCD monitors). The accidental juxtaposition of documents, and the resulting creative mix of ideas is not, of course, impossible on screen, but–particularly for power users who close “extra” windows–I think less likely.

2) The other great benefit to paper is its tenacity. Having just had my electronic house ransacked by my employers’ email upgraders, let me assure you that loss of all your downloaded PDFs can–no, will–be devastating, and it can be the result of “friendly fire” just as much as of hardware or software crash.

6

Matt Weiner 06.24.07 at 2:20 am

I’m just about to move office and have come to decision that I’ll throw out almost all my paper files as part of the move

I’m just about to move across the country and will be throwing out pretty much all of my photocopied journal articles (for which I have the crudest alphabetical indexing system, so they’re pretty useless). I too find it much easier to find pdfs online if I can. A problem with this from the ecological standpoint is that I sometimes wind up printing extra copies of things — I don’t mind reading on screen much anymore, but sometimes it’s not practical (laptop batteries run out on long airplane flights, they won’t let you turn your computer on for about an hour at the beginning, and it gets to be a pain manipulating the computer even if the person in front of you isn’t leaning their seat back).

7

Luis Alegria 06.24.07 at 2:25 am

Mr. Quiggin,

I have been in the front lines of this in large corporations. In much of corporate America it was the change in systems, first, that didn’t require paper (thank SAP AG, if you want one big protagonist, among many others) because they improved productivity, and second was the cost of support. Printing is a support sink.

A lot of large companies started banning printers in employees offices and cubicles in the 2000’s (I did some of this banning), and my present employers equipment census has the total printer count at @1/3 what it was in 2000.

Old mainframe business systems also required enormous print jobs of scheduled reports, and indeed they often had dedicated printing shops with batteries of line printers to digest tons of perforated paper, to dump data so that it could be used. These dinosaurs are almost gone. These days a report can be generated on the fly and if necessary dumped into Excel.

As for energy-intensiveness, that is a moving target. You are talking of the substitutions of one sort or use of energy for another in a complex process, and the principal motivations for these changes are not usually the cost of energy. Other uses for this energy pop up all the time – consider that the PC and its peripherals is now a major use of energy – even datacenters everywhere required power supply upgrades as the multiplication of servers exceeded the energy consumption of the old mainframes.

8

Kieran Healy 06.24.07 at 2:34 am

NYT article on using two monitors on your computer—showing that the single biggest productivity increase companies could get from their workers was by giving each of them 42” LCD monitors).

Well I have this setup on my desk, but am still nowhere near as productive as John. Hmm …

9

Ronald Brak 06.24.07 at 3:16 am

I find hardcopy often being used as a kind of gatekeeping mechanism. A lot of people seem to think if someone can’t be bothered to print out their infomation and physically deliver it, then it can’t be that important. (And I can’t really blame them for thinking this way considering how easy it is to email people garbage.)

10

bad Jim 06.24.07 at 4:01 am

I’m glad to hear that at least we’ve ceased to increase our paper consumption. It seemed for most of the 90’s that the technology which promised to reduce it actually increased it. Replacing slow, noisy, ugly impact printers with fast, quiet and arbitrarily beautiful laser printers resulted in vastly increased paper output. Likewise email: no matter how much I bitched, everybody printed and filed theirs.

Surely large high-resolution monitors and dependable high-bandwith network connections are responsible for some of the leveling off of paper use, but reliable, portable personal storage has to be a big part of the answer, too. Without recordable CD’s and DVD’s and pocketable flash drives, people would still be wrapping themselves in the security blanket of hard copy.

11

David 06.24.07 at 4:11 am

I love the pdf format option and I keep plenty of them on my computer. As well, I can save web pages as pdfs. But for any serious perusal, I print them. No way around it and as far as I can tell, aging eyes still outpace screen technologies, much less affordable ones (if enough people had taken Negroponte’s wager in the mid-to-late 90s he’d be in the poorhouse).

