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Palimpsest: the guide to a (mostly) paperless life

It seems that many of us otherwise computer-oriented geeks have a surprising and earth-unfriendly confession to make: we love paper. Notwithstanding the entirely digital nature of my own trade, for example, I'll freely admit that there is really nothing quite like the smooth glide of a mechanical pencil over a big sheet of crisp, white office paper to facilitate good writing and thinking.

I can't plan out a new piece of software—or write an essay for that matter—without first messily scribbling my ideas out as mind-maps or rough user-interface sketches onto paper. My brainstorms are too messy and flow too quickly for the computer to be able to accommodate my chaos, yet that early disorder is essential to crafting the order and structure that will follow.

And yet I used to have serious reservations about this tendency to spoodge my thought process onto tree carcasses. It wasn't until I finally learned how to get rid of paper, that I was able properly to embrace its use in my work.

You see, paper has a number of problems in addition to its environmental implications, not least of which that it tends to hang around and pile up well past its period of usefulness, cluttering offices and making one look embarrassingly Victorian in one's mastery of information technology. Paper also lacks a number of the affordances of its digital counterparts: pen and paper don't offer very good full-text search, for one thing—and the spell check is even worse. But as a medium for encouraging unbounded creative thinking and planning, nothing quite beats a hunk of the old papyrus. As Merlin and Danny O'Brien aptly put it, paper is "the purest and most durable instance of the WYSIWYG interface."

"When working with paper no longer represents a path to messy clutter, one is less likely to avoid using that medium for tasks where it is truly the superior tool."

The trouble seems to be with the shallow-minded Manichean view of paper-vs-paperlessness. Many of us 43folk like to have an omnibus "system" for our work, so we tend to find ourselves in the midst of an awkwardly ambiguous relationship with paper. We seem to want either to turn away from it entirely or to run our lives exclusively out of a Moleskine notebook. However, rather than burning all our old books and "going digital," or insisting on writing our next article solely with quill and parchment, perhaps a slightly more nuanced approach is in order.

For my part, I have recently arrived at a happy hybrid workflow that exploits the best of each medium, thanks primarily to an amazing little Japanese scanner and Amazon's new data backup service. In the process, I have found that through embracing paperlessness in the way my documents are stored, I have freed myself for a more creative and enthusiastic relationship with paper in my actual daily work. When working with paper no longer represents a path to messy clutter, one is less likely to avoid using that medium for tasks where it is truly the superior tool.

The tools of paperlessness

As many before me have pointed out, the key is to recognize that paper is all about process, whereas digital media are all about information and retrieval. One mustn't be afraid to whip out a scrap of paper when it's time to scribble impromptu notes, mark a manuscript for edits, or do some visual thinking. Equally, one must not hesitate to scan or transcribe and then throw away a piece of paper that has value only in the potential future usefulness of the information it represents, once the drafting and scribbling are done. Embracing paperless reference filing is not the same thing as rejecting paper's important role in your work.

Part of my longstanding vacillation on the question of whether or not to go "paperless" with my reference filing system was that, until quite recently, there were no scanners that made this digitization process easy, or delivered a final digital document that was worth the trouble. Flatbed scanners are impossibly clumsy and slow, such that what I always end up with is not a clean workflow for nicely scanned documents, but rather a large pile of papers on top of my scanner so that I can "do them all at once" at some future moment that will never arrive. Just as much, the post-scanning process has been a pain with all of the scanners I've owned in the past. Most scanner software either rams your document through OCR and spits out an RTF with almost all the formatting and images gone, or it requires you manually to open a separate piece of software to convert the image to something useful. Then there is the issue of what to do with the physical document once you've scanned it. I've never previously trusted my backup system well enough to shred my precious documents and trust in the permanence of their digital copies.

