I recently inherited a large set of files from a coworker who had moved on to greener pastures, by which I do not mean I received a zip full of Excel spreadsheets. These are honest to goodness paper files and folders. Working in IT, you would think that if the paperless office had arrived, it would at least be present in that department, if no other. Alas, it has not. This is the second set of files that I have inherited during my time here and my own set of files is getting to be fairly large. Most folders are stuffed with hand-written notes I took during various planning, scoping, and implementation stages.
The point here being, I am throwing no stones, but am making an observation: even in technical fields, few people are actually implementing paperless offices. If anything, the laser printer allows us to run off far more paper than ever before because its low threshold of use and expense allows people to use it for far more trivial things than would have ever been justified in the dark ages. Computers allow us to store more information than is readily doable with paper, in a more portable fashion (most laptops have enough hard drive space to carry libraries of information, available at the brush of the finger), more safely (some laptops and spare drives are a lot less of a fire hazard than cupboards stuffed with paper and cardboard), and more intelligibly (typed notes will be legible by anyone, whereas many people, like me, have terrible handwriting).
Here, it would almost be convenient to scapegoat the older workers and simply blame them. It is their dedication to the old order that keeps the rest of us from making progress. There is some small amount of truth here. We have probably all seen that one person who prints off every darn e-mail only to turn around and file it in a cabinet. However, this would be greatly oversimplified. When I was in college, I noticed that few computer science students used their laptops for notetaking. There were plenty of laptops in the room, mind you, but most of their owners were surfing or playing solitaire (I played solitaire through a solid semester of Jewish History--did well on the tests, though). The students who actually took notes did so, by and large, on notebooks or in binders. So, that old guy over there might abuse the printer a little more than usual, but he is not the real issue here after all, the younger generation who is growing up on iPods and Facebook, takes notes by hand.
The reasons for this, then, are more deep seated than a simple matter of generation. The sad truth for the proponent of the digital office is that computers are simply not convenient enough, yet, for this purpose. Notepads are still much more convenient than laptops for most purposes. When taking notes, it is not uncommon to be scribbling down diagrams and making outlines in ways that a computer may present better, but require a little more effort upfront. If you are typing your proposal, those extra few seconds to make the bullets look good is well worth it. If there is a flurry of talk in a meeting or during a lecture, those extra few seconds put you too far behind. Similarly, those diagrams may take, for a fast user, ten minutes to put together--but that ten minutes is simply too long when everything is happening realtime, especially when they can be sketched in seconds.
Laptops, as light as they are, are appreciably heavier so it is a lot more convenient to grab a notepad than to haul out the laptop. Battery life is also a concern. Despite advertising to the contrary, the best you can usually do is a few hours of battery time at full use. Sure, you can get more life if you don't use the machine as much, but then it isn't as useful either. This particular group of objections should be handled within the next few generations of hardware. With netbooks becoming more common, general laptop size decreasing, and battery life increasing, this should go away quite soon. Cost does not really seem to be an issue anymore. Most college students have laptops--virtually all have computers and could have had a laptop should they have so chosen. Like I wrote above, the problem was not that students did not have laptops, but that they were not using them to go paperless.
All right, then, if we can't get people to use their computers yet, what about digitizing the output? At least, we could save the storage and remove that old fire hazard. Not necessarily a bad idea, but retyping and resketching all notes is quite time consuming. Scanning presents another option, but at several times the amount of storage (so, storing those notes as TIFFs instead of TXT or DOC will tax your drive space more) with greater difficulty reading (scans are often, especially with penciled or highlighted text, harder to read), loss of the ability to search (which, as Google, Apple, and Microsoft are all realizing, is one of the most important abilities of computerized documents), loss of flexibility (when things change, altering those TIFFs is a lot harder than changing a text document), and poor software interfaces (have you seen most document management systems?) make this a loss.
The real problem is ultimately one of convenience. We could bring our laptops to everything. We could type it all in Word or OpenOffice. We could use the touch pad to do all of our diagramming. But we don't because it is not sufficiently convenient for the problem at hand and the reasons lie in both the hardware and the software.
On the hardware side of things, we need to see laptops that are even lighter (without loss in functionality; about the only thing I see being able to go is a CD drive--more and more software is web driven or, at least, could be deployed from another machine and more and more music is being stored digitally) with even longer batter life. Additionally, an easy way to make quick sketches is key. I am sure advancements could be made in diagramming software, but until someone can take a stylus and make a quick sketch as readily as they could with a pen, the laptop will still not be good enough. It would also help if the laptop screens were more like paper--in short, if we could see digital ink making its way from niche ebook readers onto laptops so that notes can be viewed cleanly and crisply in a way that will not tire the eyes the way traditional displays do.
On the software side of things, we need software that is more conducive to taking notes in the way that people take them in real life. Outliners are good, but people do not take perfectly outlined notes on the fly--nor can they be expected to. Often times, notes are taken in brainstorming or design sessions. These meetings cannot be organized or else they will lose all utility. One of the benefits of paper note taking is the loose, semi-organized way in which notes and diagrams can be taken and mixed up. This would need to be made available through software.
There is still the X factor. Speaking for myself, I enjoy the feel of handwriting and the look of paper. It is a relief after using computers and technology all day long to be able to look at and feel something different. I doubt that for me, personally, this will ever go away. However, by and large, except for a few strange people (like me; I even have a manual typewriter) this will fall away in the next generation or so leaving only the items above.
So, will we ever see the paperless office? I do not think that question can be answered with any degree of certainty. My personal point of view is that the hardware will be there within the next ten years. The software is a trickier proposition--it could happen at any time. Tomorrow someone could write the perfect software or it could take another thirty years. Even once this happens, paper will linger a while longer.