Thursday, June 2, 2005

Paperless Society?

Brilliant review by Malcolm Gladwell of the book, The Myth of the Paperless Office, by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper.

The book addresses the reasons why the paperless office has not come into being, despite numerous attempts to make our world "paperless".

In fact, "every country in the Western world uses more paper today, on a per-capita basis, than it did ten years ago."

Sellen and Harper advocate the use of paper as a collaboration tool-- one that helps air traffic controllers rearrange planes in the sky, aids buyers at chocolate companies as they negotiate with suppliers of cocoa and sugar and supports the development of complicated economic reports at the IMF.. As Gladwell writes, "When it comes to performing certain kinds of cognitive tasks, paper has many advantages over computers."

The benefit to paper is that "paper is tangible: we can pick up a document, flip through it, read little bits here and there, and quickly get a sense of it... and it's tailorable: we can easily annotate it, and scribble on it as we read, without altering the original text. " Isn't this what the tablet PC is trying to achieve? Emulate the form of paper as something we can scribble and annotate, yet leave the original unmarred?

Hmm, this is a fascinating view of the role of paper. I always feel as though I'm fighting an endless battle with paper. Piles of paper litter my room, cover my desk and tend to overtake my life. How many substitutes for paper have I tried to find? I am contemplating buying a tablet PC, I have purchased a scanner (to scan all my bills and assorted letters) and the concept of ePaper is extremely exciting. (Who wants to be weighed down with paper??)

I've often subscribed to the view that moving papers online or to an electronic form would "save space and money, and make it easier for everyone [in the firm] to have access to it. " Isn't this the idea behind e-prescribing and electronic patient data management?

But this view of paper as a collaborative tool, a device with which to organize our thoughts is sort of electrifying.

At the end of the day, the book does not advocate using less paper. The idea instead is to "not to use less paper but to keep less paper."

"Paper is a lousy way to archive information. It's too hard to search and it takes up too much space."

In fact, paper is nearly impossible to search without a great filing system. Aaah, another one of my pet peeves -- the inability to organize and locate information! Why is the company Google so successful? Why do I see information manager after information manager? (From Evernote to Onfolio to Backpackit to Mindmanager) -- its incredible how many gizmos exist to help us organize our minds.) Why do I wish I could buy books in electronic format (not so I can pirate them, but so that I can search for things and find information more easily)?? [Will someone ever solve the problem of DRM?]

So what should paper be used for? To think, to organize to support our ideas, but not to archive.