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Title: The Myth of the Paperless Office
Authors: Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper
Publisher: MIT Press
Copyright: 2001
ISBN: 0-262-19464-3
Pages: 231
Price: $24.95
Rating: 85%

While computer scientists have been chasing two Holy Grails for decades—voice recognition and simultaneous translation—with varying levels of success, a more profound myth has always animated those who see computers as transforming devices: the idea of the paperless office.  

Paper is an extraordinary medium. Lightweight and flexible, it is high-resolution, supports thousands of typefaces, can present both black-and-white and color illustrations, and its high contrast makes it very easy to read. Users of paper documents—whether books, reports or letters—get a great deal of paralinguistic information from them at first glance. The layout can indicate quality or esthetic features, the way the text is broken up can help show the complexity of a document, and the mere thickness of a book or report gives insight into its contents. The hypertext features of books—with tables of contents, notes and indexes—make them ideal for non-linear reading. And books smell good too.

Many attempts have been made to replace and improve on these functions; you can certainly go further with computers, using full-text search features, and changing font sizes (which is excellent for those with seeing disabilities), colors and page layout. But the past few years have shown that people do not want to read novels on electronic devices, nor do business people (by far the largest users of paper: 30 to 40% of paper is used in offices and related needs, such as manuals, directories, etc.) want to read reports exclusively on them. E-books will be fine for technical manuals, when the proponents of this technology wake up and realize it. Anyone building complex products that call for thousands of pages of documentation would be delighted to have their manuals on PDAs or similar devices; I would love to see dictionaries and encyclopedias on e-book readers as well.  

This book presents an extremely cogent and unique analysis of the way people use paper, how it affects and structures organizations, and why paper is seen as a problem, and shows how this analysis can be directly applied to the design of e-book readers and document management systems. The authors point out that, even though they work in advanced research centers, and have access to most of the available devices for managing information, they are still surrounded by paper. For them, “the computer is the canvas on which documents are created, [but] the top of the desk is the palette on which bits of paper are spread in preparation for the job of writing.”  

Curiously, as the technology to manage information becomes increasingly ubiquitous, paper use increases. While we have access to much more information, we need to print it “in order for us to read it and make sense of it.” Figures show an almost linear increase in paper use in recent decades: “the introduction of new technology does not get rid of paper; it shifts the ways in which it is used.” More people print out what they access on the web, their e-mail messages, and the reports they receive. In the past, such documents were photocopied and circulated; today, they are sent over computer networks and printed by the receiver.  

An interesting case-study examined in this book is that of a Danish company that wanted to reduce paper use as part of a larger-scale change in company attitudes. By not adopting an all-or-nothing approach—by not saying that all paper had to be eliminated—this company was able to “move to a less papercentric environment”, and reduce the use of paper, yet continue using paper when necessary. The reduction of paper use served to facilitate the company’s new work process, and change employee attitudes. While the company still uses paper for some documents—especially contracts, and projects in progress—it has reduced its dependence on paper and changed the way it works. 

The structure of this book tends to limit its interest to the “casual” reader, interested in an examination of how we interact with paper. Several of its chapters read like research reports, the kind often found in business books, where case studies are examined. A chapter on air-traffic controllers, and their use of paper, is by far the most obscure, since few of us use paper as they do. Nevertheless, the book is well-written, and even these case studies provide interesting insight into just how much paper is an integral part of our lives.

The authors’ conclusion to the “problem” of paper is mostly common-sense: “paper will continue to occupy an important place in office life but will increasingly be used in conjunction with an array of electronic tools.” They go on to say, “The paperless office is a myth not because people fail to achieve their goals, but because they know too well that their goals cannot be achieved without paper.” Don’t throw away those books yet—the future won’t be that different after all.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn ( is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site: