Great Debate: Reflections on a paperless society

Great Debate: Reflections on a paperless society

Summary: This week, I participated in our Great Debate series with fellow colleague Chris Dawson about society going paperless. We reached a consensus that paper reduction is not only possible, but should be actively pursued.


This week, I participated in our Great Debate series with fellow colleague Chris Dawson regarding whether or not we have arrived as a paperless society. I argued that we have...or at least are headed in that direction.

Sure, paper is still everywhere: there's no shortage of newspapers, notepads, receipts, books, and merchandise catalogs--most of it destined for recycling plants or landfills. Recognizing this, the crux of my argument focused on the explosion of paper-impacting "e" devices, consumer trends, and sustainability as factors that will collectively work to reduce paper consumption.

Here are some of my key points made during the live rebuttal which took place on Tuesday:

  • 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.  Dawson and most commentators from the floor agreed that moving toward a paperless society is desirable.
  • 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.  As our moderator Larry Dignan pointed out, the pieces are in place to go paperless, but the cultural hurdles are still too high.
  • 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. This could be the killer app since paper is not just used for reading, but for writing on too.
  • 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. If sustainability means anything to you, then this argument could pass muster. If, however, you believe that holding paper "just feels right" no matter what, then we'll just have to wait for the day you hold in your hands a sheet of millimeter-thick, high-res, full-color interactive e-paper before you snap out of it!

Alas, despite the supporting evidence I presented, I was not victorious in the debate. Yes, we are still awash in paper. With the audience siding on the "not there yet" camp and no way to conceal the fact that the world still uses hundreds of millions of tons of paper annually, my closing arguments had to become forward-looking statements:

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.

Have an opinion? You can add your voice here (you must be logged in) and also check out all the other debates in the series.

Image credit: Fredonia's Sustainable University

Topics: Printers, Apps, Hardware, Tablets

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  • It's a fair debate

    But championing change trumps sanctioning it by decree any day, more so when the issue at hand comprises something (anything) of a non-critical nature.
  • I don't buy the paper waste argument

    To suggest that the paper production cycle is wasteful in comparison to the electronic production cycle is a poorly thought out statement. E-waste is a significant contributor to environmental concerns. Factor in not only the vast resources required to produce and run the electronic gadgets but also the very fact that the life cycle of an electronic device is short lived. It appears that not many are content with last year's model - the new features are too tempting to pass up. By comparison, paper is not upgraded on an annual basis and can easily last the useful life of the information it contains.

    I'm not against the use of electronic formats but it is not the panacea for saving the environment. I would argue in fact the opposite - wide deployment and adoption of going paperless will be taxing our environment far more than paper ever has. Paper comes from trees, a renewable resource. Where do you think all this electronic gadgetry comes from - is it from a renewable resource?
  • RE: Great Debate: Reflections on a paperless society

    The other side of the debate is from an ephemera collector---paperless society, email, demise of book stores all contribute to a failed economy. Advances are not always optimal. Consider when email became paramount, thousands were put out of work in the postal services--their loss of jobs eventually translates to ANY/ALL businesses that benefited from those workers as clientele. Now we add book binders, ink mfg, book cover artists, paper mills, textile mfg, glue mfg, paper mfg, ALL without jobs--then don't wonder why they are not in to have their teeth cleaned or no longer go to your restaurant or use your services--they can't--they have NO JOBS--as for me. I am a bibliophile--the loss of paper resonates as not only lost industries but loss of the physical collectability and tactile quality of books/paper
    • RE: Great Debate: Reflections on a paperless society

      @harbinger10 Eh, while I agree advances are not always optimal, and sometimes you have to step backwards a bit to move forwards - our failed economy is due to failing to fix the problems the housing crises gave us. I wouldn't blame it on electronics.