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The Paperless Office: I CALLED IT!

In 2002, I wrote a lengthy response to Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on The Social Life of Paper. Gladwell was addressing a recent book at the time, The Myth of the Paperless Office, and coming to the conclusion, with them, that all this gee-whiz computer technology is not leading to a paperless office, and paper is great, and computers aren’t so great, and hey, you kids, get off my lawn.

Actually, he didn’t say, “hey, you kids, get off my lawn,” but I’ve just now added that because, at the time, I suspected that a significant factor for why we hadn’t seen a paperless office was generational. In my post, I discussed how Adaptive Path (a year old at the time) was highly electronic, particularly in its inner workings. We used paper for deliverables to clients, and contractual documents, and not much else. I finished my post with:

I think what needs to be studied are the differences in computer and paper use across generations. Because I think that the primacy of paper in knowledge work is not simply because of the technology’s affordances; I suspect that it’s largely because “it’s always been done that way.” For me, who begin typing on a word processor at age 12, and who has no trouble reading long stretches of text on a screen, I don’t find that paper necessarily supports my knowledge work any better than digital documents. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not alone.

(Yes, I know it’s obnoxious quoting myself. But it saves you the time for going back to read it.)

Anyway, the most recent issue of The Economist discusses the “return of the paperless office,” and contains such copy as:

“It’s a generational thing,” says Greg Gibson, in charge of North American office paper at International Paper (IP), the world’s largest paper-maker. Older people still prefer a hard copy of most things, but younger workers are increasingly comfortable reading on screens and storing and retrieving information on computers or online. As a result, IP has closed five uncoated-freesheet mills in America in the past decade, and the industry is consolidating. …

As new generations of office workers leave university—where their class notes and syllabuses are online these days—they take their habits with them…

And, we get FURTHER proof that Gladwell, though a good storyteller, is terrible at trendspotting and theory-making.

One thing I’ve noticed at Adaptive Path is that, as we’ve grown, we’ve consumed more and more paper relative to our growth. This is because we started hiring more and more folks trained in design and fine arts, and physical materials are crucial for their work. If AP is any indicator, the future for paper is not in documentation, but in creativity. We sketch, draw, scribble, and design with paper all the time. We’ll go through reams of paper as we stream ideas from our fingertips. But we still rarely print deliverables or other documentation. Paper companies need to figure out how to cater to the creative use of paper in the workplace. I’d love to be a researcher in that study…

  1. Hello Peter

    I just want to be sure that I undestand your position on this post. You’re calling into question Malcolm Gladwell’s theory from 6 years ago, and seemingly precient as we are still “killing a lot of trees” these days, based on the article you cite from The Economist? I have most issued with the nebulous “older generation.” Who are these folks and what is are their characteristics? According to the Pew American Life study, age-wise they are far from the majority if you benchmark digital information at or around 1998. I guess that I still do not follow your conceptual breadcrumbs here and concur more with Paul Saffo who, at the end of the Economist article, wisely allows for both paper and digital in the office of the future. The entirely paperless office will remain a myth.

  2. Be kind to Peter. He recently co-authored and published a book – killing a few trees, he hopes. Which, ecocentric as he is, has got to present him with mixed feelings.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about your 2002 proclamation, peterme. I remember reading it and thinking, “Ha! I’ll never stop printing out and reading paper, and besides, those @#$% phosphors burn into me retinas. Aaarr.” Or words to that effect. Fast forward six years and I have completely changed my behavior, even though I definitely fall into the older demographic you cited back then. What did it for me? Recycling. The more aware I’ve become of both waste disposal and resource depletion, the more serious a recycler I’ve become. After umpty trips to the neighborhood recycling bins, it began to sink in just what a drag it was to lug all that stuff. And the rising cost of auto fuel underscored that. So: I stopped. I began to make better use of the online subscriptions I’ve had for over a decade, and — hardest of all — I gave up newsprint. Except occasionally, when I indulge in a long, slow, page-flipping session with ink and paper and ideas … as delicious as a piece of Belgian chocolate. PS: congratulations on wee Jules!

  4. Hi Peter,

    When forecasting the future, you can be certain of a few things. One of them is, that we are almost always wrong.

    The behaviour of how we use paper has changed quite a bit. Instead of typing up a document in a mechanical device, usually in black and white, we are now printing full colour brochures right of the scanner/printer/copier in the office. The speed with which we can print a high quality coulour print has gone up from several minutes to a few seconds, with the result of more cartridges being used and more paper being used. As you say, you use more paper. Differently, but more.

    This is not confined to paper. Within products and services, somehow, ususally the opposite of what you think will happen will actually happen.

    Take LED lightning devices, for example. Designed to use less power and last for longer (and despite their current inability to produce white light), the result is that every possible surface is being covered with light emitting diodes. In this regard, it is like an opposite Less is More.
    Another interesting result of that is that our bodies and face will be lit from other angles than what we are used to, for example from below, since the desk surface (as well as the walls) will be covered in diodes. Imagine a kid holding a flashlight to his chin. This will change the way that makeup companies (another multibillion dollar industry) will develop make up, as this drastically alters the perception of beauty.

    Before I wander off too long – what is intersting about your blog entry is the notion that you realized something else happened – actually none of you had it right, and the Economist don’t either. Somewhere in the semantic network of innovation, the idea of the paperless office took a turnand changed the products in our offices.

    Sometimes dubbed The Bladerunner Effect, it is by definition very difficult to forecast the future. Actually, over the last year I have noticed how your company move closer to an actual product development mindset (which I applaud), this can be a tremendous advantage. If you are able to synthesize this inverted space wherin things change, you are in a very good spot indeed.

    Congrats with Jules,

    Frederik Andersen

  5. Hey Peter,

    I hope you are well — congrats on the little one and the new home.

    I want add a thought on paper usage. First, I think changes in screen real estate will drive more changes. Since I moved to 3 monitors, I print less. Two of the monitors are 19 in and so I’ve got a good sized desktop. I used to print documents related to design and sit them on my physical desk. Then I’d refer back and forth from the desk to a screen. For example, when writing an email, I might need to refer to something on another screen and rather than all that clicking about, I would print (although the guilt was always there making me hesitate). I’m not sure about your neck of the woods where things tend to happen sooner, but screen real estate among my co-workers is still often a laptop screen. There is solid research on the increased productivity of multiple monitors and I think we’ll see people expanding their real estate over time.


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