Over the past forty years the dream/prospect/myth/utopia of a paperless, global information environment  has always seized the imagination, achieved exceptional popularity and been greeted by mixed point of views. It all began in the 1960s, when experts anticipated the advent of a global information environment as an inevitable result of technological advances. They foresaw a technological and completely paperless future; where filing cabinets would give way to hard disks, messages and reports would be distributed electronically and paper invoices and memos would be substituted by electronic messages floating and speeding between various departments (Liu, 2008).
The notion of the “paperless office” actually dates back to 1975 when a prescient article foretold that, by 1995, “The Office of the Future” would have a “TV-display terminal with keyboard on every desk and we would be able to call up documents by pressing a button” (Pake, 1975).
It all seemed almost too good to be true, experts and scholars also were enthusiastically in full agreement on the imminent arrival of a paperless, global information environment because the benefits promised by such a scenario were compelling from every direction.
In an ideal paperless world, information would be stored and transmitted digitally and would become easily and readily accessible on demand to all users. The traceability of all documents at the earliest, even remote, would increase efficiency and drastically reduce time to process management and costs of back up information. Thanks to a robust and accurate classification, all paper documents will be digitized, stored and catalogued with multiple benefits: first, the environment, fewer trees to be cut, less pollution and, not least, this would represented significant savings both in terms of space and money (drastically reducing storage and printing costs, management and disposal of paper). All written communication would be mourned by whizzing real-time emails and huge reams of paper wasted in correspondence would disappear. The coming of laptops and mobile phones, in addition to the use of new digital technologies, such as HTML, word processors, spreadsheets and PDF files, would guarantee that we can carry around all the notes and documents we might need and that piles of paper would be completely redundant (Liu, 2009).
While most of those predictions were remarkably prophetic, the ‘paperless environment’ was not and when the early enthusiasm faded, it seemed even more distant than when it was proposed.
In fact, the majority of opinion was still on the conservative side, and Michael Gorman (2003) well summed these views when he states that we needed time to absorb the new ways of doing things that digital technology made possible.
Therefore, at the dawn of the new millennium the dream of a paperless, global information environment became a myth, almost a joke, crushed by new facts and figures, and ironically, by newer and better technological innovations.
Improvements in printers and photocopiers, the advent of word processing, and the ability to send messages via electronic mail not only failed to eliminate paper, they actually drove a new boom in paper production and use. So according to statistics, as digital technology made printing cheaper and easier than ever before, the worldwide consumption of paper per capita more than doubled between 1980 and 2000 (The Economist , 11 October 2008).
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The difficulties and constraints of the unrealized dream of a paperless, global information environment were described most eloquently by Sellen and Harper in “The Myth of the Paperless Office”(Sellen, 2003). According to them the physical nature of paper has a range of social and psychological benefits. In addition to being a tangible and flexible object, paper is very well suited to all our needs. We can easily write on a sheet of paper without making any changes to the original text and allows us to read and write simultaneously. In addition, Sellen and Harper through the study of several statistics found that from a practical point of view, paper better supports reading multiple documents at the same time as it allows making cross-references and facilitates movement through a document.
Their text well summed up the new trend, which might be described as “the less-paper information environment”. This swerve was also supported and consolidated by numerous studies on reading habits showing that paper, by virtue of its physical characteristics described above, was more convenient and easier to read than a screen. The outcome is that people favoured reading on paper to staring at their PCs. Supporters of digital books as well were not used to read extensive electronic texts for long periods of time and normally if texts were longer than a few pages, people would print on paper those documents for reading (Dillon 1992).
Another of the main issues that prevented companies from digital technologies were copyright laws, as these laws severely limited the transfer of copyrighted documents from one medium to another, a classic example was the conversion of books in electronic format through the scanning process. Not forgetting to add also emotional factors in relation to the good old piece of paper such as trust and privacy (Walker, 2009).
The underlined message of all these studies was clear: people will continue to use paper in the face of digital technologies because paper and work practices have coevolved over the centuries and changing these long-standing work patterns would be too long and complicated.
