Paper Is Leaving The Office Despite All The Claims We’ll Never Get Paperless

An article in the Guardian at the end of last year stated, ‘Like fusion power, the paperless world has been just a decade away for the past half century, approaching but never arriving’ — with global paper consumption rising by 50% between 1980 and 2011.

David Unger’s article — entitled ‘American reams: why a “paperless world” still hasn’t happened’ — certainly caused a few ripples in discussion forums around the UK Enterprise Content and Document Management world.

First, the ‘Paperless never came to pass, so there…’ point does rather mis-state the aim of the original 1975 Business Week article that started the paperless movement. If you go back to that, the real point was a future (by 1995) of being able to work with content electronically:

“There will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on my desk [from which] I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button… I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world,” – Head of Xerox Corp’s Palo Alto Research Centre, George E Pake.

So not 100% paperless – I don’t think that was ever Pake or any other DM pioneer’s claim. But that’s the myth of course, and hence the tone of Unger’s article.

Undeniable decline

Notwithstanding that, what did we learn from this report? First off, the paper industry is in a state of robust health despite taking a battering, with marketing messages like this that are full of self-confidence: “Great ideas are started on paper. The world is educated on paper. Businesses are founded on paper. Love is professed on paper. Important news is spread on paper.”

Unger reminds us that paper has been around since at least 105AD, if we agree China was its birthplace. If nothing else, it is a sector that still supports healthy trade shows.

It’s also an industry in a real torrent of innovation, and we will see more of its use in packaging as the green argument against our plastic addiction takes hold.

However, there are undeniable warning signs that suggest the paperless – or at least ‘less paper’ office is still on the global agenda, despite Unger’s headline argument. He quotes data that suggests demand for printing and writing (P&W) paper has been in steady decline since 2008 (P&W covers paper used in “directories, paperback books, newspaper inserts, low-end magazines and catalogues, direct (junk) mail, envelopes, brochures, photo printing, menus, posters, stationery, legal forms, and the iconic 8.5in by 11in office copy paper” – so everything that we’d see in business). To be specific, it fell by 2.6% in 2015, 2.2% in 2016, and paper sector analysts RISI forecast it will continue to fall by another 1.1% in 2017 and 2018.

Co-existence, not extinction

I’ll leave it to you to read the whole article, which is at heart a piece about unease about technology and its impact on us all.

However I’d suggest ‘case not proved’ here. I don’t think that the fact we still have paper means the original — and enduring — argument for digital working has ended at all. It’s actually only strengthened as the speed of business and 21st century life has quickened.

And why can’t I have beautiful, well-produced, ecologically aware paper for when I use it — but still process my invoices and keep my records in an ageless and future-proof form?

Why not both?

Dave Tyler is Editor of Document Manager magazine

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