THE MYTHS OF THE PAPERLESS OFFICE

Our love hate affair with paper is still there.

Published back in 2002, the book “The myths of the paperless office” by Abigail Sellen, and Richard Harper, was quite a shock when it came out. At the time both were researchers at the Xerox’s Cambridge EuroParc and set out to research why the then so hyped idea of the “Paperless office” was taking so much time to become a reality.

The general idea was that the problem was due to screen technology not being good enough but as their extensive research showed the “problem” was much more complex. Most people, when reading material for work, made notes, add comments in the margins, highlighted material they wanted to return to and read across several documents at once. All of these things were easier with paper.

While the most advanced word processors supported annotations, these were often hard to pick out from the surrounding text or required effort to access. Computers were poor at supporting the kind of “layering” that happened when several people in turn read a document and added notes in different colours. Similarly, there were many clues derived from a paper document as a physical object. One could tell at a glance how far into the document he or she was; one could refer back and forth between two pages by keeping a finger on each one and flipping the partial stack. This kind of thing was doable with computers, but reading Sellen and Harper’s observations reminds us how frustratingly clunky it all was. Who, than, had not felt lost in the middle of a 100-page electronic document, found using bookmarks annoying, or found it distracting to have to switch among windows to read and annotate?

13 years have passed since the book was published and there is a lot of new and excellent office technology around but for better or for worse, most of its conclusions are still valid today. A lot of people still like to make notes on paper and most also like to have paper based documents ,if not as their prime source of information for reading and browsing, at least as a complement for their electronic based “cousins”.

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