Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE PAPERLESS OFFICE....John Quiggin says the death of the phrase "paperless office" came in 2001, with the release of a book by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper called The Myth of the Paperless Office. Maybe so. But when I went to work in the document imaging industry it was already a cynical joke amongst ourselves that the paperless office would arrive at about the same time as the paperless bathroom. And that was in 1992.

Of course, it's not as if we were advertising this to people outside the industry. Just a private recognition of reality between ourselves, you understand. And in any case, the joke lost its punch when paperless bathrooms became a surprising reality — and not just in tech crazy Japan. Helen Pidd tried one out in London last year and called it "the best toilet experience of my life." So maybe, as John suggests, the paperless office isn't so far off after all.

Kevin Drum 8:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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I'm writing a new book on Paperless Origami.

Posted by: absent observer on June 23, 2007 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, at least in the academic and technical research worlds -- with which I thought Kevin was familiar -- the nearly-paperless office arrived long ago.

How it arrived is slightly different from the caricature, but of course no caricature is accurate, and anyone who attempts to debunk a phenomenon based on a caricature is being disingenuous at the least.

Two hugely important examples spring immediately to mind, and I'm sure most readers can think of others.

(1) The scope of available documentation for research -- academic and commercial literature -- has expanded by at least an order of magnitude. The quality and quantity of information available to researchers and business decision-makers is categorically different from what it was barely a decade ago. This is all due to "paperless" technology. You don't read "papers" anymore; you read PDFs, and the number available -- and their indexing -- is staggering.

It's so huge a phenomenon that one really wonders how people made proper decisions back before it occurred.

(2) Reviewing and editing of documents -- legal, commercial, internal, external, you name it -- is now performed electronically. Versions are circulated, and comments collected, electronically. The old means of circulating a "reading copy" is so outdated as to seem hilarious.

It's true that FILE copies on paper persist -- for the very good reason that electronic media degrade. And some people prefer READING copies on paper, just because they do, although that probably will diminish over time, just as hardcopy newspaper readership has.

But the fact is, a lot more -- an order of magnitude more -- information is now circulating, without anything near a proportional increase in paper.

So the paperless office HAS arrived, just in a different way.

Posted by: bleh on June 23, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Schrödinger's Dick and now the best toilet experience of my life .

Damn Kevin! You are killin’ me tonight!

Posted by: little ole jim from red country on June 23, 2007 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

At the Fidelity Investments HQ there was an internal goal, "Paper free in '93" which was met with much ridicule.

Posted by: sam spade on June 23, 2007 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

Helen Pidd tried one out in London last year and called it "the best toilet experience of my life."

Whoa!

It's like in Demolition Man. Who would of thunk it.

Posted by: Swan on June 23, 2007 at 9:19 PM | PERMALINK

More likely, there are now paperless bathrooms, though few, and in a little while there will be paperless offices, though few.

And probably, some of the paperless bathrooms will produce more useful output than many of the offices, paperless or otherwise.....
N.

Posted by: BreadBox on June 23, 2007 at 9:33 PM | PERMALINK

Don't get too enthralled with the myth of Japanese high tech toilets. The last statistics I read indicated that less than half of all Japanese toilets are hooked up to sewer systems, most of them use septic tanks that are siphoned off monthly by the "honey wagon." These toilets would astonish you with their crudeness.
My measure of a civilization is how advanced their bathrooms are, and from my personal experiences, I'd judge that Japan is still mostly in the 17th century. Most toilets are nothing more than a trench in the ground, and many people have never even seen a Western toilet. I put a video up on my website that shows a recent program by the Ministry of Education to upgrade toilets in schools, it may be informative.

Posted by: charlie don't surf on June 23, 2007 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

chudák holka - Kokain na záchod nepatří

A short video of the paperless toilet at my pad.

Posted by: jerry on June 23, 2007 at 9:43 PM | PERMALINK

What bleh said. Since I'm a U.S. government statistician, I know a thing or two about the piles of paper in the Federal bureaucracy. And, at least in my corner of it, we're cutting way back.

In a recent move, we were told that we could keep a limited amount of paper: we'd be moving into nicer offices, but they'd have substantially less storage space. So we had to go through our old documents, and have most of them scanned as PDFs and throw the originals away. No choice, really. But the result is a lot less paper - there's no room anymore for a file drawer of memos left over from the 1970s.

We still have paper, of course, but we've realized that most of us don't need a paper copy of every memo we might ever need to look at. Electronic copies are kept on shared drives, and I generally keep paper copies only of documents I refer to A LOT. Otherwise, it goes in the recycling bin, if I had it on paper to begin with.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist (formerly RT) on June 23, 2007 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

For Christ's sake, we were talking about paperless offices from the 60s, thinking they would arrive in the 70s.

The businesses I have been involved in have, in some ways decreased paper, and, at the same time, increased it. You can take advantage of the paper efficiencies and, at the same time, take advantage of the ease of parper production.

Rather like KD's analogy of fuel cost and miles driven. Except we never applied the long term costs.

