It is fortunate for contemporary prophets that most of their predictions are as swiftly forgotten as made, for paper, while it may be used in a metaphorical sense by the electronics industry, has also remained stubbornly literal. The more digital information sped around the world, the more people wanted to print it out. From 1992 to 2002, world consumption of paper and board products grew from 250m tonnes to 325m.
Insecurity, said the visionaries: children clutching on to familiar objects as the world accelerates past them. As the value of tech stocks rose, bosses became increasingly determined to prove that they “got it”. One way of demonstrating that they were truly wired was to espouse the paperless vision.
A few of them tried to impose the vision on their employees. The most dramatic of these experiments took place at the offices of Chiat/Day, an American advertising agency. In 1993, Jay Chiat, the boss, had a revelation while on the ski slopes, and realised that his employees' minds were trapped by the boxes they were working in. Free their bodies from the box and you would free their minds. They were, accordingly, installed in offices without desks or filing cabinets. There were sofas to sit on and a few special rooms for meetings. There was nowhere to keep any paper; indeed, nobody was supposed to keep paper.
Chiat/Day's employees behaved like any group of refugees torn from familiar surroundings. They tried to rebuild their world. One woman bought a child's red wagon, put her paper files in it and trailed it around the corridors after her. Most people recreated their desks in the boots of their cars, where they stored their files and notebooks, dashing in and out of the building to the parking lot during meetings. Groups of workers took permanent control of meeting rooms and a shanty-town of desks grew up. The company was eventually bought by a traditionalist rival and normal life resumed.
The public sector got the bug too, though rather later. Panting along behind the curve, the British government committed £200m (then $290m) in 2001 to developing a paperless school. Baroness Ashton of Upholland, launching the scheme, waved a paper and pencil around, predicting their eventual demise .
The revenge of the trees
In most quarters, however, the fate of the tech stocks has taken the shine off those futuristic visions. The world is kinder to the past, these days, and to tools that have proved their value over millennia. A sign of the times is the publication of an excellent book* by Richard Harper and Abigail Sellen which details the many virtues of paper and the many workplaces in which it remains surprisingly important.
Air-traffic control, for example, does not, at first glance, seem a likely candidate. The business of monitoring incoming aircraft and predicting their future course, which depends on measurement and mathematics, sounds as though it should be entirely electronic. Yet paper remains an essential part of the air-traffic control system in Britain.
Each air-traffic controller works in a team of about five staff. Information about each incoming plane in that controller's sector is printed out on a piece of paper—a flight progress strip, about eight inches long and an inch deep. As the plane moves across the controller's sector, the strip is annotated—with, for instance, speed or altitude changes. On the basis of those annotations, different team members can do their job—working out, for instance, the implications of those changes for the next sector. In a busy sector, one team may have 50 strips on display.
Many attempts have been made to get rid of the flight progress strips. The only way of doing away with them, it turns out, is to give air-traffic controllers smaller areas to cover. For larger areas—which means a more complex job—the paper strips are essential. “They are a jolly efficient means of annotating information,” says Richard Wright of Britain's National Air Traffic Services. “The controllers can read them at a glance. If we replace them it will have to be with something better. They will be with us for some time yet.”
Paper's importance to the air-traffic controllers illustrates some of the reasons why it survives. It can be annotated more easily than text on a screen can; those marks can be seen more easily by several people than can digits on a screen; and it can be moved around, thus conveying more information.
Has anyone written a definitive account of the book as intrinsically paper-based?