Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

Summary:Everywhere you look, where paper once thrived it now doesn’t, argues Chris Jablonski. Counters Chris Dawson: We're not there, and there's no excuse for it.

Chris Jablonski

Chris Jablonski

Already here

or

Not there yet

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

Best Argument: Not there yet

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Where did all the paper go

Chris Jablonski: Sorry folks, mashed tree pulp is going the way of the dinosaurs in a world where digitization has a tyrannosaurus-sized appetite. 

Everywhere you look, where paper once thrived it now doesn’t. Cash is increasingly a number on a screen, airlines push online check-ins, people send e-cards, and companies manage hard drives in lieu of filing cabinets.
 
E-readers like the Kindle, tablets like the iPad, and other devices are reshaping all corners of the publishing industry. Consumers are fueling a meteoric rise in e-books and other content accessed via digital subscriptions. Meanwhile, eHealth is pushing medical records to computers, vastly cutting out paper waste. 
 
It won’t stop there. Everyday, we learn about new e-paper technologies that mix the qualities of paper with the interactivity and durability of touchscreens. For traditional paper, this is the final nail in the coffin.
 
Like a stealthy ninja, technology that displaces paper-based communications are now diffusing throughout society, largely unnoticed. One day...voila, we’ll look around and ask, “Hey, where did all the paper go?”
 

We're dismally far from being paperless

Chris Dawson: A paperless society? Really? Despite the ubiquity of the iPad, the evolution of the smartphone, and the emergence of a $199 tablet designed specifically around buying and consuming digital, rather than paper, content, we're dismally far from being paperless. Newspapers abound, magazines that should long ago have moved online line the shelves at bookstores, and my kids still come home with paper notices from school. 

Sure, print media are struggling, but they should have been dead years ago. A local prep school came under fire on the national news for converting its unused library into a heavily used media center and the catalogs and junk mail that fill my PO Box make great firestarters on these chilly New England nights. Even ThinkGeek sends me paper catalogs.
 
No, we haven't gone paperless yet. And, quite frankly, on the eve of 2012, this is an utterly unacceptable state of affairs.
 
 
 

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What benefits are there to the paperless society? Pitfalls?

    We've covered a lot of the benefits so skew toward the gotchas we're missing.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Reducing costs, improving efficiency vs. convenience

    Acid-free paper can last up to 500 years, making it a great medium if it is protected (i.e. avoid fires, floods, theft). That's why it's a technology that has lasted well into the digital age. Paper feels "final" and permanent. Government and business are already reaping great cost savings and efficiencies from decades of transition from paper-based processes to digital. While much of the low-hanging fruit has been harvested (e.g., databases), there is still a lot of room to cut out mass waste generated by the use of paper. Using paper takes information offline into the analogue world. It cant be leveraged in the same way as online information. Going paperless would help retain all of an organization's knowledge.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    There aren't too many

    However, we do have a few years to go before the costs associated with paperlessness become trivial. What will result is the digital divide I've mentioned, keeping those without the advantage of cash or ZDNet-reading relatives on the papered side of the fence. As paper diminishes in importance (and, again, we aren't terribly close to that point, but we will get there eventually), there will be large segments of society (particularly in developing economies) that are once again shut out of information access. We're seeing explosive growth in Internet access in developing countries, slowly bridging the gap between the haves and have-nots, but a trend towards true paperlessness threatens to open another gap and create more iniquities. Finally, in the early stages of paperlessness, we can expect conflicting standards and incompatible hardware and software across both corporate and international lines and a fight to the death for openness for many invested in this space.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    3D printing changes everything

    As an aside and it's getting cheap enough to matter for companies, but I digress. What will get our mothers to go paperless? What's the thing that will push us to the paperless side?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Greater awareness of the environmental impact

    If more people better understood the true costs of paper production they'd become more mindful of paper use. The paper industry emits the fourth highest level of carbon dioxide among manufacturers, after the chemical, petroleum and coal products, and primary metals industries, according to U.S Department of Energy. Many paper mills argue that they plant their own trees to produce paper, and this act helps to reduce deforestation. But planting fast-growing trees on reused land absorbs nutrients out of the soil and disrupts the ecosystem in the area. Only about 35% of the current paper consumption in the US comes from recycled fiber while 25% comes from virgin timber. As sustainability grows bigger in the public eye, going paperless could be a key sub-trend.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    Money

    As in just about all things, this is going to come down to $$$. When the cost of paper rises drastically (and it's going to be a while) and the cost of the hardware and software required to be paperless is much less than the cost of paper, then our mother's will change. Ease of use will also be critical. Right now, the average ZDNet reader (and possibly their mothers and grandmothers) have no problem navigating an iPad or some other e-reading device. But good luck getting those removed a few degrees from this audience to digitally sign a document or just expect that notices from the AARP will be online rather than paper. And, as an aside, I predict that 3D printing will be too little, too late. 3D digital content is becoming cheaper to produce and view and will, in many cases, be more compelling and interactive than anything a 3D printer will be able to do, outside of the manufacturing and rapid prototyping sectors.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    How much of the paperless society depends on cultural changes?

