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HAIL THE ALMIGHTY ELECTRON! Posted on 04/28/2002.

During internal company meetings, notes are taken on a laptop, which is projecting on a wall. In client working sessions, website architecture diagrams are manipulated in a Visio document that’s projected on to a whiteboard, and occasionally someone scrawls amendments on the projection, which are then recorded by the laptop keeper. Business decisions are conducted over email. New business proposals are written by two or three partners, each of who work on a section, and each of whom comment on the others’ work using Word’s “comments” and “track changes” features. They are then converted to .PDF and emailed to clients. Deliverables are emailed between partners, attached to long emails dissecting them piece-by-piece.

Since incorporating at the beginning of 2001, Adaptive Path, the company for which I’m one of seven partners, has very little paper to show for it. Pretty much, the only papers the company has are legal documents that are required to be in hardcopy form. And, with rare exceptions, all of the “thinking” work of the company is done electronically. Our office doesn’t even have a printer (and only grudgingly do we have a fax).

Over a month ago, Malcolm Gladwell’s essay/book review, “The Social Life of Paper”, ran in The New Yorker. It’s basic thesis, which it shares with the book under review, The Myth of the Paperless Office, is that paper is a remarkable technology for enabling thinking and collaboration, far more so than the computers that were supposedly going to take its place.

I increasingly approach Gladwell’s attempts at explanations and theorizing with skepticism, ever since he was unable to articulate any coherent theory in The Tipping Point. The man tells a good story; he tends to make a poor extrapolation. I recognize that my paperless experience is only a single data point (and I didn’t even talk about reading websites on the john (thanks Wi-Fi!) or situating the laptop in the kitchen so I could follow a recipe I was emailed). But I don’t think my experience is that extreme. I also suspect that, being both a) staffed by young people and b) fairly early-adopter-ish, the experience at Adaptive Path might be more of a trend forecast than simply an outlier on the bell curve of paper use.

A primary example of the importance and resilience of paper in Gladwell’s essay is its use by air traffic controllers. He cites the work done by Wendy Mackay, who conducted ethnographic studies of flight centers, and developed an intriguing view of how paper is used to ease the cognitive load the controllers are facing. You can read her paper here.

However, some poking around on the Web turned up other research by Johan Berndtsson and Maria Normark, namely “The Coordinative Functions of Flight Strips: Air Traffic Control Work Revisited”. And while they have a similarly respectful understanding of the complexity of interactions that paper flight strips are helping to support, they arrive at a much different conclusion: “The flight strips in themselves are not irreplaceable as coordinative tools in air traffic control work; instead, the importance lies in understanding exactly what essential functions they fulfill, and which of their characteristics to reinforce in the design of a worthy successor.”

This, for me, is key. Computers are simply enabling technologies. They can be designed to support the same kinds of tasks that paper supports. While, in the present-day, air traffic controllers have developed a complex communicative and cogitative ritual based on the flight strips, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be transferred to a computer screen. There is nothing particularly sacrosanct about pressed, bleached wood pulp.

In the next part of his essay, while discussing how economists collaborate on reports, Gladwell states that digital documents “lack the affordances that really matter to a group of people working together on a report.” Yet my personal experience, writing reports and proposals with up to 5 other Adaptive Path partners, runs wholly contrary to this.

This is followed by a set of typically Gladwell-ian non sequiturs. Gladwell has never met an interesting tidbit he doesn’t like, and will string them together whether or not it’s pertinent to his thesis. This one begins with a discussion of paper piles. (And, for those who are interested, the research performed by “a group at Apple Computer” can be read here.
(and lord how I fucking love Google!) (and for those who like this piece, you might be interested to know that Gitta Salomon is a principle at the highly acclaimed interaction design studio Swim; Yin Yin Wong is a co-founder of Urbanpixel, a company selling information visualization services, and Richard Mander is a principal at Zanzara, a small user experience consultancy. (There’s a lot of those around!))

