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?
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.
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picture source: vim-alex
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