Paper is dead – long live paper!

It started with an email. A well-known company announced it was doing the equivalent of a turkey asking for Christmas to come twice: it called for the end of the reign of paper as our preferred way of recording life. After a slow start, it seems that the age of the paperless office is being forced into the light of day.

Paper is good. But it is also really, really bad. In spy circles, clattering away on a typewriter leaves a signature, so any document can be traced back to the specific typewriter. It also means a limited number of documents for people to leak, or steal. When things go wrong, a piece of paper can disappear rather easily, deleting history and getting rid of inconvenient truths. Russia’s Federal Guard Services recently returned to using typewriters.

But, paper is really, really bad. Trees have to be cut down to make it, and it takes up a heck of a lot of space. We were far more ecofriendly when we etched our histories on cave walls.

Then came bureaucracy and the need for autocrats to keep track of who was spending money on which pyramid. The Egyptians started scribbling on papyrus. If a project was over budget, there was a record of who was to blame.

Several thousand years later, the arrival of the printing press ensured every thought and fact ever conceived of could be recorded. Erotic fiction and self-help books quickly exploded on to the scene. As did offices. Printing – as well as a few other small inventions like the steam engine – meant people had the joy of sitting in small spaces with people they now had to like, for years on end.

Their progress was tracked in paper. The greater the pile of paper, the more work each employee must be doing. It was a perfectly arbitrary system of visually measuring the worth of a human being. Everyone became a number, which corresponded to a folder in some cabinet – from doctor’s notes to income tax submissions. Other offices were created to keep track of these paper trails, and to store them. Criminals went down because of pieces of paper surfacing.

It took Bill Gates to arrest this inexorable slide towards a world where every surface became a storage place for different formats of paper. Typing on a screen and saving thoughts in a virtual space suddenly threatened paper. People could blog their every thought without destroying the planet. An advertising rep, trying to sell the idea of desktop computers as the next new thing, coined the phrase “paperless office”.

Psychologists – the sort who also punted the wonders of standing desks and open-plan offices – hailed this as the second coming. Paper was bad, really bad. Death to paper. And paper clips. Offices were reminded of how many drawers could be returned to their original use of storing discarded peanut packets.

Sales of Windows-laden desktop computers exploded. People started clattering away on keyboards, which soon turned out to be giving them repetitive strain injury. A whole generation will now be shaking in old age homes without the ability to use their hands. Amputations will proliferate. But that didn’t stop the relentless onslaught on paper.

But paper is bad. Trees mean forests of alien vegetation, which use vast amounts of water. Once printed with ink, these towers of white paper are hard to recycle – a quarter of inked pulp inevitably ends up on waste sites. A paperless office also means one where documents can be easily shared around the world. Projects can be done quicker and more efficiently. It also means benevolent security services know everything you are doing, and can proactively look after your best interests.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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