(And yes, I’m noting the irony of calling out Gladwell’s tangential tendencies.)

Gladwell’s talk of piles then meanders into a recollection of Melvil Dewey, who seems to warrant mention in large part because he was an “outspoken racist and anti-Semite” (Gladwell, always with the tidbits!).He then discourses on the unintended uses of technologies (Edison designed the phonograph to take memos!), and the messiness of a researcher’s desk.

He then tries to bring it back around, moving from piles to air traffic controllers, with a logical leap that doesn’t really work: “Air traffic controllers are the quintessential knowledge workers.” No, they’re not. They’re human data processors. There is little “knowledge” in their work, besides the processes of how to accomplish their tasks. More than anything else they simply react to situations, and annotate what is transpiring. The work of an air traffic controller might in fact be among the least typical forms of “knowledge work” around. As even Gladwell himself points out at the beginning, flight centers resemble busy restaurant kitchens more than anything else. And how many of us grapple with “mission-critical” information that affects the lives of thousands of people daily?

And Gladwell continues on a similarly sour note. “That is the irony of the P.C.: the workplace problem that it solves is the nineteenth-century anxiety. It's a better filing cabinet than the original vertical file, and if Dewey were alive today, he'd no doubt be working very happily in an information-technology department somewhere.” Sure, computers can store documents like no prior technology, but has Gladwell ever looked for anything archived on a network server? The spatial qualities of real-world file cabinets can often make retrieving archived material far easier than the formless mush that is cyberspace.

And then, this final passage must be reprinted in full:

The problem that paper solves, by contrast, is the problem that most concerns us today, which is how to support knowledge work. In fretting over paper, we have been tripped up by a historical accident of innovation, confused by the assumption that the most important invention is always the most recent. Had the computer come first—and paper second—no one would raise an eyebrow at the flight strips cluttering our air-traffic-control centers.

I have no idea what he means here. This is such a clunky attempt at arriving at a thesis that it borders on the meaningless. Had the computer come first, I’d bet dollars to donuts there wouldn’t be flight strips in air traffic control centers. Computers do support knowledge work, as I think my experience has demonstrated.

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.

23 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "The Problem With The Media."
Next entry: "Passel of stuff to read."


But. Isn't part of the reason that AP's partners are willing/able to use collaborative computer technologies in lieu of paper due to your frequent geographic dispersal?

Paper fails most egregiously over distance, it's that flaw that props up FedEx and makes many people (myself not included) tolerate fax machines.

I would also submit (without any corroborating evidence, yet) that part of the entrenchment of paper is due to the fact that it's so much less intrusive in a face-to-face meeting. Meet anyone who's a decision-maker or in a position of power in an organization, and they'll seldom (except in extremely technical disciplines) have a laptop in front of them. It's still a pad of paper and a pen, if anything, because they can prop that on the edge of a table or desk and still maintain the position, bearing, and attitude of authority.

A laptop, no matter how svelte and stylish, almost necessarily obstructs eyelines and infringes tremendously on body language, and that helps preserve paper's place in business. This fact alone is the best indicator, in my opinion, that the Tablet PC form factor that's being bandied about again might succeed, if all other elements fall into place.

Also, paper sucks.
Posted by Anil @ 04/28/2002 10:17 PM PST [link to this comment]

Yes, geographic dispersion is a key element, but that kind of proves my point. Separated by distance, we use the computer to enable us to think together.

Also, we use the computer, even when we *are* together. (Remember, no printer in the office). And we use it when we're in collaborative working sessions with clients. (Who sometimes print out what we've sent them beforehand, but we do all the modifications 'real-time' in the digital document, projected on a wall.)