I have no doubt that the dual monitor or single really big monitor approach is beneficial, but this also ignores the fact that use and comprehension are very different between paper and onscreen mediation. Room and need for both. As far as I’m concerned a computer without access to a printer is a crippled machine.

12

Brooks Moses 06.24.07 at 5:01 am

One very big thing that’s occurred in the last six years, which I think may be dramatically skewing that data: duplexing printers.

These days, even if I had not changed my printing habits at all (and, really, I mostly haven’t), I would be using barely more than half the paper I used in 1999 — simply because I now print most everything double-sided, whereas in 1999 I only had access to a single-sided printer.

I’d suspect that quite a lot of this change of slope on the graph you show is due to that simple fact, and not due to usage patterns at all.

13

abb1 06.24.07 at 6:43 am

I would gladly give away all my monitors in exchange for one good, foot-thick mainframe memory dump. Mmm-mmm…

14

Ben Saunders 06.24.07 at 7:57 am

I reckon I print more now, but advances in printer technology (in college, rather than at the cutting edge) mean I can now print journal articles double-sided and two pages per side – so using a quarter of the paper it used to take.

15

magistra 06.24.07 at 8:05 am

For researchers, the paperless office only works in some fields: maybe the sciences and social sciences, definitely not the humanities. As a historian working on medieval Europe, I have tonnes of photocopies, because I need to refer to old material, because I’m using photocopied chapters from books I can’t afford to buy and because a lot of foreign journals aren’t online at all. For foreign language material, I tend to be scribbling translations of key phrases on the copy as I go along and I also want to be able to work on the train. I can’t see any of this changing anytime soon, so it’s not just the technology, it’s what it is digitised that is a problem. (OK, a scanner that could cope with reliable OCRing of German Fraktur might be handy).

16

Barry 06.24.07 at 12:14 pm

Brooks Moses: “One very big thing that’s occurred in the last six years, which I think may be dramatically skewing that data: duplexing printers.”

I third that (or fourth, by now).

17

richard 06.24.07 at 12:24 pm

I still have two real problems with the digital data: reliability of storage media and longevity of the documents.

I’m taking digital photos of thousands of pages of 17th century archival material at the moment, and having panic attacks about what might happen if my hard drive and/or CD backups suffer severe abuse on the way home. I’m also wondering what will happen to all these files in 10 years time: as the backlog of them keeps building up, so does the cost of eventually transfering them to new systems: I have boxes of CDs of old projects at home (not to mention floppies, tape drives etc) which now will not run on anything (or at least would take months of work to retrieve in usable form).

So, on the one hand, I’m doing my research in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago; on the other, when I go to interview academics who have 30+ years of work and experience to draw from, I see them pulling old photocopies out of their files with flawless recollection, and I wonder if my own .pdfs, .docs, .jpgs, .gifs, .pngs etc will have the same staying power.

18

abb1 06.24.07 at 1:57 pm

…duplexing printers…

With an old mainframe printer you could print a memory dump, analyze it, and then print another one on the other side. And I can’t imagine any size monitor replacing good ol’ stack of continuous paper when you have a lot of handwritten notes all over it and use your fingers for bookmarks. Some things can’t be improved.

19

Robert Gagnon 06.24.07 at 3:10 pm

Has anybody read the landmark book “The Perfect Mess” or how a messy office/desk makes for efficiency, cost efficiency at least. I sense that this book describes a “great uncovery (as opposed to discovery)

20

Infogleaner 06.24.07 at 5:52 pm

We used to have shelves full of data books in our engineering lab. We threw most of them into the recycler. If we want info on an electronic part, we go to the manufacturer’s web site.

My (old) generation seems unwilling to let paper go. I’ve notice some associates print out documents they could just as well read from the computer screen. Vendors still come to us with their catalogs, line cards, and flyers. We just tell them we use the internet to look for stuff.

This is rather funny. Instead of offering another solution to expose us to their wares, they continue to push outmoded catalogs upon us(and CDs as well).