    Isn't this all cultural in the end?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Yes, and almost all consumer-driven

    It depends greatly on changes made by consumers. Unlike other sources of waste and pollution, there are no rules or guidelines that I'm aware of that determines how much paper a person or organization should use. Advocates of the paperless society should concentrate more effort on paper reduction, while new e-paper technologies proliferate. This two-pronged approach could eventually lead to greater legislation around deforestation.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    All of it

    Virtually all of it - As Chris Jablonski noted, the awareness of the environmental impact of paper usage (even of recycled paper) has to be overwhelming. Similarly, businesses and schools must be willing to prioritize the right technology to make the jump to paperless and, as our economy continues to drag onwards, priortizing innovation that doesn't directly and immediately contribute to the bottom line will be a hard pill for many to swallow. When the urge to print is replaced with the expectation of simply picking up a tablet, then we'll be there. However, when the majority of our society is still immersed in a culture of paper and consumption, it's hard to see a future when that will be the case.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Our friendly neighborhood printer company...

    If wind up in a paperless society what happens to the business models of HP, Xerox and Ricoh, our sponsor, among others?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    They innovate around electronic documents

    My colleague, Mr. Dawson, brought up document management software. if we went paperless, these companies could seize on the opportunity by harnessing their document management expertise to innovate in areas like enterprise forms automation, electronic document management and security, forms integration with data processing systems, and digital signatures, to name a few. They can also step into the wild west of 3D printing which is expected to take off within the next 10 years.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    Remember that document management infrastructure I was talking about?

    Xerox and Ricoh are already deeply in this space and are actually doing more to move the enterprise to a paperless environment than companies that don't have an investment in print. The technology is quite cool and the ability to bring in legacy records while storing, archiving, tagging, and searching new records is incredibly useful for the organizations who adopt it. That said, the necessary hardware and software isn't cheap and represents another one of those costs for companies that often gets postponed in favor of less radical projects and transitions. We all know that change is hard (and often expensive, even if the ROI can justify it). Even if the tech is maturing nicely, culture needs to change along with it.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's the killer app for a paperless society?

    Tablet, e-reader or some other device?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    E-writers

    E-readers and tablets will diminish traditional publishing as newspapers, books, and magazines evolve in electronic form. But for the paperless society to truly take hold, particularly outside of work, you also need an electronic alternative that allows for writing and drawing. E-writers like the Boogie Board writing tablet could put an end to note books, legal pads, sketch books, memo pads, sticky notes, and scratch paper. As they improve in cost and performance, e-writers could be the next hot tech gadget to enter the mainstream.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    Son of Kindle Fire (and a real document management infrastructure)

    The Kindle Fire, at $199, is pushing us toward a tipping point when the hardware becomes a commodity and the digital divide means less, giving more people access to the hardware and software needed to go paperless. We aren't there yet, but the technology is coming into place. Along with that, though, is the need for robust document management software that can easily distribute content to all of those inexpensive or free devices that will emerge. For now, we are far too reliant on Amazon-style stores with plenty of DRM and too few hooks for businesses to get digital content easily onto employees' devices. When the devices can come unhinged from consumer services and be leveraged at the enterprise level, then we can start talking about paperless societies.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What items absolutely have to be on paper?

    A few in the audience have mentioned estate plans and other key docs.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Permanent personal records...for now

    Until people are comfortable enough with technology, anything that requires a permanent record still deserves a life on paper. And potentially, transactions that require some copy of the original documentation as proof that a transaction occurred. These items include contracts, identification documents, proof of physical address, etc. In time, "cybernotaries" and biometric technologies could remove some of these items off the list.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    Why?