But a confluence of a few wonderful tools has recently turned me into to an evangelist for paperless reference filing. The workflow is sufficiently slick that bumph doesn't stack up "waiting to be scanned," the final product is a PDF document with all formatting and images intact but searchable as text (including via Spotlight on OS X), and it all gets automatically backed-up to a geographically-distributed multiply-redundant remote backup store so that if both my computer and one of the data centers where my backups are stored both simultaneously exploded, I could still hop on the internet anywhere and access my files more or less instantly.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap

The first and perhaps most important aspect of my paperless workflow is my trusty Fujitsu ScanSnap. I have been using my S500M (that's the Mac version) for a few months now and have praised it in the past. I also just recently got a demo model (full disclosure here) from Fujitsu of the rockin' awesome S510M [Amazon, Info.] I never thought I could get excited about something so traditionally mundane as scanner before, but I really, really love this device. In fact, the ScanSnap is probably my favorite piece of consumer electronics not made by Apple. (Check out the video.)

Firstly, they make a special version just for Mac users (yeah, they have a Windows one too,) which is specially designed in sleek white with a tiny footprint. When folded up, the thing is about 11" x 5" x 6". It also integrates nicely into OS X—and from my past couple days of testing, it works as smoothly on Leopard as it did on Tiger.

Here's the premise: the SnanSnap is the first consumer scanner (that I've used anyway) to truly be about information storage. It's not for ultra high-resolution photo scanning; it's all about documents and speed. Firstly, you initiate scans by piling your documents into the stacker and simply pressing the one big button on the face of the device. It then rapidly (and I mean damn fast) gobbles up your papers and spits them out at the bottom. Fujitsu says up to 36 pages/minute in duplex mode, and that sounds about right. The resulting digital document gets dumped right onto your hard drive in searchable PDF format, which every OS seems to understand natively these days. It automatically corrects for mis-aligned papers, auto-detects whether the document is color or monochrome, scans in duplex if it detects a back side to the page being scanned, and detects the size of the paper being scanned and intelligently crops the digital version to the right size. You can mix and match document types liberally and it stitches them all together into one PDF with each page automatically adjusted to its own parameters. I love that there is just one operative button: you just tell it to go to town, and it gets out of your way and makes smart guesses based on what you give it.

My only complaint is that, after a few months of operation, my S500M would occasionally start grabbing two pages together when it should be only grabbing one at a time. But this was only for documents that had previously been folded or stapled together. The new S510M doesn't seem to be doing that, which could mean that they've either improved the mechanism or I just haven't given it time to start having this problem.

Unlike some folks, I'm not especially keen on the concept of keeping multiple DevonThink databases or storing my precious papers in their wonky proprietary format, so I take a cue from Ethan Schoonover and just have the ScanSnap drop my scanned documents into an "inbox" folder on my desktop, which I process every day or so. In this way, the ScanSnap is just like any other GTD inbox for me. Rather than piling stuff up in my physical inbox, if something is scannable and is valuable to me only for its information, I remove any staples and wham it through the ScanSnap and then either act on or file each document as I in-process my digital inbox. For filing, I use a simple old A-Z filing folder in my home directory, which I call "Archive." If a document relates to correspondence, I take David's advice and upload it to the associated contact in my Highrise account.

The originals get recycled (or shredded and then recycled,) so I get to feel better about the environmental impact of the paper that churns through my life. Rather than sitting around in my filing cabinet never being looked at, the paper goes immediately off to another better use.

Nota bene: A lot of people have been linking to the S500M lately, but be aware that one-button searchable PDF creation only comes with the S510M. The S500M can make searchable PDFs, but you have to do several manual steps to run the OCR on them, which kind of obviates the whole point of the otherwise speedy ScanSnap workflow. The S510M also comes with a carrier sheet for irregularly shaped or crinkled papers like old receipts. So if you're going to be buying a ScanSnap I highly recommend opting for the newer model, which is more or less the same price as the older one.

The industrial-grade paper cutter

As if my gay credentials weren't fully established, I have to confess to an extreme affinity for Martha Stewart Living magazine. But perhaps more embarrassing is that I have about 100 back issues piled up in my library. They arrive in my mailbox; I flip through them; and then they go straight onto the shelf. I've always had this nagging feeling that I should really go through those things and get some informational value from the content. But, as readers of any instructional magazine know, it's really annoying to sift through an ad-stuffed rag just to find the three or four pages of interesting, actionable information in a periodical that you browsed a few months ago. So there they sit. They're full of recipes that I'd love to use but could never possibly find if I ever wanted to get to a particular one of them. They weigh a ton, and yet I've schlepped them between five houses in the past few years holding to this ridiculous notion that they'll come in handy "someday." (As you may have noticed, the purely notional "someday" plays a big role in my life.)

