Are we finally close to a paperless world?

by Frank 13. December 2011 13:42

Twenty five years ago I used to give presentations and seminars on how to achieve the paperless office. After a few years I stopped talking about the paperless office because it was patently obvious that it was not going to happen. I used to joke that unless governments outlawed fax machines, copiers and laser printers that it would never happen and so far I have been proven right.

We now use and store more paper than ever. All around the world off-site storage companies like Iron Mountain and Crown are building or acquiring hundreds of new off-site box storage warehouses each year as we continue to pulp trees into paper and then store the paper in boxes which we then ship off to warehouses and then forget about.

Even if we outlawed the storage of paper tomorrow we would still have trillions of pages stored for at least the next 50 years because of compliance reasons. We can’t even convert all this paper to digital images because the handling and conversion costs would be monumentally “this will bankrupt you” high.

So for existing paper at least it looks like we will be managing trillions of pages and hundreds of millions of archive boxes for a long, long time to come.

However, what about the use of paper in our normal working and personal lives? Will we still have newspapers and books and magazines and business letters and paper contracts in five years’ time?

Will we still buy paper tickets at bus and train stations? Will we still buy movie and theatre tickets? Will we still get paper receipts from stores and restaurants? Will we still use paper and cardboard for packaging and wrapping presents? Will we still take paper minutes to meetings and will we still print out documents to review? Not to mention the unmentionable, that is, what will we use in the bathroom to wipe our you know whats?

One of the reasons paper has not disappeared from our lives is that it is sometimes the absolutely best solution. In fact, paper isn’t bad; paper is a great invention with multiple uses and it has been of great benefit to mankind and it continues to be an invaluable, often irreplaceable product.

There is no doubt however that we use far too much paper in business and that much of it is unnecessary, wasteful and expensive. There is also no doubt that the digital technology necessary to replace a great deal of business paper already exists and in fact has existed for many, many years. The question is, why are we not utilizing it? This is the conundrum facing today’s businesses and government agencies; simply, “why are you not digitizing most of your paper processes when the technology is available and it would actually save you a lot of money?”

We thought the digital revolution would kill paper but it didn’t despite our best efforts over more than a quarter of a century. The pundits are now say that the mobile revolution will kill paper but will it? Will the iPad and iPhone and Kindle and mobile apps kill paper? Will the best efforts of the Obama government to digitize medical records and other areas of business kill paper in the USA? Has China mandated digital in lieu of paper; has India? What about the bankrupt nations of the European Union; where will they find the money to digitize their vast stores of paper?

The root problem with both business and government is that neither fixes things that aren’t broken and neither wants to spend money on something that won’t generate a profit in the short term. Both Wall Street and government bureaucrats have short attention spans; three months appears to be about the maximum time anyone wants to look ahead. For these reasons paper usage in both private enterprise and government is unlikely to change anytime soon; both have more important priorities and paper still ‘works’. So what is the future for our old friend paper in other areas of our lives?

Will we all be reading books on the latest Kindle in five years’ time or will the troglodytes stubbornly demand old-fashioned books? Will we all be reading the news on our iPads or Kindles in five years’ time or will there still be a place for paper newspapers and magazines? Will we all go to meetings with our iPads or Smartphones and forego paper minutes? Will retail establishments email or SMS receipts instead of printing them? Will we all have electronic signatures so contracts can be signed without paper and pen? Where will the raw material come from for paper airplanes and kites? How will we wrap our  birthday and Christmas presents? What will the English wrap their fish and chips in? Will we all have to follow the French or Japanese and install bidets or those awfully clever but worrisome robotised Japanese toilets (I certainly worry about all that mechanised hardware so near sensitive body parts)?

Personally I don’t think paper is going to disappear in a hurry. I do think usage will gradually fall, especially in business but I don’t see any “fall off the cliff’ sudden drop in paper usage in the next five years or so. In fact, I think paper manufacturers will continue to come up with clever and innovative ways to use paper.  How about disposable paper underwear, shirts, dresses and the like? How about electronic paper able to receive and display digital information? How about fibre-impregnated and baked paper car bodies? They would be cheap and easy to make and one hundred-percent recyclable.

We have to remember that if it wasn’t for the paper companies there would be far less trees in the world. Tree plantations provide the perfect sustainable resource and must surely meet every greenie’s best practice requirements. No, I do not have shares in any paper making company. I just happen to like trees and paper and I think paper is still a brilliant invention and often the absolutely best and most appropriate medium. I also don’t like reading books on the iPad or Kindle; give me a good old paper book every time thank you. I guess that makes me a troglodyte!

Maybe it will take a few future generations who don’t read books or newspaper or magazines but get all their information from the TV or their mobile device via RSS feeds to finally kill paper. If that happens it will be a sad time because then the population will be like trained rats; fed whatever information the powers to be want them to have.  

If this happens, we will have lost the ability and will to seek out and research information. The only information we will get is what someone else thinks is suitable for us (I could be talking about Google here) and that will be a very sad day for mankind. Let’s hope we do not allow this to happen. Unfortunately, these things have a habit of slowly creeping in over years so we don’t notice. I for one certainly don’t want to wake up in 5 years’ time and realize I am on a hundred-percent diet of ‘fed’ information and wonder how it happened. How about you? Maybe we should hang on to paper just a little bit longer.

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