    Electronic signatures never wear off, never get destroyed by fire, never get lost (at least, that is, if the right document management software is in place). I don't see a reason to have any of my most significant documents on paper. In fact, I feel far more vulnerable if they are. When these important docs are electronic, they can be shared, archived, backed up, stored and otherwise maintained in ways that they can't in a file cabinet or safe deposit box. Nope, there aren't any that need to be on paper. The same can be said for corporate docs, government documents, and just about anything else you can think of. This isn't 1776 and if we were to ever right another Declaration of Independence, I'd hope it would be posted on Facebook and digitally signed by a new round of founding fathers. I am, however, not holding my breath that anyone will head down this paperless road anytime soon. That would probably require too many lawyers and they love paper more than my wife.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    HP has argued that digital content actually means more printing.

    Do you buy that argument?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Perhaps, but it won't last long

    I do buy it because of the following logic: The increased volume of digital content is a result of the widespread use of electronic devices, which increasingly makes it easier to produce printed material. Editing electronic documents is easier than ever before. Companies like Apple and startups like Blurb.com allow you to create photo books, greeting cards, and eBooks with relative ease. That growth however, is offset in other areas. I'll reiterate the fact that overall demand for paper has been dropping, and I'll note that much of the recent drop can be blamed on the economy. But if you look at younger people who are more at home with technology, they are less inclined to print out documents, and more inclined to read them on full-color interactive display screens. Over time, I predict this will result in a net decrease in printing.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    I wish I didn't...

    ...but I see it all the time, especially in schools, but in many of the businesses for whom I consult, in local, state and national governments...across the board. How many people do you know who get a PDF and print it? How many people print out emails? Many ZDNet readers will rely on their tablets or smartphones to manage documents and access information online, in local storage, or through various apps, but, again, we're not representative of many of the institutions that consume those countless boxes of paper. When people get books or bound manuals, they tend to go on a shelf or remain accessible for a good chunk of time. When they print out a PDF, sheets get lost, binders get moved around, pages get ripped, and, more likely than not, 4 officemates also want a copy. You bet, for now, digital content=more printing.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    How have your printing habits changed over the years?

    My printing has tanked.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Needs-based and dwindling

    These days, I print only when I need to, and the meaning of need is under constant review. For instance, many daily deal sites like LivingSocial offer digital coupons that you can simply present on your smartphone to your waitress. No more printing coupons. I used to print out maps before heading on a road trip. With GPS embedded in mobile devices I no longer need to print out step-by-step directions. You can gauge how much paper you need to use by trying this experiment: The next time you run out of pricey printer ink or paper, delay the urge to head over to the office supply store and see what alternatives exist for any personal printing. Of course, if you want to print out a photo of your newborn daughter to give to a family member, by all means do so.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    The only time I print is when my wife asks me to.

    And there's the issue. I never print anymore. I don't need to, for my day job, my consulting gigs, my writing...nothing. I work in a fairly paperless microcosm. My wife, however, is part of a vast majority of our populace who prefers the look, feel, and smell of paper. As long as it's recycled, of course. Sure, there are a lot of people with iPads and Kindles out there. But for every one with a Kindle, there are plenty more who expect paper delivery of every bit of information they need. My printing? Gone, Zilch. But I'm unfortunately not a representative sample.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What do you see as the biggest obstacles to going paperless?

    Trying to find that utopian tipping point...

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Archaic business processes, legal issues, and human factors

    There are three things keeping us from going paperless. First, business processes are heavily paper-based. While an organization can take steps to go paperless internally, the same processes cant be extended to external businesses and people. For instance, once a deal is made, sales people fire up the fax machine to send contracts. Second, industry regulations help keep paper mills humming. Compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA means more paper and more filing cabinets, bookshelves, and three-ring notebooks to hold it all--an epic waste. Third is the human factor. With the market saturated with decent printers under $100 and pretty much everyone using electronic devices connected to printers, the temptation to print is high because that's the way we've been conditioned. People print the same document over and over as they make corrections and edits because it is easy to do.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    Culture

    As I noted above, school committees and bean counters across the board rarely look twice at budget lines for paper expenses. The cost of textbooks and training manuals? Just a cost of doing business, right? The cost of iPads or Kindle Fires, or whatever? That's a lot tougher for the establishment to justify, even of long-term costs are lower. Devices like the Kindle Fire, however, are bringing us closer to a tipping point. The cost must be low enough that it's easy to justify; in fact, the cost of the hardware must be trivial. We must also take that cheap hardware and build out infrastructure for document management that can be applied in the enterprise in ways that it just isn't now.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Why are(n't) there yet?

