Paper is Evil

nopaperI’ve never been an environmentalist. I mean, I believe in the biblical principal that if you’re a good steward over what you have that God will bless you with more. But I’m not the guy who’s putting every can, bottle and plastic bag in it’s proper receptacle. Yet there is one area of recycling and conservation of the Earth where the ‘save the Earth’ folks agenda lines up perfectly with mine. And that’s when it comes to the topic of paper.

When I was a kid, I had an Okidata printer when most people barely had PCs with word processors. I kicked out my share of beautifully printed, double-spaced essays and term papers. It served me well over the course of it’s life and of the four printers I’d gone through subsequently. However, that was back in 1986 when I was using QuantumLink (which would become America Online) and dying to meet someone with an actual e-mail address so that I could communicate with them. It’s 2010 now and we need to take a long, hard look at our obsession with physical paper in all forms.

So why am I making all this fuss over paper? Well, it’s because I spend to much of my time managing it. And with no real benefit. You see, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and minor tasks for some are harder decisions for me. It’s not quite at the level of the folks on ‘Hoarders’, but at certain points of my life, I was close. Even today I keep every neighborhood collection of circulars that land on my front door and I can’t bring myself to throw them out until I’ve gone through them all. (Sometimes thumbing through the pages of stores I have no intention of visiting). For me, all of this paper gets in the way of living.

I have a friend at my job that likes to share things with me — by printing them out and putting them on my desk. It was a few months before I had to explain my situation. “I have to keep that paper and process it — that is, read it and understand it — and can’t throw it out until I’m done.” But there’s something bigger about the paper that landed on my desk than my disorder or the cost of the paper and the ink that it took to deliver it to me. My business mind sees the gross inefficiency that paper leads to.

Back in the 80s or even the 90s, paper made complete sense. Back it up! Keep a book of all of your goals and dreams. Keep paper copies of your taxes and all of your expenses. But this isn’t the 90s anymore. I downloaded the complete works of Shakespeare on my Amazon Kindle in less than 5 minutes over a 3G connection and the collection cost me $10. I have every image of my family backed up online and physically here in my home and I’m not taking up shoeboxes and closet space doing it. I can pull up my taxes all the way back to 1996 and I don’t have to climb in an attic and blow dust all over the place to retrieve them. It’s called technology. And while the things I’m saying may seem obvious, the actions of the people I observe don’t seem to indicate that people are utilizing the technology that is so readily and cheaply available in front of them.

What’s the deal with the people printing pictures at Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Rite-Aid? I mean, please — someone explain it to me. Almost every camera sold nowadays is digital and it’s hard to find a phone without a digital camera. Why do we need physical copies of the images. “I need to send them to my family.” Great — you can do that right from your phone and if you have a digital camera, for absolutely ZERO cost you can e-mail them right from your PC to your cousins in Peoria. “I like to display them on my desk”. Great – there are TONS of digital photo frames that can cycle through your images and even pull new ones from your wirelessly connected computer. “I like to hang them on my wall”. Hmm. Got me there. OK, maybe it’s o.k. if you intend to frame them and hang them on the wall or sit them on your mantle. But I don’t think the Wal-Mart people have that in mind. They just have this obsession with physical copies of pictures. It was almost this hard to get my mother to give up her bank book from the Bowery and get an ATM card with a monthly statement.

Everyone has their passionate plea about something and for some reason mine is this paper thing. Allow me to illustrate just how much better off we’d be if we could kick this paper addiction.

It’s not searchable. Whenever I am in a meeting or taking some kind of training class, I like to fire up my laptop. OK, lots of the time I get frowns. And like my efficiency hero Merlin Mann suggests, I do ask for permission before whipping it out. But I can tell you without question that I’m infinitely more efficient in my note taking than the dude with the paper and pen. Why? Well, a few reasons. One – he’s probably going to go back to his desk, plop the notebook in his drawer and forget about it. If he’s really efficient, he’ll re-type the information he just wrote down in some sort of to-do list. Why all the re-work? Our business gurus tell us that re-work costs money and to ‘get it done right the first time’. Let’s start here. But the biggest missed opportunity that I see among folks who feverishly scratch away at a sheet of lined paper with a pen is the inability to search through that data. We live in the Google era. We don’t go to our old college notes to remember what the Pythagorean Theorem is — we ‘Google’ it! We don’t hit the Encyclopedia Britannica to find out what the 37th state to be added to the union was. We simply ask our online repositories of information. (And if you’re keeping score, it was Nebraska. I know, not because I had a dictionary at my desk, but because Google said so.) Often times when I type up my notes, I’ll never look at them again. And that’s not a bad thing. (If I don’t need to recount the information, I simply don’t need it.) But if ever I wanted to know what the difference is between a 16-bit and a 32-bit subnet mask, I can consult the notes I took from my networking class back in 2006. You see, while my classmates flip through pages that may or may not have been torn out over the years looking for the day that the instructor spoke about network ranges, I simply need to do a global search for the word “mask” and I’m guaranteed to find the section. I make it a habit to try to type most of my interactions, as long as it’s not inconvenient to myself or the giver of the information and if there’s no risk of data loss. That is, I’ll write down the recipe that my neighbor recounts for her family’s famous pecan pie. But if I need to retain that information later, you had best believe I’m going to either scan it or better yet, type it up and store it in an appropriate place on my PC.

