Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Myth And Undesirability Of The Paperless Office

The coming of the computer age was supposed to herald the paperless office yet many years later paper is still going strong. We seem to be using as much paper as ever before.

CTV reporter, Scott Lightfoot, did a report on this. It mentioned that some companies are concerned that digital records may not have the same permanence as paper. Joanne Mc Neish, from Ryerson University, said there is a link between paper and memory, which you don’t get with a digital record. One company mentioned in Lightfoot’s report said that they had gone almost totally digital.

At first glance going paperless seems to make sense. It saves paper and space. It’s also easier to copy and to access. As an environmentalist I should be thrilled as it means fewer trees cut down for paper and less waste and all the energy and other resources involved. A room full of electronic data houses more than a room full of filing cabinets.

However, overall going digital without saving a paper copy does not make good sense. For starters programs and storage formats change. When I computerized in the 1980s I had floppy disks with limited storage space. For a word processor I used WordStar. Since then I’ve used small hard disks, CDs and, now, an external hard drive to store data on. My word processor has changed to Word Perfect and now to Word. I do save data in both Word and ASCI, ASCI in hopes that I can continue to read it years from now.

Another problem with electronic data is that you need to keep two or more copies of it in two or more places in case something goes wrong with one storage medium. If you store your data in the cloud then you’re at risk for having data accessed by unauthorized persons. A magnet can easily erase most data.

Paper, while vulnerable to fire and flood damage, is more permanent. A flood can wipe out electronic data, but not necessarily paper data. Language may change, but you can always access the document if physically present. You can copy paper documents, but not as easily as electronic ones.

Another big advantage of paper over electronics is that paper can be read anywhere without a computer or electricity. All it requires is the ability to read.

Electronic data is all that environmentally friendly as it seems. Trees are renewable and you can recycle paper. With electronic data and storage there are the materials needed to manufacture the electronic devices needed to read and store the data, which are not renewable. Recycling is a much bigger issue with electronics than with paper. If you throw paper away say into a woods, while it looks messy, it will eventually disintegrate over a few months to a year or so. An electronic device thrown away in a woods will take decades and even centuries to disintegrate, plus there is the danger from the materials used leeching into the environment.

In short a paperless office is not the way to go.