A recent temp assignment at a large law firm inspired me to re-read The Myth of the Paperless Office. During this assignment, I had time to wander the halls, look in at the attorneys’ offices, and see boxes of court-case related material. I wondered: couldn’t all these reams of paper be scanned, and their data be added to thumb drives or tablets? No, said a LinkedIn connection of mine, who is a paralegal. Most of the documents will end up in trial binders which are easily accessible to the attorneys. The co-authors of The Myth of the Paperless Office would remind me that having a deposition transcript in paper form demonstrates papers affordance. In other words, it’s probably easier for an attorney, who wants to impeach a witness – by contradicting what the witness said in a trial, as opposed to what the witness said in a deposition – to flick to the right page of a deposition transcript, instead of to scrolling for the needed passage on a tablet. Anyway, the attorney is probably more comfortable with paper than a tablet.
When Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper, the co-authors of The Myth of the Paperless Office use the term affordance, they are using a term formulated by a psychologist named J.J. Gibson, who said that the properties of an object determine the possibilities for its action. (Example: a graspable object with a sharp end affords the possibilities for cutting & scraping, the way an axe or a knife would).
Now that I’ve finished this book, which was written in 2002, it’s full of underlined passages, bent pages indicating relevant text, comments written in the margins, and is chocked with post-it notes full of comments, and reminders to check on things the authors have written. “A lousy way to treat a book! Habits from graduate school!” you say. But the co-authors would understand my treatment of their book. Paper’s affordances include being lightweight and bendable. Sections of text can be underlined. Comments can be written in the margins, or attached with other paper. Also, one can easily determine the length of the document, and compare its size and content with another document.
Sellen and Harper discuss the history of technologies that would not replace paper, but would reduce the reliance. They both worked for Xerox, the copier company that created PARC, which was a research project aimed at reducing the use of paper through electronic information and communication technology – rather ironic for a company which makes machines that produce – wait for it – paper copies. The authors discuss the symbolism of paper in an office representing something outdated or inefficient. They visit companies that have tried to reduce or eliminate paper usage. What they found could be classified as “hot documents”, “warm documents” and “cold documents”. Hot documents were usually in paper form, and were extremely relevant to the task at hand. Warm documents were not quite as relevant, but were in paper form. The paper of cold documents was scanned to a data management system, and then warehoused, since most of them were not of immediate relevance, although the authors found that users hung on to some of the cold documents.
The authors discuss the design problems with document technology. One example that they give involves templates. A police department gave its officers laptops which would be used for crime victim interviewing, among other tasks. The officers complained that scrolling for the proper templates interfered with the interviewing process. The officers spent too much time fussing over their laptops, and not making good eye contact with the victims. It would’ve been easier to take handwritten notes, and then type up a report later. To quote the co-authors:
Change for the sake of change is hugely problematic. Going paperless for the sake of “out with the old, in with the new” is destined to end in failure.
Some of the advantages of paper Sellen and Harper seemed to have been answered by advancements in word processing programs since 2002. The ability to add comments on a paper document can be duplicated in Word and Word Perfect by using the “add comments” function. The ability to view two different documents at once can be achieved if you have two screens, and know how to change the display functions. Creating e-readers for separate functions? Doesn’t the tablet take care of that? Remember, this book was written in 2002.
Yet there is something about having a physical document that does not require booting up, remembering a password, and is easy to access. It may be in clumps on a desk, or on the floor near the desk in boxes, but if the user has organized the clumps, paper in the office will still have its place.