    We've been hearing about the paperless society pretty much forever. Are we there yet and why or why not?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Getting there

    The idea of a paperless society was kicked off by F. W. Lancaster, a professor who wrote a book entitled Toward Paperless Information Systems over three decades ago. Back then, computers started coming out of the woodwork sparking what was viewed as a threat to paper, books, and libraries. Soon after, there was talk about the paperless office, where all information would be stored in digital form. You'd just need a desk, a computer, and a LAN connected to your IT resources. Now, every time a new category-defining device like an e-reader comes out, the question comes up. There exists a seduction to remove paper from the fields of business, law, academia and medicine. Even those who say we're far from a paperless society still wish we weren't. There are three phases toward a paperless environment: use of computers to print documents, coexistence of print and electronic sources, and finally the predominance of electronic materials. We're well in phase two, and on the cusp of phase three. Over the last decade, paper use in the office has flattened.

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    Not even close

    I wish we were. The technology is there for us to be, but the wherewithal simply isn't. Old habits die very, very hard, and one need only see the countless boxes of paper delivered to businesses and schools by WB Mason and Staples to know that dead trees are here to stay (until they aren't here at all anymore). Why? Because it's easier to hit print than make sure everyone has the right tech tools to be paperless. It's easier to buy copy paper than launch a tech initiative. It's easier to buy books than buy e-readers in schools. These are all culturally accepted uses of funds. Not so much for the right technology. Add to that the inherent digital divide in just about any society and you're left with a whole lot of paper.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Testing 1, 2, 3

    Chris squared: Just ping back to make sure we're working

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Here!

    Ready...and answering the first question...

    Chris Jablonski

    I am for Already here

    I'm here

    :)

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Not there yet

Closing Statements

We have the hardware and software

Chris Jablonski

While society may not be entirely paperless just yet, paper is under attack on multiple fronts and our collective desire to be paperless should eventually get us there. Everyday, we learn about new devices, software and online tools that encourage a paper-free existence.

Do we have the means available to eradicate world hunger? Yes. Will it happen this year or the next? I’d say no. Similarly, we have the hardware and software to greatly minimize or skip the use of paper. It'll take a concerted effort among us to adopt new behaviors that take advantage of these new technologies and make a real difference.

Future generations will look back in amazement by the paper production process and the waste it generates. Like burning fossil fuels for energy, cutting down trees to create books and documents will be frowned upon by society and the practice will fall by the wayside.

Tipping point is a long way off

Christopher Dawson

My colleague, Chris Jablonski, did a great job today pointing out all of the ways that we're moving towards a paperless society, citing a variety of evidence for the reduction of paper in the enterprise and in society as a whole. At the same time, he failed to demonstrate that we had reached that critical point where digital could realistically overtake paper in the content wars.

Unfortunately, that tipping point, though portended by cheap devices like the Kindle fire, is a remarkably long way off. I'm as close to going paperless as society lets me be (try buying a house without paper), but as I explained in the debate, Chris and I, along with most of the readers on ZDNet, are hardly a representative sample. Outside the technorati, the iPad actually isn't as ubiquitous as it seems.

Nope, I'm afraid we are very far indeed from a paperless society.

 

Not there yet

Lawrence Dignan

Both Jablonski and Dawson made interesting points. Jablonski argued that we're closer to paperless than we think. Dawson said we're a long way from being paperless. Based on the debate I'd have to go with Dawson. However, Jablonski made a bevy of interesting points. I think it's fair to say that the pieces are in place to go paperless, but there are cultural hurdles ahead. When the tipping point to going completely paperless comes, the transition may happen very quickly. That day isn't here yet, so Dawson's side wins.

Doc's final thoughtsIN PARTNERSHIP WITH Ricoh

Doc

It seems this week the team of Jablonski and Dawson essentially agree – not so much on when print will fade away, but that it should. In the electronic era we live in, paper is a dinosaur, or should be. It is less efficient, potentially hard on the environment, and a symbol of the past.

Well, Doc has a slightly different perspective, which comes from my unusual upbringing and that water skiing accident at age eleven. When television came out, it didn’t replace radio. Paperback books didn’t replace hard-bound ones, and Starbucks didn’t replace Peet’s. So why should electronic communications necessarily replace printed ones? Sure, in many cases they will, and print will have to find its rightful niche. But as a communication vehicle it’s here to stay and will be for a long time. Paper is just different and one more choice in our myriad of communication methods. Why does everyone always act like it’s an either or situation? It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping. Doc says long live paper – it’s not for everything, but for some things it’s superior.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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