kitchen table math, the sequel: Tyranny of the tidy

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tyranny of the tidy

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?


VickyS said...

When "books" begin residing only in the electronic domain, how long will they live? What if they are changed or updated? Can/will an author keep revising a book after digitally publishing? Where does a book start and stop? In my field there used to be a "Manual" that got updated every couple of years, printed, and made available for purchase. It was a nice, fat tome and lovingly annotated by me with every new edition. Now, it's all online, and little pieces get changed all the time. Is it a book? I think it is now a "resource" not a book! Who's to say that constant change won't start happening with other digital "books"? To my mind, a true book marks a point in time. It is written, completed, published, whole and immutable. Paper.

VickyS said...

From that same 2002 Economist article "In Praise of Clutter" that Catherine quotes in her post, this should make us feel better about messy desks, handwritten notes, and that sense that something is lost when we go totally electronic:

But why do people need to spread papers around on their desks? Why don't they just read their paperwork and file it? Alison Kidd, a psychologist, investigated this question while working for Hewlett-Packard Laboratories. Ms Kidd, whose new firm, The Prospectory, helps companies to use technology to develop new ideas, interviewed 12 workers about how they used information, paper and computers.

Her paper, “The Marks are on the Knowledge Worker”, draws a distinction between “knowledge workers” and other categories, such as clerical workers. Clerical workers use information—about, say, customer orders—to aid the smooth working of the company. Knowledge workers use information to change themselves. So, for instance, knowledge workers take notes not in order to store information, but because the process of note-taking helps them to learn. Once taken, notes are rarely reviewed. According to a study of research workers reported in “The Technology of Team Navigation”, a paper by Edwin Hutchins, a psychologist, while 64% kept their notes for years, 44% hardly ever referred to them.

The relationship between workers and their clutter is similar. People spread stuff over their desks not because they are too lazy to file it, but because the paper serves as a physical representation of what is going on in their heads—“a temporary holding pattern for ideas and inputs which they cannot yet categorise or even decide how they might use”, as Ms Kidd puts it. The clutter cannot be filed because it has not been categorised. By the time the worker's ideas have taken form, and the clutter could be categorised, it has served its purpose and can therefore be binned. Filing it is a waste of time.

VickyS said...

And more from the same source (Catherine, take heart!):

Work by Steve Whittaker and Julia Hirschberg of ATT Labs-Research, however, suggests that clutter may actually be quite an efficient organising principle. In “The Character, Value and Management of Personal Paper Archives”, they examine the distinction that MIT's Tom Malone draws between “filers” and “pilers”. When filers receive paperwork, they put it away. When pilers get it, they leave it on the desk—not randomly, but in concentric circles. There is a “hot” area, of stuff that the worker is dealing with right now. There is a “warm” area, of stuff that needs to be got through in the next few days: it may be there, in part, as a prompt. And there is a “cold” area, at the edges of the desk, of stuff which could just as well be in an archive (or, often, the bin).

According to Mr Whittaker and Ms Hirschberg, the assumption that filers can find stuff more quickly is wrong. Filers, they say, “are less likely to access a given piece of data, and more likely to acquire extraneous data...In moderation, piling has the benefits of providing somewhat ready access to materials as well as reminding about tasks currently in progress.” Filers have two problems finding stuff: they tend to file too much, because they have put so much effort into building a filing system, and they often find it hard to remember how they categorised things.

allison said...


Your concerns are quite serious, and issues of the present, not the future.

My mother self-published an e-book novel using amazon a couple months ago. At any time, she can upload *a new version of it*, and it will update the versions people have bought (if they have their Kindle's wi-fi turned on.)

In her case, she uses it to fix grammatical errors that her readers have found. But there is nothing preventing her from changing the ending.

There is no version number visible to the Amazon buyer, no way to tell.

And actually, it already happens to paper books, too. I am astonished at the number of children's books purporting to be by the original author that have been changed by the publisher. Sometimes it is word substitution--can't have a jolly gay day anymore. But often it isn't just wording; it is entire paragraphs rewritten in different prose, and no way to tell that this is so.

autismplusmath said...

I wonder if the paper-based constraint of the air traffic controllers is also due to the possibility of a power failure of the radar system. Meaning that if radar goes down they would still have the strips to traffic blind and redirect as many aircraft as possible. But that's just conjecture.

Glenn Laniewski
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