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

Moderated by Lawrence Dignan | November 21, 2011 -- 06:00 GMT (22:00 PST)

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 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

Talkback

46 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

    [b]CAN[/b] we go paperless?

    Yes. Absolutely. No question about it. We have the technology. We have the ability. I do everything possible to keep everything I do paperless.

    [b]ARE[/b] we paperless?

    No. We're not. I still have to deal with a lot of paper from people and companies that, to this day, refuse to put their stuff online. I still have to deal with printing, scanning, and *shudders* faxing.

    We are the most technologically advanced civilization in the world - why do I still have to deal with stubborn people who demand paper? And why are businesses of any description still using faxes?

    It's 2011, not 1991. Get with the program, people. Let me be paperless if I want X(.

    We [b]should[/b] be a paperless society, but sadly we're not. Not there yet :(.
    CobraA1
    Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet
    • RE: Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

      @CobraA1 It's called freedom. Quit trying to impose your hatred of paper on the rest of us. I don't want to need a device and power source to read, when all I need is a printed page. PERIOD. Get over it.

      I"m for "Not there yet, and hope we never will be".
      Techboy_z
      Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet
      • RE: Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

        @techboy_z

        Why not? The fact is that sometimes, people need a kick in the butt to stop being wasteful (ala with the CFL vs. incandescent debate) with energy, resources, etc.

        We need to start realizing that non-hard copies of stuff are usually good enough. Just printing them out or handing them to a judge makes them legally admissible in a court of law, so that throws one common argument against going paperless out the window.
        Lerianis10
        Reply Vote I'm Undecided
      • RE: Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

        @techboy_z It's not hatred, it's efficiency. Paper wastes space and wastes time.
        CobraA1
        Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet
      • RE: Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

        @Lirianis and Cobra: Efficiency? Doing my reading electronically wastes more energy than reading my paperbacks. I don't have to recharge my books for a reread. And I don't have to mine metals and make plastics for a new computer/tablet/e-reader every couple years. You should be made aware that trees are a renewable resource and printed copies that last decades are much lighter on the environment compared to the materials for your e-reader, the power to build it, ship it, and continually use it.
        Techboy_z
        Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet
      • RE: Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

        "Doing my reading electronically wastes more energy than reading my paperbacks."<br><br>With a proper eBook reader using electronic ink, a single charge lasts a month or more. You'll likely use less electricity reading a book on a Kindle than producing a book in a printing press.<br><br>And I wasn't talking about efficiency in terms of electrical use anyways, I was talking about it in terms of productivity. I can be far more productive with electronic devices than with paper.<br><br>And I really wasn't talking about ebooks anyways - I don't even own an ebook reader.<br><br>"You should be made aware that trees are a renewable resource and printed copies that last decades"<br><br>99% of what I do on paper doesn't need to last decades. It's mostly just procedure stuff that I wish would go away anyways.<br><br>"are much lighter on the environment compared to the materials for your e-reader, the power to build it, ship it, and continually use it."<br><br>Can you back this up with facts?<br><br>As far as the materials go, I plan on recycling, should I get an ebook reader.<br><br>As far as building it and shipping it goes, those are one time costs. Not to mention books have shipping costs too! You need to ship EVERY BOOK. With an ebook reader, you only need to ship the device. The books are downloaded, not shipped.<br><br>As far as using it goes, a proper ebook reader using electronic ink uses only a tiny bit of electricity.<br><br>Not to mention that I'm not talking about books and e-readers anyways. I'm talking about forms, procedures, checklists, etc. Productivity stuff.
        CobraA1
        Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet
    • RE: Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

      @CobraA1

      If we have to ask, then we're not
      Fat Albert 1
      Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet
  • RE: Great Debate: The paperless society: Are we there yet?

    It's a good thing that it hasn't come to pass.

    Once it happens it will be the "beginning of the end" of our civilization.
    All it would take is one "once-in-a-100,000-years" solar storm and we can kiss our electronic data goodbye.

    Allegedly NASA has reels of magnetic tape, which have data on them, but nobody can retrieve the info because the machines that could read them are all gone.

    Show me a 2000 year old HDD, which still has readable data on it and I might change my mind.
    anonymous
    Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet
    • NASA and paperless

      When the Apollo era J2 engines were built, all the data was stored on paper (mostly lost), punch cards and magnetic tape. The new Space Launch System uses a modified J2-X engine. Necessity, ingenuity and panic and do a lot to overcome obstacles. <br>Our government and military as well as many businesses from banks, aerospace firms, newspapers and manufacturers invested heavily in computers back when they took up whole buildings. Even though they have data on old material those entities still operate just fine (except for the government part, but that's a different discussion).<br>Can we go paperless, yes... will we, no.
      Unkk
      Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet
  • Long live PAPER

    Not everyone can afford the technology to go paperless. That's what gives the printed media sources alive. Long live PAPER!
    bonespiel
    Reply Vote I'm for Not there yet