I also agree that form factor is an issue, and an essential one. In this article, there's an assumption that a "computer" is a box that sits, not moving, on a desk. Clearly, that's not always the case.
Posted by peterme @ 04/28/2002 10:41 PM PST [link to this comment]

I guess I'm of the computer generation, never owning my own typewriter or having a decent enough penmenship to write more than a page (I have my fourth grade report card somewhere, straight A's with a C- in penmenship).

I can't imagine collaborating on anything paper-based with others. Sure it is easy to write a comment on a printed page, but working with say three different sets of comments on a paper you wrote seems quite difficult, while editing and annotation is seamless in Word. I've collaborated with many folks over a tracked-changes Word document, most recently working with three editors in the UK for something I wrote over the course of a few weeks at home. I couldn't imagine trying to keep each person's commented copy separate, yet working in all their changes.

Pyra was paperless by and large, with legal documents and receipts being the only thing that was ever required on paper.

As a freelancer, I determine needs over email, respond to spec documents in Word and email/phone, show mockups as screencapped gifs, deliver websites in HTML, then send invoices as excel attachments over email. The only paper involved is the check I receive when I'm done.

Maybe this is worthy of a $1,000 Long Bet with Gladwell. In 30 years when the older generation is dead, most offices won't even have printers.
Posted by mathowie @ 04/28/2002 10:49 PM PST [link to this comment]

At some pages in a project, I tend to print out a lot of documentation: to review it. Even now with the book I find reviewing things on a screen painful: no flipping around pages, there is so little space on a screen!
Posted by PeterV @ 04/29/2002 06:07 AM PST [link to this comment]

At the supermarket check-out they always ask, "Paper or plastic?" I ususally answer, "Both, please." I think that holds pretty well also for "Paper or pixels?" Whatever works, works.

I know writers who can only work on legal pads with pencils. I can only write on a typewriter, which has now been replaced by this keyboard.

I love to burn my eyeballs on this monitor to the Internet, but don't take away the ink-stained fingers I get from my morning TIMES.

I just received an email from some traveling friends who found an Internet cafe in Messina Italy. Isn't that awesome?

But what can beat the experience of sitting in the sun or in a cosy chair under a reading lamp with a good book on your lap?

Gladwell never synthesizes; he strives mightily only to make his point. His technique of research-into-proposition-equals-conclusion opens up what I call the Gladwell Gap. He takes a bigger leap from his data to his deductions that I can follow. Otherwise, I kind of like his writing style. I just wish he would apply it to more rigorous standards reason.
Posted by BJMe @ 04/29/2002 09:33 AM PST [link to this comment]

What happened to the "of" before "reason" at the end of my comment? Did Gladwell lift it?
Posted by BJMe @ 04/29/2002 09:36 AM PST [link to this comment]

Anil and Peter are both right (yay! everyone wins!) because they are making slightly separate points. Computers can serve two purposes during meetings, both of which paper can also serve, both of which a computer does "better," only one of which i think is actually an improvement:

First, computers can be used by individuals to refer to and review documents onscreen that might otherwise be printed out on paper. This is what Anil is referencing, and, yes, there is nothing more annoying in a meeting than a person distracted by their computer when you're trying to get their attention; not only for the reasons Anil mentioned, but also because it means that they're not really *there*. Computers allow a much, much greater degree of distraction during meetings than paper ever will, especially networked ones, as there's an unending sea of material infomagically at hand. This is not an improvement when you want that person's input, and meetings are all about individual input.

Second, computers are much better than whiteboards or large sheets of paper when it comes to presentations to groups, and, more specifically, presentational collaboration. This is why we project on the big screen during our meetings; why we track availabillity via excel on that screen; why we keep notes up there; where we outline our thoughts as we go along. Everyone sees, everyone agrees or in lieu of that everyone feels free to correct. In fact, I would say that "freedom to correct," or, to coin a phrase, the democratization of improvement, is probably the best unintended consequence of computers as collaboration tools. Really lowers the barrier to entry for anybody sitting in from of the screen. This is a huge improvement, since meetings are about response leading to change leading to action, and more response generally means better, more rapid change means more meaningful and focused action. Generally.

