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In Praise of Paper

18 Jul

From a beautiful essay by Malcolm Gladwell, The Social Life of Paper:

That is the irony of the P.C.: the workplace problem that it solves is the nineteenth-century anxiety. It’s a better filing cabinet than the original vertical file, and if Dewey were alive today, he’d no doubt be working very happily in an information-technology department somewhere. The problem that paper solves, by contrast, is the problem that most concerns us today, which is how to support knowledge work. In fretting over paper, we have been tripped up by a historical accident of innovation, confused by the assumption that the most important invention is always the most recent.

Some other interesting passages:

This is one of the great puzzles of the modern workplace. Computer technology was supposed to replace paper. But that hasn’t happened. Every country in the Western world uses more paper today, on a per-capita basis, than it did ten years ago… This is generally taken as evidence of how hard it is to eradicate old, wasteful habits and of how stubbornly resistant we are to the efficiencies offered by computerization. A number of cognitive psychologists and ergonomics experts, however, don’t agree. Paper has persisted, they argue, for very good reasons: when it comes to performing certain kinds of cognitive tasks, paper has many advantages over computers. The dismay people feel at the sight of a messy desk… arises from a fundamental confusion about the role that paper plays in our lives.

…paper has a unique set of “affordances” — that is, qualities that permit specific kinds of uses. Paper is tangible…Paper is spatially flexible…And it’s tailorable… Digital documents, of course, have their own affordances. They can be easily searched, shared, stored, accessed remotely, and linked to other relevant material. But they lack the affordances that really matter to a group of people working together…

…we fret about where all that paper will go. But…we needn’t worry. It is only if paper’s usefulness is in the information written directly on it that it must be stored. If its usefulness lies in the promotion of ongoing creative thinking, then, once that thinking is finished, the paper becomes superfluous. The solution to our paper problem…is not to use less paper but to keep less paper. Why bother filing at all? Everything we know about the workplace suggests that few if any knowledge workers ever refer to documents again once they have filed them away, which should come as no surprise, since paper is a lousy way to archive information.

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Posted by on July 18, 2006 in Biz/Tech, Life, Links, Quotes

 

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