So, the paperless office was meant to arrive in the 70s. Hasn't happened yet, and given the Bush administration, won't happen soon. We need the paper trail.

Wow! Wonder when Kevin will get on some serious issue? No sooner than the paperless office, I think.

Kevin. Wake up. Get off what you are on. There's a lot of happenings and damage you are ignoring.

Posted by: notthere on June 23, 2007 at 9:59 PM | PERMALINK

...We still have paper, of course, but we've realized that most of us don't need a paper copy of every memo we might ever need to look at. Electronic copies are kept on shared drives, and I generally keep paper copies only of documents I refer to A LOT. Otherwise, it goes in the recycling bin, if I had it on paper to begin with.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist (formerly RT) on June 23, 2007 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

EXCUSE THE DISBELIEF, but this administration is all about NOT keeping records. Junking them. Having no "paper" trail.

I have NO TRUST in this administration or anybody working for them.

Please come back and justify the position! Are you just a Bush protector?

Posted by: notthere` on June 23, 2007 at 10:06 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, charlie don't surf, "The last statistics I read indicated that less than half of all Japanese toilets are hooked up to sewer systems, most of them use septic tanks that are siphoned off monthly by the "honey wagon."" When did you last read statistics? Haven't seen a honey wagon here in years. I'm sure they exist out in the sticks, but most people live in cities. Septic tanks have also gone high tech lately, and still make a lot of sense in rural areas.

The high-tech squirter toilets are not without their drawbacks, however. They can be hard on the privates. Most people who use them still use paper, too, since the air blasts are too slow for drying thoroughly.

As for paperless offices, most of us in the translation business turn around documents without ever printing out.

wataru in Tokyo

Posted by: Wataru Tenga on June 23, 2007 at 10:12 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter notthere:

"Kevin, don't you realize our sole function is throwing rotten cabbages at Bush, and that any deviation from this is suspect?"

Posted by: rnc on June 23, 2007 at 10:17 PM | PERMALINK

I'm awaiting the Drum-less Political Animal.

Posted by: dick tuck on June 23, 2007 at 10:32 PM | PERMALINK

rnc: Shorter notthere:

"Kevin, don't you realize our sole function is throwing rotten cabbages at Bush, and that any deviation from this is suspect?"

shorter rnc:

"Kevin, don't you realize my sole function here is throwing rotten cabbages at you and the commenters for criticizing my cherished beliefs, and that when someone proves this isn't an echo chamber by disagreeing you I am compelled like Pavlov's dog to pile on?"

Posted by: tRex on June 23, 2007 at 10:33 PM | PERMALINK

The bidet is in so many ways superior to toilet paper.

Posted by: Mike on June 23, 2007 at 10:35 PM | PERMALINK

The bidet is in so many ways superior to toilet paper.

Not when throwing them into trees. Yeouch!

Posted by: jerry on June 23, 2007 at 10:38 PM | PERMALINK

Paperless? Sure.

...but in Southern California (and other low-water areas), the technology might not be so good.

...mmm, a paperless and waterless toilet? Now, there's an invention!

Posted by: Darryl Pearce on June 23, 2007 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

but in Southern California (and other low-water areas), the technology might not be so good.

No reason you can't use salt water to clean your ass.

Posted by: Disputo on June 23, 2007 at 10:50 PM | PERMALINK
Does the president control the vice president?.... gfw at 7:30 PM
There is a series in theWashington Post on Cheney; now, when it's almost impossible to act.

[Use BugMeNotfor login if needed.]

Posted by: Mike on June 23, 2007 at 10:56 PM | PERMALINK

When I went to work in the document imaging industry in 1982 the paperless office was already a joke. And it was a only a decade late by then, as other posters have pointed out.

For some low-tech paperless options, check out the book "How to Shit in the Woods."

Posted by: Doctor G on June 23, 2007 at 10:58 PM | PERMALINK

Paperless office? Two words - Sarbanes Oxley

Since the passage of SOX, our organization's use of paper has quadrupled. Not that SOX is bad - just saying.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on June 23, 2007 at 11:06 PM | PERMALINK

Helen Pidd tried one out in London last year and called it "the best toilet experience of my life."

From the article (you just can't make this stuff up, folks):

You would expect this sort of glitzy hightechery in Tokyo, but in grubby old London?

The first step was easy: sit down and use the loo as normal.

. . .

When I mentioned at work how much I enjoyed having a bidet, my colleagues were shocked into a mixture of horrified silence and nervous giggles - one had the temerity to suggest that I got some sort of thrill from it.

Also:

70 per cent of households in Tokyo have one

Posted by: Swan on June 23, 2007 at 11:39 PM | PERMALINK

Oops, messed up the tags. These were also from the article:

The first step was easy: sit down and use the loo as normal.

. . .

When I mentioned at work how much I enjoyed having a bidet, my colleagues were shocked into a mixture of horrified silence and nervous giggles - one had the temerity to suggest that I got some sort of thrill from it.