Any entrepreneurs out there? There’s a problem looking for a solution…

21

Jane Galt 06.24.07 at 7:12 pm

I’m sceptical that videoconferencing will replace meetings. Frankly, we videoconferenced for a while, and it wasn’t any better than teleconferencing. You can’t see body language or facial expressions of individuals, and would need a full-wall screen to do so; nor can you buy your colleagues a drink. Even very good video, of the grade on a videotape, say, doesn’t give you the same rush of social brain hormones you get from being next to a real person. Full body holograms might do it, but they’re a ways away, and also, might require more energy than flying people in for a meeting once a month.

22

Trevor 06.24.07 at 7:38 pm

23

Barry 06.24.07 at 8:03 pm

“So, on the one hand, I’m doing my research in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago; on the other, when I go to interview academics who have 30+ years of work and experience to draw from, I see them pulling old photocopies out of their files with flawless recollection, and I wonder if my own .pdfs, .docs, .jpgs, .gifs, .pngs etc will have the same staying power.”

Posted by richard ·

Talk with some archivists at your university who specialize in digital archiving. It’ll probably save you a lot of grief in decades to come.

24

martin Wisse 06.24.07 at 9:16 pm

#24 or dump everything in the public domain on the internet: that’ll keep it preserved, though with no quarantee of quality.

25

Tracy W 06.24.07 at 9:25 pm

I do all my algebraic equation solving on paper, if I try to set up and solve an equation on a computer screen I spend too much brain power getting the computer to format it properly.

Obviously once I’ve got the equation, if I have any decent number-crunching to do I load it onto the computer. And I eventually chuck my maths notes so at least they don’t hang around the office.

26

H. E. Baber 06.24.07 at 9:50 pm

Wow yes. I’m in middle of writing a response to a paper. The paper downloaded from a journal is on the left side of my screen; my paper in progress is on the right. I’ve been working this way exclusively since we got access to journals online. I also have a number of 3 ring binders full of neatly organized xeroxes of articles I haven’t looked at in years but which I can’t, yet, bear to throw out.

My question is: so why do quite a number of journals refuse electronic submissions? One journal demanded three copies on A4 or American legal-sized paper AND the paper as an attachment to email. Why would any journal want to go through the hassle and expense of sending out hardcopies for review? And if that’s not what they’re doing, what are they doing with those three copies on legal-sized paper? Is this some ploy to cut down own submissions or what?

27

clew 06.24.07 at 10:53 pm

“I can’t imagine any size monitor replacing good ol’ stack of continuous paper when you have a lot of handwritten notes all over it and use your fingers for bookmarks.”

But it’s also true that no paper, however filled with notes and Post-Its, can replace grep and diff. Becoming a competent user of computers is as rare as becoming a competent user of paper-based scholarly habits; and few of us have the time or the need to learn both.

tom s. — Me, I have almost all articles on pdfs, and some printed, and use BibDesk to organize both; what I do print is filed by bibtex ID, and there’s a mark in the bib record to remind me that I printed it out. I hate printing stuff out twice.

28

Slocum 06.25.07 at 12:31 am

I really hate paper. I find it is such a relief not to have to worry about filing and organizing and instead let text indexing & search solve the problem of finding things when I need them again.

29

vivian 06.25.07 at 12:52 am

Abb1: “And I can’t imagine any size monitor replacing good ol’ stack of continuous paper when you have a lot of handwritten notes all over it and use your fingers for bookmarks. Some things can’t be improved.”

Ah, you were lucky! When I were a lad, we kept our notes on punchcards. My task was to weave the little holes closed so we could reuse the cards for the next project. When I was promoted, I built my first “cubicle” out of old punchcards. Uphill, both ways.

30

Matt McIrvin 06.25.07 at 12:55 am

I do all my algebraic equation solving on paper, if I try to set up and solve an equation on a computer screen I spend too much brain power getting the computer to format it properly.

When I was in grad school, evaluating Feynman diagrams, I went way, way, too long before caving in and using a symbolic algebra program. The learning curve was tough, but had I not done that, I’d never have finished my thesis work. There are just too many places to make a sign error in an equation half a page long.

