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Entry 489, on 2007-03-08 at 15:54:57 (Rating 2, Comments)

I recently saw in the news that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said that they will stop issuing paper airline tickets by the end of the year. That's good, because I've often wondered why we need so many pieces of paper for storing information which is easily available electronically. Its part of a bigger idea which goes back to the early days of computing: the promise of a paperless office.

I haven't heard anyone mention this idea for a while now, and based on how much paper people still seem to have to deal with, its not hard to see why the idea seems to have been forgotten. It just seems to be natural for many people to print electronic documents for reading rather than reading them on their computer screen.

I have got close to a paperless life myself. I have a laptop which has a lot of storage and a good quality screen, so I'm perfectly happy reading material from the screen. In fact, if someone gives me a piece of paper I usually tell them I will lose it and to please send an email instead. It works for me, although I haven't really taken up electronic books. When electronic paper becomes more widespread I would think that I'll abandon conventional books as well.

Unfortunately for the environment (how many trees are sacrificed for all the paper we use?) and for my sense of the way things should be (people should use the technology properly!) most people still can't get away from the use of paper. The worst example I know of is a senior manager who had his email collected by an assistant, printed, and presented to him on paper. He would then write a reply on paper and the assistant would type it up and email the reply back. Why did he have a computer at all, I wonder.

Apart from the philosophical idea that storing information electronically is just more elegant, there are also the practical issues involved. For example, duplicating and backing up electronic information is trivial. Encrypting, permanently erasing and securing it is easier too (although many people don't get this right). Searching 100,000 documents on a computer is trivial. How long would it take to read 100,000 pieces of paper? I can store half a million books worth of text easily on a disk which is smaller in size than a single real book.

Despite these advantages, people still don't get it. I suppose its something that will change gradually over time as more people are brought up with information technology. And the increased capacity, reliability and quality of computers will help. Still, I won't expect to see too many paperless offices very soon!


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