So much for the paperless office

I wrote this in 1987 while editing The Dominion’s computer pages. The Dominion is a daily  newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand (now the Dominion-Post).

The story is dated, but the message rings true even today.

One of the greatest myths of the computer era is the so-called paperless office. A few years ago, the phrase was all the rage, but you hardly hear of it these days. The reality is that despite years of office automation, human beings still have a love affair with the printed word. That is a word printed on paper in ink.

The only effect office automation has had on the amount of paper in the average office is to increase it substantially. Word-processors and desk-top publishing systems are specifically designed for the task of pushing out ever increasing piles of the stuff. And they are efficient at it.

If the conservationists were serious about reducing the threat to the Amazonian rain forests they should get to the heart of the matter and attack desk-top publishing.

Every time a computer user sends a document to a dot-matrix printer, there is a nasty rasping sound as the printer pins push ink off a ribbon onto another sheet of paper. A hundred thousand sheets of paper make a tree and before long the lumberjack’s saw makes another nasty rasping sound as it chops down yet another tree. A million trees or so make a forest and if we loose too many of those we’ll soon be making a nasty gasping sound as our atmosphere goes down the gurgler.

Of course this is overdramatic, but it is worth remembering that computers don’t do away with paper, they merely increase the rate at which it can be pumped out.

A further problem is that the sheer weight of paper churned out by a worker is taken by management to be a measure of that worker’s productivity.

Paperless failure

This talk of the failure of the paperless office concept is reminiscent of the work of that great scholar C. Northcote Parkinson, the author of Parkinson’s Law.  He wrote simple wisdom is simple English. One day he will recognised as the great philosopher of the twentieth century. For the most part, his contribution to the computer industry is still to be felt.

Parkinson’s law says: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

I can add to this Bennett’s law, “computer generated paperwork expands so as to fill the in-trays, out-trays, filing cabinets, brief cases and waste paper baskets available for its storage”.

Electronic mail doesn’t help either. I can write about this from bitter experience as an ex-IBM Profs user. Profs is an office automation tool, which employees mainly use to keep their diaries and send electronic mail notes to one another all around the globe. Profs is good at doing what it sets out to do. But it does little to bring about the paperless office.

My terminal would regularly bleep, a message would appear at the bottom of the screen saying “read your mail”. A few key depressions later I would be informed that a blue Ford Cortina in number two car park has its lights on, or this week’s weasel fancier’s meeting would be held in the staff dining room on Tuesday. Gripping stuff maybe, but it certainly never improved my productivity to be interrupted by such vital messages.

It is unfair to single out Profs for criticism, I do so because it is the only office automation system that I have personally been acquainted with. It is reasonable to assume that other manufacturer’s products cause similar reactions in their users.

It isn’t the technology that is at fault as much as the way that it is used.

It may have changed since my day, but I can remember being taught how to use system. There were about five people in the class. We were instructed by a data-processing department guru turned tutor who recommended that we kept a list of all our Profs document numbers handwritten in a notebook. Incidentally, these notebooks were available in the stationary stores, but you had to send a Profs note to order one. What’s more, he also told us to get and keep a hard copy of any important messages that we received through the system.

As someone who, after years of exposure to all types of computing, was more than merely computer literate, I was shocked. I questioned the tutor, “are you saying that to keep a record of document numbers we have to write them down on paper?”

“Well,” he answered clearly embarrassed, “it is easier that way.”

“Easier than what?”, I replied curiously.

“It is too difficult to explain here”, was his cryptic answer.

I could see that this was an unprofitable line of enquiry so I changed tack, “Ok then, why do we need to keep hard copies of our messages when the system is supposed to archive them?”

“Because they might get lost”, the tutor mumbled this as though he was frightened of anyone overhearing.

Somebody else asked the tutor the obvious question, “if they might get lost, what is the point of the system”.

The poor tutor reddened and tactfully changed the subject; “stop asking dumb questions.” The only thing was, they weren’t dumb questions, they were relevant questions, the sort of questions that anyone who needs to work with computers should feel free to ask an employer.

The tutor should have been pleased that employees were concerned about their productivity. He just wanted us to conform to a imposed work-pattern. As it happened things did get lost by the system, but only when the high-priests of the data-processing department were tinkering with the system.

Churning out paper

This might have been an acceptable state of affairs in the days of steam computing when men in white coats scuttled around cathedral-like installations replacing vacuum tubes, but my friends in other workplaces had Apple Macintoshes on their desks and were churning out laser printed piles of paper which were neater than our system could manage. This not only made my friends look more productive than me, but their refined print styles and fancy founts made them look more creative too.

Expensive IBM 3370 terminals graced our desks. The terminals were connected to a powerful 370 mainframe system with banks of mass storage devices. The whole caboodle cost millions, and contained enough computing power to put a man on the moon, but we still had to resort to notebooks, pens and ream after ream of paper printout if we wanted to use the blasted thing.

To cap it all, we had to employ extra internal mail clerks to deliver all the computer generated paper that we were now efficiently churning out. The office automation system was originally installed to save money by replacing the internal mail system. But to save more money we had a central printer station, and the printed documents were delivered to people’s desks via the internal mail system which in theory was now redundant. Mr Parkinson would have understood.

I complained to my boss, “It is a bit like using a stone-age axe to repair an internal combustion engine.”

He replied, “send me a Profs note about it”.

I cried.