Sunday, July 17, 2011
Whatever happened to the "paperless office"?
As of 2011, are we, as a nation, using significantly less paper than, say, 20 years ago? The obvious answer, to me, is yes, but then I think of all the reams of paper around offices and I wonder. Are we really using less paper and therefore saving the forests?
All I can say is, be prepared for a shock.
First the back story. Perhaps the best-known prediction of the paperless office came in a 1975 Business Week article entitled "The Office of the Future." Reading it today, you're struck by the mix of freakily accurate prediction and laughable naivete. At a time when personal computers and the Internet were still embryonic, experts foresaw PCs on every desktop that could talk to each other by network. At the same time, they lamented that a major obstacle to paperlessness would be the boss's attachment to dictating letters to a stenographer. As it happened, the steno pool was an early casualty of the digital age.
Predictions of a massive shift from paper documents to electronic ones were likewise wildly off, at least in the early going. Global consumption of paper doubled between 1980 and 2000. Partly that was because of general economic expansion, but strictly on a per-worker basis U.S. consumption of paper increased 50 percent between 1990 and 2000, inspiring books such as 2001’s The Myth of the Paperless Office.
Theorists struggled to explain why this was so. In 2006 sociologist Richard York suggested two possibilities. The first was the Jevons paradox, initially proposed by 19th-century British economist William Jevons: as use of a resource becomes more efficient, in effect it becomes cheaper, which leads to greater use. Better fuel economy doesn't reduce gasoline consumption; instead it encourages people to drive more, and overall gas use goes up.
As York recognized, however, the Jevons paradox didn’t fully explain why the paperless office had failed to materialize. Digital technology didn’t make paper cheaper; rather, it offered a cheaper alternative, namely electronic data storage. So why didn't one drive out the other? York proposed the paradox of the paperless office: as the cost of memory technology drops, we create and store more digital documents. Meanwhile, easy access to printers encourages workers to make paper copies of all those documents, and total paper use increases.