Do We Really Want a Paperless World?

by Dana on April 27, 2009

digital-information-versus-paper In 1966, the Harvard Business Review introduced the idea of “paperless clearing houses”, in reference to the emergence of digital data storage. Since then, the microprocessor industry emerged, personal computers were introduced, and before we knew it, everyone is connected by the web. The delivery and the digitization of data is no longer a fantasy.

But the implementation and eventual realization of this inevitable “paperless” world, however, is taking longer than expected. Ten years ago, we were told that every participant in the information age is marching towards the digital world in more or less uniformity. But despite the obvious technological leaps, we are still far from a paperless world.

Paperless for some

So far, we have managed to scrape a layer off of perfunctory bookkeeping. In areas such as online tax filing and the digitization of our numerous monthly financial statements, the quick and convenient source-to-records applications have surely saved both cost and time for all parties involved. In the case of communication, personal letters are replaced by the superior email deliveries. In those cases, paper as the medium of communication has been eliminated.

Now with various access points for information, cheap storage devices, accessible scanners and various other forms of affordable technology, all of which are competing to drive paper out of our lives for good, what is the outlook for paper?

Professional uses

The term “paper-pusher” was coined for a reason. Knowing that, it should not be surprising that paper is far from disappearing, particularly within some of the older professions. In legal and business communities, for example, cyber security risks, as well as legal concerns still mandate paper record-keeping for a period of time.

From my own experience in a corporate setting, printing is not something you can move away from quickly. Most businesses operate from desktops, thus short of sharing your desktop – which many more tech savvy businesses do on a regular basis, one need to print off documents in order to discuss and demonstrate. Plus, even when performing numbers-related tasks, where computer applications are assets, printing documents for review is deemed mandatory as a last check-up.

Portability of paper and paper-related products

Papers cannot die because they are portable and cheap to discard. You can carry around pages without worrying about scratching an expensive device or drawing unwanted attention, or marking the pages up and down while doodling on them. You can also make printed copies of paper and distribute them at a meeting, without worrying about whether everyone has a device on hand through which they can retrieve the information.

Holding something tangible in your hands

Smart Board got big because they capitalized on our need to create something from scratch, and the ability to transport that creation into something instantly digitized, shared and easily transferrable. It captured the appeal and convenience of an old-fashioned whiteboard, while transforming it into something fitting for the 21st century business environment.

Sociologists think our attachment to more antiquated products such as whiteboards and paper is a generational issue. And they are convinced that the up-and-coming generations will increasingly rely on none-traditional sources of media that disseminate information. Yet in the case of digital environments that attempt to replace paper, personal experiences and observations tell me that certain activities are not best performed in front of a computer.

We are visually driven on the net

The internet started off with text, but it probably won’t end with text. The traditional newspaper industry has demonstrated its ignorance by simply moving their offline contents online. It doesn’t work that way, because readers cannot effectively consume a large portion of that information online.

The internet is a visual medium. And that explains why businesses from pornography and YouTube, to the slew of lolcat-esque visually stimulating sites have taken off. Norwegian newspapers have taken advantage of this fact to largely recession-proof their online business models.

The rise of blogging

The business of blogs is now mainstream, and the trend of micro-blogging via Twitter and Facebook is becoming an unstoppable force. It seems that information is best delivered through the online medium in snippets. Bloggers are told to follow the formula of keeping posts short, for fear of losing their audiences. The cultural snobs are huddled in a corner, decrying the dummification effect of the web, and the damaging impact it has on the devolution of our attention span.

Contents that gain traction through the online space feed on our escapism (gossip blogs and entertainment blogs do extraordinarily well), or to satisfy our need for breaking news. So now all the techies are off the race, developing the next Twitter-based platform or hacking some API to break the breaking news.

We are text averse on the net

Kindle realizes that reading, particularly something as long and involved as a book, is not something you can do while hunched over the glaring screens of a device that is hardly friendly to the eyes. For most users, net-supported devices are best at delivering information that is instantly digestible, and for the most part, highly perishable. It provides the means through which we communicate and share.

But reading and thinking have traditionally been solitary and contemplative activities. Many people have decried the ways that technology has robbed us of our patience, and subsequently our ability to concentrate and tackle more involved ideas and thoughts. It is not true. As human beings, we are just as prone to philosophizing as generations past. It’s just that the form of media presented to us have done little to facilitate such activities.

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should

So perhaps the transitory process that we are going through right now will end up segmenting the ways through which information is delivered. While some are best consumed online, whether through a computer terminal or a mobile device in a just-in-time manner, there are materials best appreciated through a medium that is slower placed.

Much of Starbucks’ appeal lie in the way it packages premium coffee consumption as an experience above all else. As consumers of information, we will have to decide soon whether we want to consume the lengthier pieces of information in the form of a McDonald drive-through (that is, digitally), or savour the content in a Starbucks-like setting (in its paper, video, or audio incarnation).

