Missing the Point

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Researchers demonstrate flexible ePaper phone

I love the technology on display here, and I think that it will definitely take off in some application or other as soon as it becomes economical to mass-produce. But what interests me more than the tech are the comments made by Roel Vertegaal, one of the project’s leaders.

The computer looks, feels and – on a superficial level – operates like a sheet of paper. Okay, sure. So his response to this is that it will replace paper – it’s like paper except better, therefore it will supersede it.

He says it will finally bring about the paperless office, but in doing so he highlights the very mistake he’s making, by bringing up those who made it before him. But what was a somewhat forgivable error then amounts to sheer blindness now. In the last few decades we have seen that a lot of legal architecture, company policy, and the outright gut feelings of Baby Boomer managers stand in the way of a paperless bureaucracy, and he has the benefit of this hindsight.

Paper is not just any old data storage medium that can be replaced willy-nilly. When you compare paper to the dominant media it replaced – clay, stone, papyrus, vellum, etc – you can see that its ability to store data ranks fairly low on the list of differences. Instead, it’s things like how easy it is to use, how easy it is to fix mistakes, how transportable it is, and how easy/cheap it is to acquire.

But when people compare paper to electronic storage (and, in general, when people compare the present to the future) they tend to forget the lessons the past can teach us about why we value things. Like the fact that paper is, relatively speaking, permanent. Solid. Tangible. A simple error is unlikely to lose millions of paper documents, but in early computer systems it could happen to millions of files with ease.

Vertegaal talks about how this technology signals the arrival of the paperless office, because the computer looks and feels like paper. Because it is stackable, like paper. This is to so fundamentally misunderstand the selling points of paper that I wonder if he had any connection to the project or was just a Head of School looking to take credit for his peons’ research. Nobody is worried about the stacks – they’re worried about newfangled technology, particularly technology that could lose all their data at what seems like the slightest whim.

(Not to mention that nobody will ever stack these like paper, since a single device can store or access a thousand ‘stacks’ of paper)

Now, as computer architecture and software has evolved, this has become less of a problem. We have better backups, we have more reliable software – to the point where digital is becoming even safer than paper. A single fire can destroy a lot of paper but is unlikely to wipe out multiple servers spread across the planet. And in addition, we have younger people who don’t fear technology rising up the ranks and making changes to the bureaucracy – people who as a matter of daily course pay bills and shop online, using money that exists only as numbers on a bank server. It’s less of a leap for these people, and it will be a no-brainer for their kids.

We will have an essentially paperless office one day, and it will be within my lifetime – and technology like this that can more closely mimic the UI of paper will probably help. But it will never come from any one technological leap – it will come about through slow adjustment as people get used to new technology. Because when it comes to how technology changes human society, it’s the society half of the equation that matters. 

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2 Responses to Missing the Point

  1. BluegrassJack says:

    Excellent analysis!

    I agree that the “Head of School” – lacking any hands-on work in the project – probably made the claim that this advance will create the paperless office. Dreams of vast amounts of cash pouring into the university to develop such an advance prompted the grandiose claim. Paperless offices have been touted as “right around the bend” for decades, yet we’re still using paper. Paper still has too many advantages over what must be a [cheap] replacement.

    Office workers and bureaucrats will have to change many cherished beliefs and behavior before we’re in the paperless world. People stubbornly resist such change.

  2. lemmycaution says:

    Office technology has always increased paper use. Typewriters- more paper. Carbon copies- more paper. Carbon copies-more paper. Xerox machines- more paper. Computers- more paper.

    The paperless office will never happen as long as paper is relatively cheap. Paper will lose certain roles (such as long term storage and communication) but paper will remain very useful to read and orient within a document with low mental overhead. You can also throw paper away without a lot of mental effort.

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