Whatever happened to the paperless office?
the first wave of computerisation we were assured that paper, that nasty thing
invented by the Chinese in a millennium long gone by, would no longer clutter
up office shelves. That didnt happen. An interesting phrase was coined
at that time, to wit, the Paperless Office. The noise around this concept died
down awhile only to be resurrected with the dawn of e-mail. Once more the cry
rose, no more paper. Once more, it was dead wrong. Printer manufacturers laughed
all the way to the bank clutching sacks of doubloons from selling ink by the
megaton and acres upon acres of forest cover were pulped to provide a receptacle
for that ink. The phrase has now acquired the dreaded status of a cliché.
So much so, that while naming the issue that you hold in your hands, we considered
using Paperless Office in the title for all of two nanoseconds.
While all of the above is true, theres something noble, if quaint, about
the thought of a paper-free world. Im not going to go out on a limb and
say that it will never happen. Better men than me have made predictions that
no doubt seemed perfectly wise and proper at the time (Bill Gates and his 640
KB should be enough line or the top brass at IBM who believed that five computers
would suffice for the world) but turned out to be ludicrous. There are already
technologies in widespread use that reduce paper usage. Weve covered three
in this issueelectronic document management, electronic data interchange
(EDI) and digital signatures. The first takes existing paper documents and converts
them to digital form to be shuttled around an organisations networks and
used where needed. That said these digitised documents could well end up being
printed at the end of the line. Then theres EDI which converts paper-based
processes to all-electronic marvels that dont even need humans to intercede
once things have been set-up to everybodys satisfaction. Digital signatures
help authenticate electronic documents bringing them legally on par with paper
These three technologies while quite powerful arent going to do away with
paper usage. Itll take nothing short of an e-paper that can be reused,
folded, tucked away and crumpled and thrown away when not needed anymore before
paper finally bites the dust, that too, if the e-paper is as inexpensive to
produce as paper. This may seem like something from the wilder realms of science
fiction but efforts are afoot to create an electronic alternative to paper,
thin materials that can display text and images and can be erased and reused.
Right now theyre mostly black and white displays but give the technology
time, Im sure they will get it right eventually. After all, there was
a time when movies were silent and the stage play reigned. Today the play is
still around but its more of an elite art form patronised by the well-to-do.
Will paper end up like that someday? It could happen.
Prashant L Rao
Head of Editorial Operations