The Myth of the Myth of the Paperless Office

{Originally published in a paralegals publication in 2008}

With the advent of the computer in every home and business, paper was declared obsolete. But people in the real world found otherwise, and some even had more paper than before, thanks to the ability to produce the written (and therefore printed) word at record breakneck pace. Requirements for original signatures spurred the overnight shipping industry, dashing hopes that email would change the world. As soon as the decree against killing trees for Gutenberg’s descendants was ironically printed in magazines and other tactile media, it was declared a mistrial. Our information transversed time and space digitally, but in the end, met its fate on a dot matrix printer — the “last mile” for data was tread on pulp.

But in spite of admitting defeat — and monuments erected in the form of filing cabinets, the inscriptions of which were laser and toner but nonetheless on paper — history didn’t end there. The world changed in ways that we didn’t expect. Stable digital storage. High capacity drives and media. Optical character recognition (OCR). Digital archiving.

And though we thought we had lost the battle to eliminate paper, the need for speed and efficiency ignored our past. Digital signatures. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Portable File Documents (PDF). Email encryption keys for identity verification. The way we THOUGHT about data changed when in spite of giving up on going paperless, the technology to do it caught up with us.

Is your office paperless? Of course not. But huge amounts of data are free of arborous karma. Data is archived more and more by backing up, and less and less by printing out. We finally realize that it is easier to forward an email than print and hand it to the person next to you. Digital calendars, memos, newsletters, postings, and collaborations of all kinds make their only mark on the screen, never touched by human hands.

If paperless is not an absolute, but a degree, then the war was won after all. The initial efficiency of computers for data production outpaced its ability to store and transfer it without paper. Those days are no more. And the future is even brighter, carrying over paperlessness into every aspect of our lives. Online reservations. Online account statements. Biometric identity scans. RFID inventory tracking and personnel pass keys. Cardless PayPal commerce.

And this whole virtual world, with more data in our lifetime than the whole history of the world combined, can be scaled, replicated, and archived for eternity without “loosing” so much as a leaf.

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