Re: the paperless office, they say your memory retaina stuff you read on paper better than stuff you read off a screen, which seems true, and I like to have a hard copy to carry around different rooms. Granted, the points about computer research and the usefulness of PDFs are valid, but they have nothing to do with what we're talking about, which is computers completely replacing paper. They have more to do with the usefulness of the internet for research and the usefulness of Adobe for viewing, editing, and sharing/transferring documents than they have to do with whether computers have obviated the need for any paper.

Posted by: Swan on June 23, 2007 at 11:44 PM | PERMALINK

Disputo: No reason you can't use salt water to clean your ass.

I can think of several. Women could probably think of more.

Posted by: thersites on June 24, 2007 at 1:48 AM | PERMALINK

Anyone who spews nonsense about a paperless office has never worked in the legal profession. Ditto the medical profession.
Copy to CYA...

Posted by: cyrki on June 24, 2007 at 7:59 AM | PERMALINK

Well, sir, down here on the farm, we were doin' jes fine without paper before Archer-Midlands-Daniels drove up the price for ethanol.

Posted by: stupid git on June 24, 2007 at 9:42 AM | PERMALINK

Wataru, the stats I read are a few years old (about 5 years IIRC) because the government white papers take a while to get published. But I believe the statistics are correct. Some friends of mine who work at a large corporate office right in the middle in Yokohama report that the honey wagon still comes once a month. Is it possible that you just haven't noticed they still exist?

Posted by: charlie don't surf on June 24, 2007 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

"Paperless Orifice?"

Posted by: ferd on June 24, 2007 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

"Paperless orifice" garners 4 Google hits, by the way. I'm THIS close to the power curve!

Posted by: ferd on June 24, 2007 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

Hewlett-Predator and the rape of the consumer of ink jet inks has driven many to the paperless office.

Backup is so cheap now there is little rationale for paper backup.

Posted by: Luther on June 24, 2007 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

When IBM was selling USDA System/36's back in 1984 they were pushing the "paperless office" to us.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw on June 24, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

My doctor's office has gone paperless. Sometimes I think it frustrates the doctor since he sometimes has trouble pulling up lab reports or reports from other doctors using this system. With a fat paper folder he was much more at ease.

Posted by: Scorpio on June 24, 2007 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

I work in Litigation Support, so I'm on the front lines of the paper struggle. I can't at all fathom how large litigation got done before electronic review. On one case I work on, our attorneys have reviewed something close to 10 million pages. Before electronic discovery, this would be accomplished via tons of boxes and attorneys scribbling notes onto a shitload of legal pads, and you'd be lucky to find whatever you were looking for ever again.

At the same time, some attorneys still love their paper, and you can't force them to change. One somewhat famous lawyer here thinks the greatest trial presentation tool available is a binder of exhibits. Like a commenter said above, these types of people will eventually die out, literally.

More than keeping documents, I think a lot of the efficiency of the electronic office can be gained for administrative procedures. To get overtime or time off approved, I have to fill out a form that I send to my boss, who sends it to my case attorneys, who sends it to HR. If that form was on a website, or even if approvals were emailed, this procedure would take a lot less time. I think the only reason we stick with the paper is bureaucratic inertia.

Posted by: Cain on June 25, 2007 at 1:28 AM | PERMALINK

i remember before paperless bathrooms

i remember rotary telephones

i remember before bar codes

i remember when 99% of the kids in a kindergarten
class came from a two parent family

i remember when adults made build-it-yourself heath kit hi-fi equipment-----i remember when
kids made model airplaes

i remember when newspapers and telephone calls
each cost a nickel

i remember ice boxes (i.e. before refrigerators)

i remember when the earth was all
covered with ice

i remember seeing the first amoeba crawl out of the ooze

i remember before the invention of the whorehouse

Posted by: wschneid25 on June 25, 2007 at 4:20 AM | PERMALINK

i forgot i also remember:

black and white television on a 7'' screen and the only station in town came on (during the week) at 4p.m. and went of at 10p.m. there was only one college game on on sat. and only one pro
football game on on sun. (always the eagles ---
this was why when i was in college everybody was
a philadelphia eagle-steve van buren(see wikipedia) fan no matter where they grew up on the east coast).

Posted by: wschneid25 on June 25, 2007 at 5:12 AM | PERMALINK

"Print is dead." Dr. Egon Spengler: Ghostbusters (1984)

Posted by: Aaron on June 25, 2007 at 7:47 AM | PERMALINK

I remember the old farm outhouse equipped with two types of corn-cobs. A red corn-cob to clean with and a white one to check to see if you needed to use another red one.

Posted by: spencer on June 25, 2007 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

The phrase may be dead, but that doesn't mean its not going to happen, it just means that the marketing hype around it got so intense so far before the technology could support it that the phrase got burnt out.

We're getting fairly close now to the place where the technology could support it, in terms of displays that are more suitable for replacing paper, storage capacity of portable systems, communication infrastructure, and software for many of the basic needs. The challenge is integrating it all at a price that justifies the benefit.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 25, 2007 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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