The Paperless Office and the Paperless Society Will Never Happen
With the widespread introduction of computer terminals into offices, and the growing popularity of the personal computer, futurists and computer proponents envisioned the arrival of the “paperless office”. They predicted that in the near future, virtually all paper consumed in offices would be replaced by electronic, computer based mediums. Office workers, who before the advent of the computer relied entirely on typewriters, paper filing systems, and printed documents, could now create, store, and share information using computers. There would be no need to print out documents, because they would be always conveniently available for view using any available computer terminal. Even libraries, which traditionally contain shelves upon shelves of printed books, could be replaced by a large collection of books in electronic form.
There are several main advantages of electronically stored information, as opposed to paper-based information. Content deep within an electronic library can be found using searching algorithms, and a single item within an electronic library can be shared and accessed by a nearly unlimited number of users simultaneously, who can be located in diverse geographic locations. Another advantage of a “paperless society” is environmental in nature: a dependence on paper takes its toll on our world’s forests, which are vital to the planet in many ways, such as providing oxygen, absorbing rainwater, protecting soil, and regulating climate. I would argue, however, that this environmental advantage is somewhat stretched out of proportion by computer advocates, because the manufacture of computers requires natural resources, and there are new environmental problems created by the need to dispose of computer systems frequently due to rapid changes in technology and Moore’s Law[i].
It would seem reasonable to expect that as computer technology improves and becomes more accepted and integrated into the activities of the home and office, that the need for paper would correspondingly lessen. I would expect this change to occur gradually, and that full “independence” from paper would only be achieved after many years of computerization.
There would be important economic impacts of such a fundamental change in human society, which would be felt by both the forest industry and the computer industry. The forest industry, acting in its self interest, would attempt to prevent such a change from occurring, using strategies such as creative marketing of paper products, and supporting the invention or improvement of paper-dependent technologies such as the photocopier or printer. The computer industry, and in particular the Information Technology industry, has an interest in making society more computer-dependent, and seeks to develop technology that brings more flexibility and productivity to businesses through the use of electronic information as opposed to paper-based...