The Myth Of The Paperless Office


IN 1970 THE FUTURIST Alvin Toffler proclaimed that “making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of machines and violates their very spirit.” Five years later the head of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center began to see the paperless office on the horizon and ventured that in the future “I don’t know how much hard copy I’ll want in this world.”

If he’s like the rest of us, he’s still surrounded by a lot of paper, probably more than ever before. We’ve all been hearing about the approach of the paperless office for decades now, but the paper in our lives has only kept increasing. Technologies have emerged one after another to help us do away with what Egyptians first made out of riverside reeds several millennia ago, including electronic datebooks, ever-shrinking laptops, and the never-quite-ready e-book. We all know that paper takes up precious space, can be in only one place at a time, is extremely hard to index or search through, and lacks all the interactivity and linking ability of hypertext; and because we know this, we feel guilty about our continued reliance on it. Why haven’t we been able to kick the habit?

Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper, two British researchers, decided to find out, and they’ve gathered their discoveries as The Myth of the Paperless Office , published by MIT Press. They illustrate the quandary we’re all in by telling of a manager they met at a hightech research laboratory whose office was a flood of stacks of paper—on chairs, tabletops, desks, and surrounding his computers. He had a seemingly miraculous ability to lay hands on any document in the big mess within seconds, but he was an embarrassment to his employer. Every time the head of the company came around, the man had to take all his stacks of paper and hide them in boxes in a closet. This would slow down his work considerably for a week or two. Which raises a question. Was all that paper really a handicap?

It’s easy to think so. We’ve heard plenty about the advantage of computerized information handling, but we never hear about the virtues of paper. Sellen and Harper have identified them. Take how they describe the disposition of papers on a typical desk, perfectly capturing my own messy office and perhaps yours as well: A primary pile of papers, adjacent to the open workspace at the center of the desk and probably next to the phone, contains what they call hot files, documerits to be acted on immediately. Warm files, still active but of less urgency, occupy the periphery, teetering on a corner of the desk or stuck in a desk drawer. Cold files, the great preponderance of documents that don’t need immediate attention, fill file drawers farther away. Meanwhile, that open workspace amid the piles of papers likely has several individual sheets lying about it; other papers may be spread out on other surfaces or even on the floor.

That bare description begins to reveal some of paper’s hidden advantages. We all know why reading something on a computer screen can be unpleasant: relatively fuzzy type, glare, the need to scroll repeatedly, the screen’s relatively fixed position, and so forth. Sellen and Harper uncover numerous ways paper goes beyond just avoiding those annoyances.

As often as not, people at work read from more than one document at once; this is infinitely easier with paper. Also as often as not, they annotate, and annotation can be done much more easily and in more varied ways on paper —lightly with pencil, firmly with pen, in colors, with Post-Its, by drawing circles around words. People rarely, except at the beach, read by starting at the beginning and proceeding word by word through to the end. They skim, thumb through pages looking at headings, seek particular subject matter, refer back and forth. These things are much harder onscreen.

Paper is also often indispensable for writing because you can have various source documents spread around and because you can easily mark changes and corrections. You probably do your writing on a computer, but you don’t use it without going through a fair amount of paper in the process. Also, computers are ill suited for replacing paper in meetings or anyplace where people collaborate. A paper document can be passed around, can be looked at by more than one person at a time, can easily be annotated while a discussion is proceeding. As Sellen and Harper observe, “Reviewers sitting around a desk could tell whether a colleague was turning toward or away from a report; whether she was flicking through it or setting it aside. Contrast this with watching someone across a desk looking at a document on a laptop.…Where in the document are they? Are they really reading their e-mail?”


Perhaps the most surprising of the authors’ revelations about what we prefer about paper is that we like the simple fact that we can deliver it in person. Handing a report to the boss, and knowing that he’s gotten it directly from you, can’t quite be replaced by clicking the send button and waiting and wondering.

Sellen and Harper look at two activities in which common sense says that a paperless process might work much better: air-traffic control and writing up police reports. The way air-traffic controllers use slips of paper to keep track of planes in the sky has long been a popular example of the dangerous backwardness of a sclerotic bureaucratic system. The authors reveal that the system actually has numerous hard-to-duplicate advantages.