Yes, computers will let you do things that are impossible with paper. But just what is it that you're trying to do?

Lamont Wood, Contributor

August 27, 2010

4 Min Read

Yes, computers will let you do things that are impossible with paper. But just what is it that you're trying to do?Recently I found myself being interviewed on a conference call for a customer newsletter put out by a computer hardware vendor who will remain unidentified. Usually I rely on other people letting me interview them, so it did not seem right to turn down someone else. They asked about the paperless office. I saw that the questions were veering toward the usual pro-hardware cheer-leading, so I tried to make some points to clear the air.

I was astounded by the disjointed nature of the relentless digressions that poured out of my mouth, but they listened as if I made sense. So, below, I have tried to coherently reformulate my points.

First, pundits started talking about the paperless office in the 1980s as part of pro-computerization push then underway. Instead of running to the filing cabinet to look up everything, you have instant access to your information-if you invest in a sea of hardware.

Today we are floating in that sea, and we use as much paper as ever. And I say that's not necessarily as bad thing-if we are doing it knowingly. Paper offers advantages that you cannot get from a computer. The big one is that you can put it in the filing cabinet, and it will be there 10 years from now, unchanged. You can pull it out and read it unaided by any technology.

But if you think the computer system you are using now will remain usable ten years from now, think again. Hardware and software standards drift over time, and some hit dead ends. I have a box of 5.25-inch floppy disks from the 1980s on the shelf and I'm not sure why I bother. Even if I had a disk drive for them, the operating system and application that created them are as dead as the dodo. And if I had a machine that ran them, I would not remember the necessary commands.

Even without planned obsolescence, hard drives, tapes, DVDs, and USB memory sticks, etc., all have life spans measured in years, not decades. So if you are in it for the long haul, and you have something you consider important, you might consider printing it and filing it away.

Paper will outlive you. It is also self-contained and very portable.

My second point is that paper does not present you with a beguiling, endless time-sink. The best printed novel is finite. The alluring stuff on the Internet is effectively infinite. The computer can multi-task, so the office workers think they can, too. They can spend all day chasing down answers to each other's e-mails and feel busy. But did they accomplish anything?

My final point, had I managed to express myself, was that blanket statements about what is good for an office is like trying to explain "what Daddy does at the office." Daddy types. Using a computer would be faster. Daddy gets information. Using a computer would be faster. Daddy sends messages. Computer-based e-mail would be faster. Etc.

But Daddy is not doing these things for their own sakes, they are steps needed to reach a goal, which is defined by the enterprise or job. If that requires a computer, so be it. If it requires paper archives, ditto.

I admire the example portrayed by Colin Ferrell in the 2003 movie "Phone Booth." He's a publicist who does business while walking down a street in Manhattan. He uses a phone and his head. Maybe he has an office somewhere with a shiny computer. But it is irrelevant to the success of his enterprise.

And now we get to the green considerations. Yes, making the decision to print (and then store) something is not entirely eco-friendly. But neither is having a computer that sucks up 150 watts all day. Both involve costs, which should be balanced against needs. Both involve deciding that you really need to do, to do the job.

In other words, they're tools, which represent investments. They should not be acquired or retained for their own sake.

Except for those floppies. Maybe I'll need them someday….

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