Classic Computer Magazine Archive A.N.A.L.O.G. ISSUE 79 / DECEMBER 1989 / PAGE 128


by Karl E. Wiegers

The Paperless Office." Remember that phrase? It was popular some years back when the soothsayers predicted that the mounds of paperwork filling the average business office would be replaced by the efficient and pollution-free flow of electrons among coworkers. Nice idea. But I'm here today to tell you that it ain't gonna happen. In fact, quite the opposite has taken place. The ubiquitous presence of the computer in America's offices has caused the demise of perfectly good trees at an unprecedented rate. Let me explain some of the reasons why the paperless office hasn't become a reality, using my own workplace as an example.
    One problem is that, when wildly predicting the all-electronic office, no one anticipated the need for computer manuals. In the olden days, you had room in your office for a few mementos, family pictures and humorous parting gifts from subordinates. No more: Every square inch is likely to be occupied by obtuse publications purporting to make your working hours more productive. Even the most computer-phobic manager has a tidy row of manuals in his office, albeit still in the shrink-wrap.
    It's worse for us professional software types. Being a scientist by training, I decided to quantify the extent to which printed manuals have filled my office. As of today, my office (about eight feet square) contains some 175 computer manuals and books: 76 user guides for different applications programs (counting the ones I wrote myself); 40 reference manuals for eight different programming languages; 38 treatises on various aspects of software development; 17 operating systems manuals for three different computer systems; four hardware-reference manuals; zero partridges in pear trees.
    Now, these publications occupy quite a bit of space. More precisely, they use up 18 linear feet of shelf space, 14 square feet of shelf space or 12 cubic feet of the office. And my best estimate of the combined weight of the paper contained in all this literature is 715 pounds. I can't even guess at the number of pages of computer knowledge contained in my office. It appears that the notion of on line computer help has a ways to go before I can toss out all these tomes.
    Manuals aren't the only scourge acting to oppose the paperless office. Consider electronic mail. The early enthusiasts anticipated that electronic mail would greatly reduce the volume of paper being circulated and stored. But it didn't work out that way, for a number of reasons.
    To be sure, electronic mail is fast and efficient. But it's still easier to read things on paper than on the screen, so most people still print out the notes they exchange. It's hard to do the electronic equivalent of flipping back and forth among several pieces of paper using your standard 80-column x 24-line display. And it's darned near impossible to proofread something effectively on the tube, although electronic spelling-checkers keep a lot of people from making silly mistakes.
    Electronic mail is so much fun to use that people send notes when a phone call would suffice, thereby giving them something else to print out. The electronic-mail system my employer uses has the additional quirk of printing a full header page for each note, which doubles the paper consumed when printing your average one-page note.
    Here's another problem: Before the days of electronic mail, a secretary might have typed up some meeting notes or a memo, run off 30 copies and mailed them to the recipients. Now you send the notes electronically to 60 people (which is just as easy as to 30), each of whom uses valuable printer and computer time printing out his own copy, complete with header page. Sounds like a step away from the paperless office to me.
    Take word processing (please). Precomputer days, a typed report or letter would usually go out after no more than one or two drafts. But now it might take four or five printouts to get it looking just the way you want, particularly if you aren't using a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) computer system that allows accurate screen previews. Paper, paper, everywhere. The good news is that the quality of the final product is usually higher these days, because all documents benefit from editing and revision.
    For security, space or legal reasons, many companies are concerned about excessive retention of documents. Electronic files now fall under the same kinds of records-management rules. How do you deal with this? Someone tells you to erase an obsolete file, so you print out a copy just to be sure it isn't gone forever in case you need it again some day. You stuff it in your desk, along with the other archival records. Basically, we're just like squirrels, stashing away paper instead of acorns.
    How about electronic meeting notices? Great idea: Everyone gets the same notice at the same time. It's easy to send out revisions, too. But do you carry your computer terminal around everywhere in case you want to check your calendar? Of course not. You print out the meeting notices and attach them to the side of your file cabinet with magnets. Our computer system has an electronic calendar and scheduling facility, fully equipped with a utility to print out your daily calendar in a handy pocket-size format. That's what I call facing reality.
    Software developers aren't any closer to the paperless office than anyone else. The advent of computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tools lets us do a lot of our design work on the screen, rather than on the backs of envelopes or whatever. But most systems can only show part of one diagram at a time, so we have to print the things out to study the overall picture or to show our design to someone else. And CASE tools make it easy to redraw the same diagram over and over, making it better each time (I hope). Naturally, I have to print the whole thing out each time so I can see if I'm done yet. I actually had a guy tell me once that he supported CASE because it would help people get the paper off their desks! This fellow had clearly never seen the mountains of printouts in an office like mine.
    Don't get me wrong; I like computers. I like the ways computers can make my life easier and I like wrestling with them (to a point) when they try to make my life more difficult. But I think the notion that computers will eliminate, or even reduce, paperwork is naive. I hate to see all that virgin timber crashing down so that I might feed a laser printer. But I do what I can to compensate. All of my scratch paper consists of the backs of rejected printouts, not nice new legal pads from the stockroom. I do my best work on the backs of someone else's header pages.

    Karl Wiegers, Ph.D., spent the '70s learning how to be an organic chemist, then spent the '80s wrestling with computers. He is now a software engineer in the Eastman Kodak Company photographic research labs. He hasn't selected a career for the '90s yet. It may be interesting to note that, although this article was submitted and edited on disk, a hard copy accompanied the original submission. After editing, a final manuscript was printed and sent to the production department (along with the disk), where the manuscript was photocopied numerous times for distribution to several other departments. Once the file was transferred from disk to the typesetting equipment, at least six versions of the galleys (the typeset article) were generated before the final page was shipped to the printer. Somewhere, a forest is screaming.

    ANALOG Computing invites all authors to submit essays for possible use in the Footnotes column. Submissions should be no longer than 1,500 words and may be on any aspect of Atari computing. Any style or type of essay is acceptable-opinion, humor, personal experience-but creativity is a plus. Submissions should be sent to: Footnotes, c/o  ANALOG Computing, PO. Box 1413-M.O., Manchester, CT 06040-1413.