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…