The Office Isn’t Paperless for a Reason

It was the mid-1970s, and the idea of the “paperless office” was published in Businessweek by the head of Xerox’s research lab.

“It painted a not-incorrect picture of future workers going about their business accessing and analyzing information on screens,” writes David J. Unger in The Guardian. “And yet paper continued its ascent: global consumption grew by 50% between 1980 and 2011.”

Why is that? Unger has made it his mission to find out. He began with The Myth of the Paperless Office, a book by Microsoft researcher Abigail J. Sellen and Lancaster University’s Richard H.R. Harper.

“First, they note that computers and the internet brought unprecedented access to information – information that, while accessed digitally, was still best consumed on dead trees,” Unger explains. “Second, printing technology became so small, cheap and reliable that just about anybody with a computer could also afford their own on-demand press.”

“We have heard stories of paperless offices, but we have never seen one,” Sellen and Harper wrote. “More commonly, the introduction of new technology does not get rid of paper; it increases it or shifts the ways in which it is used.”

Unger notes that even with vastly improved screen resolution, load times and user interfaces, we still are nowhere near a paperless world.

Yet to talk to people in the paper industry, it has taken a deep hit. Unger spent some time recently at Paper2017, the paper industry’s annual conference.

He learned that the demand for printing and writing paper has indeed been in decline, especially since 2008. Yet the paper industry has shifted with consumer demand. Now, instead of general paper mills, Unger talks of new packaging plants being built to meet the demands of consumer goods – from toilet paper rolls to cosmetic wrappings. Much of the work of the paper industry has shifted this way.

In the meantime, paper stalwart Mohawk Paper chose not to reinvent themselves as the market changes. Rather, they stuck with what they do best – creating really great paper.

“In an era of impermanence, an extraordinary movement has emerged,” explains Mohawk’s Declaration of Craft printed manuscript. “A movement of makers where craftsmanship and permanence matter now more than ever.”

My favorite statement from the article is this: “After all, paper loads instantly. It requires no software, no battery, no power source. It is remarkably lightweight, thin and made from abundant, recyclable materials. Its design is minimalist, understated, calm.”

Unger’s piece is an interesting read, full of history and depth on the paper industry of today. He makes no bones about the fact that jobs in the paper industry have declined, in much the same way technology is creating an entirely new way to work across all industries.

But, perhaps, paper remains because it truly is an effective tool in our everyday lives.