The paperless office finally coming?

In the seventies, some made the prediction that we soon would have paperless offices. What happened, of course, is that we started to use inexpensive printers and paper consumption increased, instead of decreasing. There are still people, many people, who print every email, essentially using email as a fancy fax systems. According to Le Devoir, Canada’s paper exports to the USA are down by 17% since 2001 and newspaper consumption is decreasing by 6% to 8% per year in the USA. However, I could not find any hard data about this, and most Google hits tell me that we are increasing our paper consumption dramatically every year. I tend to disbelieve this considering how badly the Canadian paper industry is doing.

What seems to be happening is that people are very slowly switching to electronic formats. People subscribe to fewer newspaper because they get a larger share of their news from the Web. Inside companies, very slowly, electronic forms and electronic documents stop being printed systematically on paper. Very slowly, scientists are accepting that a conference without paper proceedings can still be a reputable conference. In a sense, I think that paper has prestige that electronic documents do not have, but this prestige is going away, slowly.

Another contributing factor is the quality, number and size of our computer monitors. Or, in other words, the bandwith. Reading a document on your screen is really difficult when you have 640 by 480 pixels on a 14 inches monitor, but it becomes considerably easier on a 2500 by 1200 pixels 30 inches screen.

There is no doubt, also, that many older office workers were trained to think of a computer as a fancy typewriter whose main function was to produce documents on paper. This is somewhat of a tragedy since computers are data processing devices, they always were data processing devices… and instead of using them as such, we perverted them by storing the data on paper, making further data processing impossible. I am glad this era is coming to an end.

What will be the nail in the coffin for paper, in my opinion, will be the cross-referencing, the aggregation, and the indexing of every electronic document to ever come across your computer. Already, most operating systems (except Linux, of all things!) support full text indexing of all documents on the machine. But the tools we use to read our documents are still primitive. Neither Microsoft Word nor Adobe Reader are very good tools to read documents on a screen. For example, if I am reading a scientific paper, why can’t I just click on a reference and download it right there? Why do I have to painfully copy and paste the reference and look for it manually? The software could at least make an effort! What if I need to look up a term in a document I am reading? Why do I need to copy and paste it to another piece of software?

Update: People tell me to look at Beagle for full text indexing under Linux. Well, I knew of Kat, but it never worked for me. I see that Beagle has a KDE client called Kerry. I will give it a spin.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

4 thoughts on “The paperless office finally coming?”

  1. Reading a document on your screen is really difficult when you have 640 by 480 pixels on a 14 inches monitor, but it becomes considerably easier on a 2500 by 1200 pixels 30 inches screen.

    However, a 30-inch high-res monitor is not exactly a very portable medium. What makes a big difference between monitor and a piece/stack/pile of paper is that the latter can be pretty much taken anywhere, folded or made more compact in a number of other ways.

    It won’t be till our screens bolster at least 300dpi resolution and are compact enough to fit in a small briefcase, that the paperless becomes a reality.

  2. Text indexing is not a very hard thing to do. I’m pretty sure there are several available for Linux (like the aforementioned Beagle).

  3. You mention that you would like to click a reference and download it automatically, which PDF and Word formats both allow.

    One of the larger issues here is that people are NOT taking advantage of the tools already in place.

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