It will encroach on your life. This may not be a problem for some people, but I know that during a time when I was at my lowest — when I was out of work and still getting bills — paper can be flat out depressing. The sheer presence of the envelope with the “Chase Mastercard” label on it told me that there was some action to be taken that I couldn’t do anything about. But fast forwarding to the point where I had money and eventually got that situation taken care of, that paper, along with all of the other loads and loads of paper that we get in life begins to take over. Take a moment and think about all the paper that has been presented to you over the past few months. All the receipts and paper bags. The bills with envelopes that you don’t use if you pay your statement online. The offers from magazine companies to restart your subscription to a periodical that is outdated from the moment it leaves the printers. Let’s not forget the newspapers and the circulars that end up on our porch steps. The menus and political fliers that are left under our doors or mailed to us. The credit card “guaranteed acceptance” offers and the Pennysavers. The J. Crew magazines for shirts that are no longer in stock because the people who viewed the site online beat you to the punch. And God help you if you still get….<gulp> the Yellow Pages. (At one point, THREE different companies were generating huge Yellow Pages-style volumes of monotone pages for a building with a few hundred apartments. For some folks it’s an easy choice — just throw the paper away. But for me, it just seems like a lot of wasted effort and money when there are better ways to provide information to me.

It’s insecure. One area where digital communication does put us at risk as much if not more so than physical paper is security. Right now it’s easy for people to hijack your inbox or intercept communication meant for you and find out tons about you. But the main reason for this is because we choose convenience over security. Once we have enough identity theft cases and enough times where our e-mail boxes get hijacked, we’ll start to create more robust, letter-number-and-symbol filled passwords. We’ll use encryption tools like PGP and PKI. But even if we don’t consider any of those technology applications, there’s more risk to me in using physical paper because unlike with digital communication, there’s no way to encrypt or secure that stuff. If I don’t want someone to get access to my nephew’s images, well, shame on me if I post them on Facebook or Flickr and then wonder how the world is able to see them. However, the choice is mine. I can put them in a password protected folder on my hard drive. I can put them on a machine that isn’t connected to the network. I can use a hardware firewall to make sure that there aren’t any intrusions and most of all I can just turn off the PC and the wireless network when I’m not using it. If I have physical copies of my nephews images, or my taxes, they’re a break-in away from being taken forever and maybe even used to my financial detriment. Am I saying that digital media is safer than physical media? No. In common use, it’s probably less secure to have electronic data if it’s not properly protected. However, digital media always has the option of being encrypted. You can put your manuscript in a safe, but I’d argue that my 256-bit encrypted password is stronger than your safe (which can easily be taken.)

Disease? OK, this is reaching a bit, but lately all the talk of ‘bed bugs’ and parasites has got me thinking — how does this stuff make it in our homes. Yeah, so we go to the movies and we sit on a seat that some bed bug infested idiot sat in and now we’ve got problems in our homes, right? But what about the other ways…. the more common ways that foreign items enter your homes. How about that newspaper? The guy selling it looks like he really cares a lot about hygiene, doesn’t he??!! And what about that bundled circular with the Food Town, Shop & Save, Best Buy and Home Depot specials in it? I mean, the poor looking guy who threw it on my doorstep had to put it together somehow. Maybe he got if from a facility? Or maybe he kept them in his home with only a few rats that were more than willing to check out the deals on high definition televisions? My point is that all of this paper that enters our home comes from somewhere and I’d feel better if the information was delivered electronically.

It’s subject to loss, damage or wear. This goes hand in hand with the discussion about security. Our lives have never been more information rich than they are now. I know almost no phone numbers by heart because my phone handles that for me. All of my information is saved on my PC and much of it is saved ‘in the cloud’. (That is, on some shared “secure” network like Gmail where I can access it where ever and whenever I want.) How many times have you looked at a phone number on a piece of paper and wondered where it came from? Could belong to your long lost cousin. Or it could be a callback number intended for your spouse. Leave your biology notes on the city bus accidentally before you get off at your stop and if they aren’t returned, you’ll cry and beat yourself up for weeks with no restitution. If I lose my laptop, I’ll cry also. But provided I password protected my login and synched my data with a program like DropBox or Microsoft’s SkyDrive, I’ll cry at the loss of my equipment, but I’ll be o.k. because the information is backed up.

