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NYT on a Paperless World

Pushing Paper Out the Door - New York Times

Is it just me, or is the Times tossing softballs for organizational nerds on purpose? Today's story on the ways people are purging paper from their lives gives lots of ink (digital, of course) to our friend, the Fujitsu ScanSnap, and comes with the kind of grand statements that no trend piece should be without:

[M]any families may be closer to entering a paperless world than they realize. Paper-reducing technologies have crept into homes and offices, perhaps more for efficiency than for environmentalism; few people will dispute the convenience of online bill-paying and airline e-tickets.

Not that I disagree. I like the way Brewster Kahle, who knows a thing or two about digital archiving, puts it: "Paper is no longer the master copy; the digital version is." That isn't too far removed from what Merlin wrote back in October:

When we rely on a paper document as the final, unique destination for information, we create physical and cognitive limitations that seem crazy once you’ve spent a chunk of your life living on Google. No one disputes that.

Those statements by themselves may make some of you index card shufflers sweaty, but the value that all of us have found in paper isn't as the permanent storage medium to which the Times is delivering last rites; rather, it's in that Platonic scratchpad we all need sometimes to shake out a good idea. As Merlin said, "As an intermediary medium between thinking and a final draft, I still just love what you can do with a stack of index cards and a little spare time." Even when used as part of a trusted system, paper works best when its data storage duties have a limited life span.

MrGuilt's picture

Scanning != Paperless

It bugs me when people equate "scanning" with "paperless." Though you can get rid of the physical paper, and the associated storage challenges, it does very little to improve on some of the organizational challenges paper presents.

Ignoring OCR (which is still a shaky thing), a scanned image of a document is just that: an image. A computer cannot distinguish between it and a LOLCat. I can put the images in folders and attach them to e-mails, but if I want to search for every document associated with, say "bicycles," I would have to go into relevant folders manually.

For something like "bicycles," I would likely have two or three places to look, but if the search term is broader, it might be more difficult. Doing any sort of cross-references search is even more challenging.

If, instead of a picture, it were a machine-readable document (a text file, for instance), I could do these searches. The text could also be easily incorporated into other documents. Storage space would often be less as well.

Scanners may be great for sucking in handwritten notes (though the previously mentioned advantages may make it worth the effort to transcribe them). Some would argue that it is the only way to get a signed document into a computer-based system. I would ask, why haven't we found a better way than pen to paper to authenticate a document. Nicholas Negroponte suggested, fourteen years ago, that the fax machine retarded these efforts. The scanner is merely a continuation of this trend.

Overall, though, I believe that a paperless office is about as useful as a paperless bathroom. You will never be able to totally eliminate it.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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