The Myth Of The Paperless Office


The controllers’ slips of paper, each about one inch by eight and carrying information about a specific flight such as speed, altitude, heading, and destination, are typically held on racks next to controllers’ radar screens, and they not only keep track of planes for the controller but also let his or her assistants know what to do. Sellen and Harper identify five specific advantages of the slips. First, slips can be angled or otherwise positioned to draw special attention. Second, they can easily be rearranged when planes’ relative positions change. Third, they can effortlessly be written on while a controller is also doing other things, such as talking to a colleague or a pilot. Fourth, they can provide a large amount of information that anyone around can see at a glance; you instantly know how many planes are in a given controller’s sector. Fifth, they make immediately clear what a controller is doing whenever they are marked or moved. Moving them around onscreen would likely be far more cumbersome. Quick jotting would have to be replaced by entering information into the computer. A rack holding 50 strips at once would be hard to reproduce onscreen. And so on.

The only way to do away with the strips is by greatly simplifying controllers’ jobs, for nobody has found a way to handle and share such complex information on computer screens. And simplifying the controllers’ jobs has indeed begun to happen in places, by having planes stick to strictly defined flight paths in unvarying predetermined order on courses that never cross. Even then, when computers have taken over, the controllers have continued to keep paper flight strips for backup and for a record in case of litigation.

Many police departments have introduced electronic information systems for crime reporting. Sellen and Harper studied one case in which officers were issued laptops. The idea was for the cops to enter information while interviewing crime victims and then upload the data to a database. Two essential problems quickly arose. First, the police found they spent so much time dealing with the computer interface that they fell short in listening and talking to victims, an essential activity both for offering comfort and for picking up subtle clues to what exactly had happened. Because of this, most of them reverted to taking notes on paper and entered them into the computer later. Second, the goal of prompt reporting was compromised by the fact that police kept revising their reports after filing them. To local politicians this made the police look incompetent; actually it just confirmed that crime reporting by its nature must unfold over time.

You can’t know right away what exactly was stolen in a burglary.

Sellen and Harper conclude that in the future “new technologies will usually shift the role of paper rather than replace it.” They offer many sensible suggestions for making computers and paper cooperate and even provide a measure of progress: “Wastebaskets will have an even more important role.… A full bin will reflect the fact people are working effectively because they are using paper at various stages in the document life cycle, particularly in the knowledgeintensive stages. As they move on to other stages later in the life cycle, the role of paper diminishes.” In other words, we’ll use plenty of paper when we’re preparing information, then throw it out.

That leaves one big question. If the paperless office is such a chimera, why does anyone even think of such a thing? For two basic reasons. The first is that people who can profit from the idea keep selling it to us. The Web site of Automated Information Solutions, Inc., explains that if you seek “better organization, and streamlined operations, then you should definitely consider going ‘paperless.’ It’s the way of the future.” But that really tells us nothing. Marketing is successful only when someone is selling what someone else truly wants. Which leads to the second reason.

All technologies come down to our trying to get what we want, what we desire, whether it’s faster travel, better health, a stronger golf game, sturdier office buildings, new kinds of entertainment, or simply money made from inventing. And much of what we desire comes down to taking control of our lives, doing what we please without being overwhelmed by what we don’t please. We get overwhelmed by paper—by bills, reports, newspapers, magazines, books we should read, and so much else. We can’t help dreaming of a world where we can attain all we want from paper without expending the time and space it consumes. We want the benefits of paper without the paper itself.

Someday, somewhere down the road, that may happen. But for now, at least, it looks both unlikely and pointless. One might have well have dreamed a century ago of the typewriter’s making the pencil obsolete.