On a related note, Peter's dead right about Gladwell. Alas. He's been milking this particular editorial cow for a little too long, and that sucker is dry.
Posted by lane @ 04/29/2002 10:16 AM PST [link to this comment]

not everyone collaborates best in front of a screen. i think my personal doodles, scribbled on typing paper, during meetings as i am listening and watching people's faces and gestures, are as valuable as the input i direct to the group.

i'm a fan of paper, but then again, i make books :) a book you might find interesting is Keith Smith's "Structure of the Visual Book". he has some interesting things to say about the act of reading, holding a book, turning pages, etc that touches on narrative, cycles of time, repetition, and information dispersal. this is great stuff when thinking about interfaces, but also has to do with how i retrieve knowledge. a computer gives you 2 or 3 ways. with paper, there are actually a heck of a lot more, each suitable for a certain task.

(things. stuff. yeah.)
Posted by Rena @ 04/29/2002 10:40 AM PST [link to this comment]

not that i want to turn this into a "one is better than the other thing" -- it's a little too apples and oranges for that -- but scribbling notes to yourself seems to quality more as category one (things i do for myself in a meeting) than as category two (things i do in collaboration with a group).

i think it's important to make this distinction when discussing group settings; and, fwiw, i'm with you in that i consider paper better for the first (though for negative, distraction-avoidance reasons rather than other more positive ones) and computers better for the second.
Posted by Lane @ 04/29/2002 11:19 AM PST [link to this comment]

wow. i should remember to preview before i post. that's "one is better than the other" thing, rather, and "qualify" not "quality." sigh.
Posted by Lane @ 04/29/2002 11:22 AM PST [link to this comment]

Rena, thanks for the pointer to Keith Smith. Some Googling turned up...

the Keith Smith Books website

this list of other interesting books

and a thread on "What Is A Book?" and an affiliated thread on "Redefining the book in the digital age", a subject I dwelled on many moons ago... (scroll down to September 14)
Posted by peterme @ 04/29/2002 01:47 PM PST [link to this comment]

My paperless experience mirrors yours, Peter. I print only in response to someone who wants something printed for them, or for things like certificates we might be presenting to the coach of my son's Little League team.

Also coming from a geographically dispersed, collaborative team in a high-tech company, electrons and photons are our thinking media, and if it weren't for clients and the desire to poster my office space with pictures, I might go a year without printing. Thank you, palm industry, for removing one of the remaining vestiges of printing needs: directions/maps for getting to new places in other cities.

Regarding the utility of molecular media, there is always art that will keep paper in existance, including the expressive/artistic aspect of meeting doodles & notes. Something about the mind enjoying, sometimes, the physical sensation of drawing, writing is going to accompany me for some time.

I'll love the day when the Tablet PCs catch up to their potential. Having seen a demo of IBM's most recent commercial attempt, we might not have long to wait -- but for meeting utility, thier less obtrusive profile may go a long way to lending viability.
Posted by Hank Marxen @ 04/29/2002 02:03 PM PST [link to this comment]

i can't understand computers. i can't make one. if it breaks i have to phone my clever friends.

i can make paper. i understand it. if it breaks i can get more or scribble on the bits of smaller paper. hey i even deliberately break a piece of paper sometimes to be deliberately smaller and yet still functional.

paper's the least tooly tool.

not much noise in the system between the grey gooey cool strange porridgey mind thing, the meaty arm/hand array, the pointy graphite-holding piece of wood and the paper.

but then, i like malcolm gladwell.
Posted by matt @ 04/29/2002 03:37 PM PST [link to this comment]

hey --

i like gladwell just fine. i ran out and bought the tipping point. i think he tells fine stories.

he's just a mediocre theorizer. he needs to stick to chronicling, and leave the trend-spotting to others.
Posted by peterme @ 04/29/2002 03:41 PM PST [link to this comment]

More personal anecdotes on both sides of the argument.

