Monday, October 13, 2008

Is the web saving trees?

The latest Economist has not one but two articles -- from its print edition, mind -- on the "Paperless Office". The first is more about the fact of the increasingly paperless office, the second delves into implications.

Back in the 1980s, when PCs started to take off and people used terms like "Desktop Publishing", it was obvious that before long there would be no need for paper in an office. Why xerox a memo when you can send an email? Why keep a paper ledger when an Accounts Receivable application will do all that for you? Why work up a spreadsheet when you could use, well, a spreadsheet?

By the year 2001, which saw the publication of a book called The Myth of the Paperless Office, it was clear that the hype was not going to pan out. People were using more paper than ever. A lot of places wanted a physical, paper backup of important files. Some people -- myself included -- just wanted to see certain things on paper, things like email (for executives) or code (for geeks like myself). In my case, I had a hard time navigating a 1000-line code listing on a 24-line screen. More on that in a bit.

Exept the year 2001 was also when paper consumption in the office peaked. It turns out that people really did start to use less paper. Email really has replaced memos, and so forth. When people do print things out, they seem more interested in nice, high-contrast color prints (e.g., of photographs or brochures) than just printing draft text. So what happened? The prevailing theory seems to be that kids these days are just more comfortable with a paperless environment. I'm sure they are, but I don't think that explains it all.

Like I said, I used to have a hard time navigating code without printing it out and scribbling on it. What changed? For one thing, I got more used to editing on a screen. For another thing, screens got bigger and sharper. There is a world of difference between paging through 24 monochrome 80-character lines at a time and looking at more than twice as many nice wide lines. For another, interfaces got nicer. It's much more convenient to search back and forth, to navigate from one place to another, to flip back and forth between several different documents, and so forth, than it was in the 80s.

Navigability is a big deal. In coding, it means I can easily get, say, from where I use something to where it's defined -- one of the big reasons I'd want to print out a bunch of code and lay it out on the floor. For non-geeks, it's the ability to click on a link on a web page and Just Go There. You can't do that on paper. Until the web came along, you (generally) couldn't do that on your screen either. Now it's routine.

In other words, it's not just (or perhaps not even primarily) a societal change. The technology, and particularly the software, made significant advances between the 1980s and the turn of the century. One change -- the widespread adoption of hyperlinks -- was seismic, but many changes -- higher screen resolutions, nicer UI widgets, nicer text formatting -- were incremental.

From that point of view, I'd agree with the second article that technological change and external shocks can bring technologies back into favor, but I'm not completely sold on the societal angle. In particular, I disagree that "The paperless office shows how a sociological shift can make the difference: although the technology did not change very much, its users did." The technology did change quite a bit, just not all at once or all that visibly. The gradual improvements were too gradual to draw notice, the web too pervasive. Who notices the air?

[Nowadays I often go for days, weeks even, without printing anything out, and whole days from time to time without writing anything down on a physical medium.  Along with better displays and better tools, I've gotten more comfortable working without the tactile cue of, say, circling something and drawing an arrow from it to something else.  In other words, it's partly technology, and partly gradual shifts in behavior from using the technology --D.H. May 2015]

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