I remember back in the late 80s, and early 90s, everything I read about technology was predicting the end of paper. I personally was involved in several technology projects whose purpose was specifically to get paper out of the process of doing work. I remember the days of green and white report paper spewing out of line printers for hours at a time, with people whose job it was to split the paper into individual reports and distribute them to everyone in the office. Paper was viewed as a great flood that was choking the life out of business. Individual desktop PCs in many ways were primarily introduced as ways to reduce the need to print, separate, sort and deliver paper. Who even remembers actually sending office memos to dozens of recipients anymore? Email has almost completely replaced a means of corporate communication that had endured for a hundred years or more.
But paper is still with us for now. The major corporate use of paper now is to print out documents that must be read, reviewed and approved before they are published. At least that’s true where I work. Spreadsheets are used to organize data and summary sheets are printed out and distributed at the start of meetings. Presentations are printed out and brought to meetings. Documents are printed out and stashed into briefcases to be brought home evenings and weekends to review.
But that too is starting to give way to laptop computers with wireless access points. In the past few years a variety of devices have been introduced specifically to allow users to comfortably read such material as if it were paper. It is likely that in the next ten years most offices will generally expect team members to bring their wireless document viewing devices, be they laptop computers, tablets or dedicated “ebook” style viewers to meetings where virtual documents can not only be distributed electronically, but they can be collaboratively modified by the participants.
We are cancelling our newspaper because we realized that the primary thing we were using the paper for were the comics pages, movie listings and as kindling for our wood stove. We get almost all of our news and weather from the Internet now.
So what role will paper play in the future?
Well, one thing I do know, is that you can’t fold a laptop computer into an animal. Other crafts also use paper extensively. In 20 years it may well be the case that the most common use of paper is no longer to write or print on, but instead to use in arts and crafts. Scrapbooking, origami, painting, drawing, etc. I don’t think paper will ever disappear because of its value for arts and crafts.
But I’m not so sure that it will survive into the next century as a way to distribute information. When you can carry your entire library in your pocket in a device that is not only as easy and as foolproof as a book, but is also wirelessly connected to the worlwide web where you can instantly download the latest bestseller or whatever else you want, then people will find books to be mostly obsolete.
If this is true, this does make me feel sort of melancholy. If there is a single human artifact that is completely tied to human culture, or has been for thousands of years, that artifact is paper in its many forms. Until the advent of computers, mostly within my own lifetime, printed words on paper were not merely the primary means of storing and managing information, it was pretty much synonymous with information itself. To me nothing exudes the sense of knowledge and wisdom as much as a library with weighty tomes filling all the shelves and stacked in the corners, with a section containing old and treasured scrolls that just ooze with history. Finding an old book in a musty corner and carefully turning the pages makes me think of who else has turned those pages, and what other eyes roamed the printed lines…
When books are replaced with wireless reading devices that everyone carries with them, will there even be a need for physical “bookstores” anymore?
Sometimes contemplating the future makes me wonder where we are going, and if I really want to be there when we get there. Progress definitely comes with a price.