The Myth of the Paperless Office

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InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

February 17, 2008

2 Min Read

Pundits have been proclaiming the imminent arrival of the paperless office since the 1970s. So far, they've been wrong. If anything, we print more today than we did back then.Yet some still believe in this; those who engage in looking for the paperless office may be engaging in a Sisyphean task.The New York Times ran a story on February 10 by Hannah Fairfield entitled "Pushing Paper Out the Door." It speaks of paper-reducing technologies in homes and offices, citing families who scan their bills and opt for on-line statements. To Fairfield I say "not so fast."Indeed Fairfield quotes Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive: "Paper is no longer the master copy; the digital version is. Paper has been dealt a complete deathblow. When was the last time you saw a telephone book?"To respond directly to Kahle: "last week."My friend and fellow analyst Amy Wohl famously commented, around 1978, that she thought that the paperless office was "about as useful as the paperless toilet."But the article had a bigger problem. While it provided an excellent look on the move to digitization, it completely ignored the elephant in the room, namely a compatibility conundrum that has been with us since the first computer was turned on over 60 years ago.Books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed hundreds of years ago are accessible without any special equipment. For that matter, the Rosetta Stone (dating from 196 B.C.E.), was also readable upon its discovery in 1799.Contrast this with millions of files on 8" or even 5 1/4" floppy diskettes, various obsolete tape cartridges, and NASA's earliest photographs of the earth - all mostly inaccessible with today's technology.One might presume that the technology revolution of the late twentieth century had increased our ability to preserve our history and cultural artifacts. In actuality, we have failed.Moving all of our papers to digital form without a plan to ensure accessibility not only 5 years from now but 50 years and 100 years and beyond is not making information MORE accessible but risking that it will become LESS accessible.The New York Times ran a modified version of my column in the Business Section of today's issue.

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