Most people who use these things, though, seem never to get far beyond using them as graphing devices and automated tables of integrals.

31

sara 06.25.07 at 2:11 am

At risk of cliché, you can spill half a cup of coffee on a paper print-out and not create an extensive (and expensive) crisis.

32

John Quiggin 06.25.07 at 5:16 am

#31. I coded my first program with a hand punch. It used a DO Loop to add the integers from 1 to 100. This was just about the time the GoTo statement was first Considered Harmful.

33

abb1 06.25.07 at 7:12 am

Well, joking aside, I remember I did, on a few occasions, save time by cutting wholes in punchcards with a razor.

As far as grep/diff – sure, there are some useful utilities; just saying that a paper printout has its own non-trivial advantages too.

34

bill wringe 06.25.07 at 8:07 am

‘At risk of cliché, you can spill half a cup of coffee on a paper print-out and not create an extensive (and expensive) crisis’

and this is, of course an important part of the creative scholarly process: I generally find that the first thing I do when I have a paper sent back to me with a reject or revise and resubmit verdict is to print it out and pour a cup of coffee over it.

It hasn’t done much for my publication rate, but it certainly makes me feel better.

35

c.l. ball 06.25.07 at 4:12 pm

My question is: so why do quite a number of journals refuse electronic submissions? One journal demanded three copies on A4 or American legal-sized paper AND the paper as an attachment to email. Why would any journal want to go through the hassle and expense of sending out hardcopies for review? And if that’s not what they’re doing, what are they doing with those three copies on legal-sized paper? Is this some ploy to cut down own submissions or what?

First, some just have those reqs as legacies. Second, older editors and reviewers want to read on printed paper, not on-screen. Editing is also harder without paper if file formats are not compatible. Third, printing copies can be expensive at the journal offices — and older computers and printers take a long time to print 20-page papers. Fourth, reviewers sometimes demand hardcopies — when I offered them a choice, half would ask for the hardcopy.

36

anon 06.25.07 at 8:07 pm

why do some journals refuse electronic submissions?

Just a guess, but to c.l. ball’s list you might add a fifth reason: electronic submissions require some processing to make anonymous, thanks to author/owner information embedded in the files.

37

Katherine 06.26.07 at 11:00 am

Lawyers will never ever stop using paper. The paper trail is the most important part of any legal file. You send an email? You print it out and put it on the file. You pdf a document? You print it out and put it on the file. Computer back up or not, having the hard copy, arse-covering stuff on file is essential. There will never be a paperless legal firm.

38

JC 06.26.07 at 8:41 pm

katherine (#39):
For what it is worth, I’m a lawyer and I have never seen anyone do what you describe. Maybe different practice areas have different customs? (I’m a litigator with a big corporate firm in NYC – maybe deal lawyers do things differently.) Actually, I was thinking as I read this thread of the absurd amount of time I spend dealing with tech people in order to gather and extract all of my clients’ electronic documents for discovery purposes. Paper files – to the extent that companies still archive them – are an ever-shrinking percentage of what we typically gather for litigation purposes.

39

hallam 06.27.07 at 12:33 am

Err exactly how could the NYT do tests that demonstrated that a 42″ monitor was optimal? Although you can buy a 42″ TV monitor none of the suppliers I am aware of can supply a monitor with higher resolution than the 30″ 1600×2560 Samsung panel.

Otherwise I would have bought one.

And even if such a monitor did exist the hardware required to drive a 30″ beastie happily is not exactly trivial.

40

Katherine 06.27.07 at 12:28 pm

JC, for what’s it is worth I was a lawyer until a year ago. But in a large London corporate firm. And not a litigator. So perhaps there’s the difference – less need to hide stuff?

41

Adam 06.27.07 at 3:45 pm

Somewhat off-topic, but: in addition to being mostly paperless, I also recently discovered that I was entirely penless. I needed to fill our an envelope, and I was unable to do so. Even more so than my reading, my writing has gone purely digital.

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