However, since about 2001, global use of paper has actually been in decline and the initial predictions of a paperless, global information environment seemed to be coming true at last. This newer development shows that demand for many types of paper is on its way out and paper multinationals have been hard hit by the electronic age. The restructuring in the paper industry is proceeding at a furious pace and I am with the same mind with Steve Chercover, an analyst at D.A. Davidson when he says that “The only grade of paper immune to technological substitution is tissue,” such as bathroom or facial tissue (The Economist ,17 March 2007).
Since the publication of Sellen and Harper’s influential book, there have been also many improvements in the technology that specifically addressed issues raised in their work (Terry, 2009).
For example one of the main impediments to going paperless was the need for ink or “wet” signatures that has been deep-rooted in our culture for centuries. Actually we have been performing digital signatures for a long time and they are safe and possible to use directly with electronic documents in multiple forms including encrypted keys that represent a specific person or marks that are similar to physical signatures (Walker, 2009).
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Nevertheless, the explanation of this change seems to be sociological rather than technological and has been attributed to a generation shift. I think that the progress towards a paperless, technological world will depend not so much on technological constraints but on the outcome of a more complicated set of relationships between technical and social factors. Communities are slow to adopt new tools, often not doing so until many years after they have been made available. It is therefore likely that the convergence between new information and telecommunication technologies will not gain widespread acceptance until sufficient time has passed to enable users to feel comfortable in their everyday use.
New studies pointed out that a new generation of workers, who have grown up with milk, Internet and mobile phones, do not need to print papers out as much as their older colleagues did. Tests on younger people show that they are less inclined to print out documents, and more inclined to read them on a screen. Although these younger generations have been helped by the enormous technological advances of recent years such modern screens and devices which facilitate reading on the screen, making it less tiring for the eyes and that can be easily transported anywhere (The Economist, 11 October, 2008).
In my opinion the main difficulty in accepting a paperless, global information environment is not technology such as file format compatibility, longevity of digital documents and making sure everyone have the technological skills required. Even if there may be costs and temporary productivity losses involved when adapting these issues, it can be easily overcome for commercially feasible technology is widely available at feasible cost. Sufficient processing power, storage, backup, and Internet speeds are available that can make old paper records instantly available not just from stationary computers but laptops and even phones. The challenge instead is the human factor. Often people are simply used to how things are and don’t want to sign off on drastic change. For these reasons, I agree with Greg Gibson, in charge at International Paper the world’s largest paper-maker, when he says that it is a “generational thing” (The economist 11/10/2008).
Older people still prefer a hard copy of most things, but younger workers are increasingly comfortable reading on screens and storing and retrieving information on computers or online. As new generations of office workers leave university-where their class notes and syllabuses are online these days-they take their habits with them. They like digital information because it reduces clutter. It can be “tagged” and thus filed into many folders instead of just one physical file. It can be searched by keyword. It can be cut, pasted and remixed. It allows for easier collaboration, through features such as “track changes”. It can be shared across an ocean as easily as across a desk. Increasingly, it resides in the internet “cloud” and can be accessed from anywhere, not just in the office. By contrast, paper tends to get torn, stained, burnt, soaked and lost. Each new generation moves on to new things, even as the previous generation refuses to let go of the old. Today’s generation uses SMS, instant chat and social networking as its primary form of communication – 15 years back they never existed. Twenty years back most offices refused to even think of email – and see where we are today. Most of us spent the first half of our lives without a mobile phone – today’s kids think of it as a toy as they’ve been exposed to it from day one. Most people over 50 can’t wrap their heads around touch-screens – most teens can’t think of a device without one. New generations that have grown on the contrary with the computer have definitely fewer problems in the approach to an I Pad that could replace, for example, the typical notebook during a meeting or read the documents directly display on a smart phone rather than on a computer screen. It’s inevitable and meant to be. The next generation brings in new things.
That it is why we have to enjoy your last few sessions with paper for its time has finally come and soon our old ‘paper generation’ will have to give way to the new ‘paperless generation’ – Thank Goodness!
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