Or maybe information will be sold just like the clothes. You can buy clothes through secondhand stores or Saks, and all will serve its primary function – keeping one clothed. But the fit, quality and ease of purchase differ tremendously. Instead of having quality or brands as the differentiating factor, the mode of content delivery may become the differentiating point when it comes to information products.

Just because technology has made information available to us at a marginal price of almost zero, doesn’t mean that it is the best form through which we should choose to consume it.

Follow more discussion on this post here.

picture source: vim-alex

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  • http://www.LearnFinancialPlanning.com Shaun

    Great post. I’m not a huge fan of a paperless world, if only because I’ve read 1984 one too many times — paper is harder to destroy than digital ones and zeros. ;-)

  • http://www.LearnFinancialPlanning.com Shaun

    Great post. I’m not a huge fan of a paperless world, if only because I’ve read 1984 one too many times — paper is harder to destroy than digital ones and zeros. ;-)

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    I’m very skeptical as to the whether the web is really the best way to deliver content, particularly writings that are longer and more involved. I find myself usually glazing over an article longer than a couple of thousand words.

    I think information can still fetch a price if the right pieces are delivered to the people that want them, in a format and within a time frame acceptable to them.

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    I’m very skeptical as to the whether the web is really the best way to deliver content, particularly writings that are longer and more involved. I find myself usually glazing over an article longer than a couple of thousand words.

    I think information can still fetch a price if the right pieces are delivered to the people that want them, in a format and within a time frame acceptable to them.

  • http://khazanahpikir.blogspot.com Retty

    Hi, nice blog…
    I am still preferring reading books than e-books, but I’ve got to admit that the online world gave us choices of news to choose. It is also open a wider communication with people we do not know, with culture we do not familiar with…

  • http://khazanahpikir.blogspot.com Retty

    Hi, nice blog…
    I am still preferring reading books than e-books, but I’ve got to admit that the online world gave us choices of news to choose. It is also open a wider communication with people we do not know, with culture we do not familiar with…

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    Retty,

    Thank you. It would be interesting to see how we navigate between the digital and the paper worlds going forward.

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    Retty,

    Thank you. It would be interesting to see how we navigate between the digital and the paper worlds going forward.

  • http://gustavourena.com GUstavo Ureña

    I think that no matter what medium we chose, what’s going to dictate how we access information is the content itself. For example, breaking news or time sensitive information requires a medium that can deliver in a fast manner, printing materials just take too long to be produced (writing, printing and distribution). It was just impossible to get the news a few minutes after it happen a few decades ago because it was the job of a group of people. Now people have cellphone able to upload content to blogs or twitt about anything happening, this gives the power to regular person to generate content, and content is the king…
    In another hand, there are certain content that requires a printing medium (textbooks, novels, etc) and anything that takes more than 30 mins to read.
    Remember printing on paper was invented as a cheap and fast way of provide information in a large quantity. Now digital production of the same informations solve the problem of distribution in a cheaper and faster way than paper.

    This is the age of collective information, and paper… as much as I like it will disappear in some industries due to its performance.

  • http://gustavourena.com GUstavo Ureña

    I think that no matter what medium we chose, what’s going to dictate how we access information is the content itself. For example, breaking news or time sensitive information requires a medium that can deliver in a fast manner, printing materials just take too long to be produced (writing, printing and distribution). It was just impossible to get the news a few minutes after it happen a few decades ago because it was the job of a group of people. Now people have cellphone able to upload content to blogs or twitt about anything happening, this gives the power to regular person to generate content, and content is the king…
    In another hand, there are certain content that requires a printing medium (textbooks, novels, etc) and anything that takes more than 30 mins to read.
    Remember printing on paper was invented as a cheap and fast way of provide information in a large quantity. Now digital production of the same informations solve the problem of distribution in a cheaper and faster way than paper.

    This is the age of collective information, and paper… as much as I like it will disappear in some industries due to its performance.

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    Gustavo,

    I do wonder sometimes if we give content the attention it deserves. As cheap and convenient, interactive and reactive as the digital medium is in facilitating the transfer of information, it is not one that encourages deep reading, and the digestion of long pieces. That’s why I think the Kindle is particularly timely. It takes care of the reading of books, but what about medium-length pieces that are too long for mobile/computer reading, but too short to be sold on a piece-meal basis through Kindle or something like it?

    Just a thought. Thank you for dropping by.

  • http://investoralist.com Dana

    Gustavo,

    I do wonder sometimes if we give content the attention it deserves. As cheap and convenient, interactive and reactive as the digital medium is in facilitating the transfer of information, it is not one that encourages deep reading, and the digestion of long pieces. That’s why I think the Kindle is particularly timely. It takes care of the reading of books, but what about medium-length pieces that are too long for mobile/computer reading, but too short to be sold on a piece-meal basis through Kindle or something like it?

    Just a thought. Thank you for dropping by.

  • http://gustavourena.com GUstavo Ureña

    … then it is up to your discretion. you will choose a medium that will be better to deliver the content base on your needs.

  • http://gustavourena.com GUstavo Ureña

    … then it is up to your discretion. you will choose a medium that will be better to deliver the content base on your needs.