So I decided for an extremist approach to my magazine problem. I figured since I had this awesome scanner that I have been using to digitize my paper filing system, it might be worth experimenting with attacking these old magazines too. The potential payoff was great: I would both eliminate many pounds of paper that have been hanging around in my life, and I would actually start to make use of the information in these magazines that I've been collecting for so long. So I decided to spring for a super-fancy, and fairly intimidating, paper cutter, the "Come 2700" (I shit thee not.) This contraption will literally and effortlessly slice the spine off a phonebook (I tried it!) So it certainly has no trouble cleanly removing the spines from my old magazines.

With the spines removed, I sit down and leaf through the pages in my spare time. I find the three or four pages that either inspire me to actually undertake a project, or that I want to keep for reference. I run these through the ScanSnap, file them as searchable PDFs in my digital reference filing system, and then recycle every page from the magazine. Not only am I far more likely to use this information than I ever was, but I can actually search the information without having to remember what appeared in which issue. It is, as it were, a good thing.

This also works really well for all the sorta-kinda-maybe-someday-useful appliance and electronics manuals that hog space in physical filing systems. Just hack the binding off, scan, and jettison.

Just mind your fingers.

Amazon S3 + JungleDisk

Now that you have all these sublimely useful digital documents, you need to feel comfortable recycling the paper originals or you're only getting half the benefit of this whole paperlessness thing. It wasn't until S3 backup came along that I really felt OK with the idea, and to be honest, without those backups I'd would have been very uncomfortable letting go of as much paper as I have.

I use JungleDisk to automatically back up my "inbox" and "Archive" folders to S3 each night (not to mention iTunes and iPhoto.) Now it actually seems more dangerous to keep a single physical copy of a document than to have digital copies on my hard drive and redundantly backed up to S3. You can read here all about the baroque lengths Amazon goes to in order to safeguard your data on S3.

Oh, and it's really cheap.


As I mentioned previously, I've also ditched all of my paper photographs by commissioning ScanCafe to cheaply digitize the negatives. I figured since I keep all of my new digital-camera pictures in iPhoto, I might as well have everything in there (with the appropriate backups in place, of course.) Photographs may seem like they have physical emotional value, but unless we're talking daguerreotypes or something, pictures are really just a way of recording visual information. So there is no reason why not to store them digitally. This is particularly the case of you use Leopard's built-in iPhoto library panning screen saver, because it means you'll be far more likely to actually look at the photos than if they were sitting in some shoebox.

Leopard (QuickLook and Preview)

The crema on this particular paperless espresso is how easily Mac OS X Leopard makes it to zip around, search through, and rejigger PDFs. Before Leopard, my biggest complaint about ScanSnap-generated documents was that if I wanted to rearrange or delete pages in a PDF I had to open Adobe's god-awful and painfully-slow Acrobat Professional 8.0 software, which I was actually dumb enough to buy a few months ago. If you've ever used Preview on a Mac, you know how snappy it is to navigate around PDFs. Acrobat is just the opposite, because it ponderously reloads the thumbnail cache every time you scroll around a document. Now in Leopard, Preview includes the ability to delete and rearrange PDF pages, and it's just as speedy as ever. Goodbye Acrobat!

Armed with these tools, I think you'll find, as I have, that paper is nothing to be reticent about. Use it when you need it to be creative or to collaborate, but then just don't keep it around. Scan in those mind-maps, or transcribe their information into a more useful format. Then throw them away (preferably into the recycling bin.) If you have neglected documents that have been lying around forever, figure out how to extract the useful, actionable information from them and then get rid of them too. Not only will you be unburdened of their physical presence, but you'll find that you're actually in a far better position to use the information those documents contain.

norbauer's picture

ad infinitive

Hey Cams,

You just may be the first person to compliment me on my infinitives. Cool that somebody notices these things. To be fair, if I remember correctly, I did intentionally break the convention once in the article.

To answer your question, OCR'ed PDFs are totally interoperable between OS X, Linux, and even Windows. That's the beauty of them.




An Oblique Strategy:
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