It’s expensive. Time Warner Cable keeps dangling a carrot in front of me to give me a dollar or two off from my next bill if I’ll just “go paperless! It’s easy!!”. And while I’d love to do that, I’m a bit stubborn when it comes to selfish companies like TWC. The potential cost savings that Time Warner and just about all of the companies we deal with like the electricity company in your area, phone companies, insurance, banking statements and many companies would see is astronomical. I’d love to help them save money — but I know when I’m being given a bad deal. They’re going to need to commit to more than a single dollar a month when collectively we’d be helping them close printing facilities and save tons of postage and mailing costs. Putting aside my personal gripes with big companies who don’t pass savings onto their customers, I just see the expense generated by paper versus the useful application in life and it baffles the mind. Most of the paper mail that comes to attack our mailbox comes for one of two reasons: to try and get us to spend money or to try to get the money from us for stuff that we already bought. There are so many ways that we can creatively use technology to deliver this information in a more efficient and a more persuasive way. But stuffing my mailbox isn’t it. It’s costing companies money and it’s decreasing our quality of life.

It’s time consuming. The more paper you file away and try to keep in orderly manila envelopes, the more space in your life it takes up. I have one file cabinet that was filled with bills and memorabilia, but despite the system I’d try to keep, it would always take time trying to find the right information. And let’s not talk about shredding. (Well, actually, let’s talk about it.) I belong to several organizations where through some curse I always end up being the person elected to record the minutes and deal with the paper management. I’d love to electronically distribute the information to everyone and in my little utopia, everyone would show up with iPads or some web-connected tablet and if I’d make a correction, everyone would see the latest version of that document. There’d be no need for printing or handing out stapled pages or shredding or anything. But the truth is that some of our older members (and even our young ones) have this love affair with paper. At the end of our meetings we have paper with secure information lying all around the meeting hall. I spend entire afternoons shredding information that was left behind or that didn’t get handed out because we had more copies of handouts than we had participants. It’s just ridiculous. Think about all the time it takes to stand in front of a copy machine to make copies of physical paper for people. Paper that they’re most likely going to barely read (because their attention is divided between the handout and the speaker), leave on their chair when they’re done, or simply lose. Perhaps they’ll stack it up in some rumpus room in their home or leave behind for you to deal with. You either never have enough copies or your have way too many copies. It’s just inefficient and it’s taking too much of our time. And truthfully if you don’t see the time and efficiency issue in your situations, it’s probably because there’s some other poor soul dealing with the issue for you (Read: me).

It’s not portable. People often mock me and how much time I spend on my mobile phone. The reason why I adore my phone so much isn’t because it can play tons of games and time wasters. (Well, let’s say the sole reason why I adore my phone isn’t this.) One of the main reasons is because it’s so easy to port tons and tons of information. Instapaper is one of the tools that has saved my digital life. It can mark articles or web pages for later viewing. So, when I’m on line waiting for the movie to let in or for the post office attendant to say “next” while I’m closest to the window, I can read that article about the housing crisis I’ve been meaning to check out. Or anything else that I’ve tagged for later viewing. Digitally recording information and recounting at the time when the information is needed works so well with our smartphones because they’re so portable. So if you need to find your daughter’s bank account number when you want to deposit money in her account while she’s at school, there’s no need to scramble for the paper you etched it on because it’s on your phone! (Hopefully, anyway.) The more that we put information into digital notepads and into Gmail and Google Docs and other places where it can be recounted when we need it will free up so much of our space and our minds to think about other more important things.

It’s keeping education down. (This is a big one for me). I remember being in school and literally tearing my book bag at the seams trying to hold two-inch thick books for history, math, science and English. The kids today have it even worse. Sadly I see small kids (looks like they are about 8 or 9) with roller bags for their books! Considering the fact that the book they’re reading probably makes references to “President Clinton” and the science book still recognizes Pluto as a planet, they’re breaking their backs for incorrect information. I’d like to tell them that things get a lot better when they get older, but sadly it gets a lot worse. They’re going to end up going to these places called “colleges” where the professor they haven’t yet met, despite his deceptive smile has struck up some kind of private book deal with a publisher where he gets a cut of the $200 – 300 that they want for your book. And to keep you from doing the smart thing and using a trigonometry book from two semesters ago, he’ll demand that you get the “new” book – which will have the same information, but the pages will be off a bit to make sure you feel like an idiot in class. We’re paying all this money for these anthologies of useless information and supporting a system that is only increasing the cost of education further. It doesn’t work in the grade school scenario any more than it does in college.