When I worked in a geographically dispersed consulting group, we also used paper for almost nothing. Collaboration was email, intranet (HTML was the authoring format of choice), and phone. In meetings we used whiteboards for shared discussion and laptops to take notes.

Now at a pretty big company, correspondence and document exchange is still mostly email. I use paper primarily for two things:

a) to read and review documents longer than a page or two. I find it a lot easier and faster to read long documents on paper.

b) to review work in progress with colleagues. It's easier to interact with eye contact and body language if you're focusing on your colleague, not the computer. A powerpoint presentation is more likely to devolve into a monologue, which is frequently the goal of a final powerpoint presentation anyway.
Posted by Adina Levin @ 04/29/2002 06:27 PM PST [link to this comment]

Second, computers are much better than whiteboards or large sheets of paper when it comes to presentations to groups, and, more specifically, presentational collaboration.

Hmm. Is there any computer application that supports working the way I've seen most meetings happen? Where there's a whiteboard, someone sketches a few raw ideas in big, misshapen boxes, and then i grab a different colored pen and scribble on the boxes, and then someone else writes her ideas in circles next to the boxes, etc...?

Is there a collaboration app that AP uses that I don't know about where it's easy to have something projected in large scale on the wall a la powerpoint and yet still be able to doodle or at least diagram a la visio? Without having to wrestle the mouse from someone?

I hope there is, but I don't know the realm very well.
Posted by Anil @ 04/29/2002 07:54 PM PST [link to this comment]

Is there any computer application that supports working the way I've seen most meetings happen?

There's Groove.

Sure, Gladwell stretches to make his examples fit his theories (fyi, I thought the Blues Clues section in The Tipping Point was even more far out than the Sesame Street one), but he's no worse than Steven Johnson in that regard.
Posted by Gene @ 04/29/2002 09:26 PM PST [link to this comment]

Hey, Matt! How do you make paper? I know you start with a tree, but after you chop it down, then what?
Posted by BJMe @ 04/30/2002 12:03 AM PST [link to this comment]

makin' paper =
Posted by Matt @ 04/30/2002 04:10 AM PST [link to this comment]

Thanks. I guess I'll stick to store-bought.
Posted by BJMe @ 04/30/2002 08:38 AM PST [link to this comment]

One advantage of paper: motor memory. At least until we're surrounded by many screens and devicelets.

The case for z-coordinates (2Mb PDF, worth the wait).

Posted by persaud @ 05/02/2002 03:01 PM PST [link to this comment]

Gladwell talks about *his* desk -- mine has a keyboard in the middle and two giant screens. Sometimes I don't turn on my printer for days. The crude tools we have now are good enough for me, and none of my clients ever gets paper: they get email, HTML, PDF or (ick) MS Word.
Posted by Avi Rappoport @ 05/02/2002 03:32 PM PST [link to this comment]

'Course the irony is that when I saw Jesse's presentation on deliverables at the IA Sumit, he argued in favor of fitting them on a letter-sized sheet of paper precisely because clients all had printers that could print that size....

I dunno. I think Word is good way of capturing points, probably better than a flipchart, since I can type faster than I can write with a market. (BTW, just curious what projector ya'll use)

But I'm not sure it's good for capturing diagrams, although I suppose that's an argument for looking at something like Denim again. But then that means lugging around a Wacom, which is a bit heavier than a Sharpie and some paper...

One thing that I think gets lost if you're working with computer is some of the "manipulatives" you can do with paper. For example, for clustering excercises I'll put a bunch of stuck on Post-Its. And Post-Its and some string are a great way to do initial site maps, flowcharts. I find the act of moving them around often gets people thinking differently.

But the bottom line is whatever works best for you.
Posted by George Olsen @ 05/03/2002 05:19 PM PST [link to this comment]

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