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Is Paper On Its Deathbed?

In the early 1980’s, I worked for a company owned by the Xerox Corporation, and I remember when they proclaimed the coming of the paperless office.

Xerox, the inventors of the photocopying machine, was going into the “document management” business. While the people who actually worked in America’s offices were more than a little skeptical about a new workflow transacted entirely with digital documents , Xerox could be forgiven if they thought that paper was a technological dinosaur. Only a couple of years before, mighty IBM had rolled out the first personal computers, and they were so sure that we would be transacting all our business on screen that they didn’t provide printers. Futurist Alvin Toffler declared that making paper copies “was a primitive use of electronic word-processing machines and violated their very spirit.”

Well, folks, it didn’t happen. Our offices are buried in paper. Not the same kind, exactly,
but seemingly more than ever.

The New York Times doesn’t see it that way. In their Sunday Business Metrics column, Hannah Fairfield writes that paper is “on the endangered-species list.”

She says this because people like Chris Uhlik, an engineering director at Google who home-schools his kids on computers and lives “a practically paper-free life,” and Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, told her so. Kahle has no doubt about this. He told the Times that, “Paper is no longer the master copy; the digital version is. Paper has been dealt a complete deathblow.” To prove his point, Kahle asks rhetorically, “When was the last time you saw a telephone book?”

Actually, Ms. Fairfield does come up with some data and a very pretty graph to bolster her argument. Using 2005 figures from the United Nations World Resources Institute, her graph shows that a few high per capita GDP countries like the U.S., Japan, and Germany are consuming somewhat less paper, while a bunch of developing countries, including economic tigers like China, India, and Russia are consuming quite a bit more. According to the UN data, consumption of paper in the wealthiest countries has declined 6%, or 29 pounds per person. Fairfield attributes this decline to the widespread adoption of digital technologies.

This is an interesting theory, except that it doesn’t explain why Britain, Australia, the Scandinavian countries, Italy, and Spain have all have seen their paper consumption grow since 2000. Nor does it explain how South Korea, the most wired country on earth, is also consuming more paper.

What’s happening in the U.S., if anything?

Assuming the UN figures are correct, is a 6% decline in paper consumption over five years really that significant, and is it the direct result of digital technologies gaining “traction?” Fairfield thinks so, and asserts that while the paperless office failed to materialize, there is a veritable frenzy of scanning and shredding going on in our homes.

Recognizing an untapped market when they see one, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, and Cannon have been flooding the market with personal scanners. Fairfield reports that worldwide shipments of home scanners have almost doubled in the last two years and will increase by another 50% over the next two. This sounds great, but it turns out that only 627,000 units shipped last year and 1.1 million are projected to ship in 2010. Not exactly iPod-level market share.

Paper consumption can be affected by any number things, including price. As I noted in a blog post last December, China has been responding to international pressure by shutting down their polluting wood pulp paper mills, and this has increased the price of paper for everyone. Demand for paper is price-sensitive, so companies will buy and consume less. The relationship of price to demand and consumption was not considered in Fairfield’s article, or anywhere else for that matter.

I’m not suggesting that there’s been no change in our relationship to paper, or even that overall consumption hasn’t been declining a bit in response to digital technologies. What I’m saying is that there’s a big difference between digital efficiencies and the promised land of the paperless life. We’re still wandering in the desert. As Francois Ragnet of Xerox notes in his Future of Documents blog, paper has not disappeared because it has certain “affordanaces” that make it both useful and desirable. We are not abandoning paper, he says, just changing the way we use it.

“Paper continues to predominate in activities that involve knowledge work, reading, and collaboration. Paper is becoming a more temporary medium as people print, use, and discard documents rather than keeping everything they print. Paper has become a display medium for human collaboration.”

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  • http://www.paper-machines.com zephyr sloan

    A very interest and captivating article. no doubt the technological world is moving towards paperlessness, but somehow, reading things on paper seems more reliable for most of the people. yes, paper has become more expensive and businesses tend to use as less of as possible. thye brighter side, though, is that less paper consumption means less demand of paper leading to less supply which indirectly would lead to less cutting of trees leading to a greener world. now, that’s what we call being positive!

  • http://www.wmebooks.com Yvonne DiVita

    Nice article. Truth is – paper, like "real" books, will never go out of vogue. I don't have the figures or facts at my fingertips, but I remember reading on a site that supports the "green" initiative (going paperless is part of saving the environment), that we use MORE paper now. We print emails and articles that were previously available in magazines or newsletters – and did not need printing (as they were already printed).

    So, I have this notation underneath my signature in all of my business emails: "Consider the environment. Please don't print this e-mail unless you really need to."