Oh yeah, the environment. As I stated from the onset, I’m not ready to tie myself to a tree to keep it from getting turned into legal pads. But I do worry that all this waste is setting us up for problems in the future. We probably aren’t recycling at the rate that we should be. I’d like to do more. Really, I would. But when I watch the dude who collects the garbage in my apartment building or the lady at my job who rolls around with the large waste basket take the three sorted bags that I’ve carefully set aside (paper, aluminum, other/unrecyclable) and empty all three bags into one giant receptacle, it makes me think my time was wasted. There has to be a better way to put stuff in the right place. We all wanna do it. And we need to. But right now it just feels like we’re the kids in my 3rd grade class trying to win the “Statue” contest — whomever looks the most like a statue while our trusted educator “takes a break” (read: goes downstairs to take a smoking break) wins. You think you’re doing the right thing, but in a moment of clarity you realize that you’ve been had.

So what does he propose??
Clearly, I have a Utopian view of life in the digital age. I want everyone carrying digital tablets and just getting information electronically. But I can totally understand that not every situation lends itself best to paper. As much as I kick around the system of textbooks and how inefficient that is, I venture to say that I probably wouldn’t study as well without a physical copy of a book. I think a lot of it is due to my old fashioned ways and memories of hunkering down in a hard chair with a book. A book is a unique and functional tool because, at a glance, you know pretty clearly where you are in the experience. When I read a digital book, despite the denotations at the top or bottom of the screen — usually represented by some timeline — I can’t easily tell how close to the end of the book I am. With a physical book, it’s immediately evident if I’m making any progress. And then there’s highlighting and marking — none of which have been implemented efficiently on digital devices yet. Even I (hypocrite that I am) carry a Post-It note deck with a to-do list on it on occasion. It’s just a more efficient way of me being able to get through my to-do list. BUT, this is almost all that I do with paper.

I’ll make a rather bold claim: For any reason that you believe you need to carry a physical piece of loose leaf, cardstock, etc. please share it with me in the comments and I will give you a technology based solution that is more efficient. Boarding passes? Come on, please! Give me a hard challenge. Boarding passes can easily be encoded on the cheapest of phones with a barcode. Moreover, good programmers can allow you to schedule your seat, check the status of the flight and maybe even order your meal and in-flight movie. Newspaper? Too easy. Menus? Regardless of whether you’re talking unsanitary multi-use laminated sit down restaurant menu or the hand out paper variety, menus are easily better served on a tablet or on a phone. Imagine comments under each menu option where patrons rate the meal? Or take photos of it? (Of course the restaurant owner would never allow such a thing.) But there are clearly areas where it would benefit an owner to use technology. We just added a new dish. We’re discounting on every meal ordered between 2pm and 4pm (typically a restaurant’s slowest period) on Wednesdays. You get the idea.

I know that I’m being somewhat dismissive. Sure, there are some reasons for paper. But I’d argue they’re far less than what many would claim.

Next year is going to be a pivotal one in technology. We’re quickly heading down the road where our mobile phones are with us more than our computers. And if this trend continues, hopefully we’ll continue to consume information digitally and not need physical copies of everything. Or anything. We’ve been introduced (and some would say re-introduced) to this concept of the “tablet computer”. I picked up an iPad on launch day and it’s been a great help to me. And while I could easily turn this into a commercial where I outline all of the ways that the iPad has given me access to information while I’m mobile, the truth is that I don’t really care what tablet device you buy. The point is that we need to get to a place where there’s a lot less scribbling on paper with ink pens. Our BlackBerries and iPhones have shown us a better way of doing this. We need to spend less money on out of date periodicals and text books. It’s not worth the herculean effort of rolling out the printing press and distribution to Hudson News and your university book store. Oh, and by the way – on the trip to the store in the truck about 20 items were fact-checked and deemed to be wrong and new information was just discovered about that cover story that makes the piece somewhat incomplete.

This holiday season I’m hearing a lot of questions about ‘which eBook reader should I buy?’ and ‘which version of the iPad should I get?’ All of these questions are sweet music to my ears. As the price gets cheaper and as people give in to the peer pressure of not wanting to be left out, we’re moving towards that point where everyone has a portable 5 to 10 inch screen. And when I can go to my office printer and not see abandoned copies of job descriptions, apartment listings, newspaper articles undoubtedly headed for bathroom reading, PowerPoint slides, recipes and pages and pages of e-mails, I’ll know that all in the world is right.

Heads up: Physical media people? I’m coming after you next.

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