Saturday, February 09, 2008

Paper: The Hobgoblin of Analog Minds

I have an admission: I hate paper. From printouts of emails, to handwritten notes, I detest paper in almost all forms. It has become the trash and detritus of our daily life: credit/debit cards have nearly replaced paper money, but they leave behind the droppings of indecipherable receipts that we, as a society, are terrified to leave behind for fear that our entire identity will be stolen from that innocuous pizza payment. As we have moved to a digital world, complete with multifunction scanner/printers and both enormous hard drives and online storage, paper is simply a crutch to be finally snapped in favor of bits.

It looks like the New York Times is noticing. The article points out how a Google engineer has already eliminated paper from his family's life; I have been fighting this battle for nearly a decade. My weapons of choice? Visioneer's line of sheet-fed scanners and both CD burners as well as Moxy. I scan EVERYTHING: receipts, photos, notes, legal documents, even recipes, with just a flick of the wrist into the small slot behind my keyboard. In moments, the digital facsimile is written to my hard drive, for future archiving to CD and Moxy. PaperPort software not only scans a perfect copy, but also offers, if warranted, optical character recognition to make those static blocks of ink into digital, malleable, components. After the scan, straight to the shredder for erasure of identity theft risk.

Why do this, you ask? Many reasons. One, a catastrophic disaster. If your papers are stored in your house, what good will they do you in a fire? A fireproof safe? Uh, yeah, that's what you want to entrust your life to: a block of metal that you have now way of testing will survive, and your only recourse is a refund from the manufacturer? Oh, yes, IF you can find the receipt for it, that is.

Want more? Years ago, this country's revenue collection agency informed me they had doubts about my claims of income and expenses. They instructed me to provide proof. In one weekend, I was able to pull up every receipt, every pay stub, every scrap of evidence and set my printer a-churning to ship them undeniable evidence. In a week, the matter was amiably settled, thanks to my information.

I'm clearly not the only one here. Starbucks now asks if you want a receipt when you pay by card. Banks and credit card companies push the "benefits" of paperless statements (though, since it's a cost reduction for them, I think they might be better served by offering an incentive). I bought a house by doing a stock transaction via a cell phone's mobile data connection, and executed the paperwork all with a digital signature: not a single actual piece of paper until we refinanced.

The article points one one downside: power consumption. It fails to point out the other: paper is a renewable resource. The more we use, the more trees are planted, the more global warming is fought. Notice I didn't say recyclable; Penn & Teller made a very eloquent and thought provoking piece on why paper recycling is horrible for the environment, and greater paper use is actually a far better alternative. See for yourself (warning: language may be offensive, and it's 29 minutes long):


With the advent of the Kindle, Amazon is trying to produce a watershed digital moment for one of the biggest paper consumers: books and magazines. Direct marketing has already found e-mail far more effective than traditional mail. And note taking? Laptops and smartphones are already de rigueur in the classroom and boardroom, making those 8 1/2" x 11" pads look like a quaint relic. Our offices already make the offices of just 10 years ago look like they came from an episode of Mad Men.

It's time to free ourselves of the paper handcuffs. We no longer consider etching on a wax tablet, or chiseling out our thoughts in stone, or capturing a moment in oil and canvas. Let's throw off this last, pervasive vestige of our past and finally embrace the world of tomorrow, today.

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