Whatever happened to the paperless office?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 31 May 2003)

It's never easy to distinguish between a social visionary and an outright loon. In the 1950s, those predicting the future routinely assumed that religion as a force in world affairs was finished forever, nationalism was no longer politically relevant, and atomic energy would soon provide all of civilization's power, cheap. In that era, predicting was done more or less spontaneously, by amateurs. The 1960s replaced them with a new kind of forecaster, the professional futurist, much better informed, who could describe in detail the society of the future.

These new seers went forth and multiplied. Today the World Future Society, founded in 1966, maintains a membership of 25,000 and publishes a journal, The Futurist ("for people who take the future seriously"), which promises to give readers the tools to make vital decisions. Alas, melancholy experience has taught me that most futurists are "learned wankers," a valuable phrase I borrowed from my distinguished pagemate, Christie Blatchford. Futurists, it seems clear, seldom have any idea what they are talking about. Even the most brilliant, Marshall McLuhan, who is to futurism what Freud is to psychiatry, was subject to extravagant fantasies. In 1964, he believed firmly that soon we would all design our own unique automobiles, with computer-directed factories operating like bespoke tailors. Others predicted the coming of the leisure society and the self-cleaning house.

Over the years most futurists have agreed on the imminence of one Utopian ideal, the paperless office, a place where everyone will work exclusively on computers and read only from screens. "Smearing ink on dead trees," as one futurist contemptuously called it, will no longer be necessary. Paper will go the way of horses.

This notion has always seemed to me the perfect emblem of muddled futurism. One day in the 1980s an architect told me proudly that he had upset his colleagues by banning pencils and paper from the office; everything was to be designed on computers. (He subsequently went bankrupt, perhaps for unconnected reasons.) His was no isolated impulse. In 1970, Alvin Toffler, the author of Future Shock and a member of the global advisory council of the World Future Society, declared that "making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of machines and violates their very spirit." In 1975 researchers at the Xerox labs let it be known that they could see the paperless office looming on the horizon. In 1979, U.S. News & World Report announced that computers would create a "paperless office" in the 1980s.

As recently as 1992, Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., expressed his confidence in the same idea. While acknowledging that American consumption of paper for communications had grown faster than the gross national product in every year since 1945, he nevertheless insisted that "Paper is well on its way to becoming a metaphor," perhaps like the paste-pot that survives as an icon on some computer screens. "The 1990s," Saffo wrote, "will be a transitional decade bringing us ever closer to a paperless world."

Wrong again. Paper consumption has steadily risen since he wrote that, and shows no signs of slacking off. How come? The answers, which may prove slightly chastening to futurists, appear in The Myth of the Paperless Office, by two British scholars, Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper, which MIT Press brought out last year and has now reissued in paperback.

Sellen and Harper decided to find out why we still use so much paper even as we grow more adept at handling information electronically. Like anthropologists, they stalked paper-users in their native habitats -- economists at the International Monetary Fund, air-traffic controllers, British cops interviewing crime victims, and many others.

Their rather obvious but well-documented conclusion is that paper works better. You can mark on it with coloured ink, scribble your responses in the margin, develop new ideas on top of your old ideas, compare three or four documents on your desk at the same time. And of course, at present technological levels, anything on paper reads better than anything on a screen. They discovered something else: When people deliver a report to the boss, they feel much better handing it over in printed form. Sending it as an e-mail attachment, while more efficient and cheaper, isn't as emotionally satisfying.

If this explains why paper remains popular, why does it keep growing more popular? Because using it keeps getting easier. Once it took time and effort to cover a piece of paper with words. Now you push a button. As for me, I not only use three times as much paper as I did a decade ago, I also use better paper; my laser printer would certainly never tolerate the cheap newsprint I used in the olden days. One more reason, of course, is that so much information flows on the Web and ends up on paper. When Arts & Letters Daily or another source sends me to something interesting, I immediately print it out for comfortable reading. Even if it's one of those misguided articles predicting the coming of the paperless office.

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