The Paperless Society

I feel stupid. I feel stupid because, in my lifetime, I have believed in folly and fable. I believed in the Tooth Fairy. I believed in the Loch Ness Monster. I believed in Y2K Armageddon. And I believed in the Paperless Society.

I read about how Imaging was going to wipe out paper. I was told that e-zines would destroy the magazine industry. I was convinced that the Internet would eliminate newspapers forever, so I hoarded a dozen Sunday issues to make sure my remarkably unbroken Labrador did not destroy the den rug.

But look around. Everywhere there's paper – stacks and stacks of paper. They're on and under every desk. They pile up in the corner. And every day the mailman brings a bunch more.

Walk into any cubicle in America: it's a disaster area. There are mounds of memos. Piles of printouts. We are running out of places to put it! We've got gigs and megahertz and cartridges that could be used to store the stuff, and still we can't even find our credenzas - they're buried under magazines we haven't read since 1987.

Me, I'm a pile-maker. I have about 90 pounds of paper in my office, but feel so much better if I've put it in little piles. Piles I know I will never get to. Piles I will never read. But on any given day if you can squeeze into my cubicle, you'll see 27 very neat stacks of papers/periodicals/reports/junk mail, all of which I know full well will never disappear without a can of lighter fluid.

And it's not just in the office. Think about it: who uses PDAs? By now, it’s everybody. We can access the web and store everything electronically, right from our pockets. But does that eliminate paper? Or cardboard? Or little yellow Post-it notes? No, they're everywhere. I still have a handful of paper calendars. I have notepads galore. I have kitchen drawers full of leaflets and scraps and coupons for carpet cleaning that expired last December. Even my refrigerator is covered with paper; I heard refrigerator magnets are a billion dollar business.

And worse - the latest of cyber-fads cannot save us. Electronic billing? Payment on line? Forget it. I still have reams of receipts; my wallet's full of them. I get gas; I get a paper receipt. I go to the store; I get a paper receipt. I eat out; I get a paper receipt, though usually not till ten minutes after I've asked for it and still the waitress expects a 20% tip.

Let's be fair: paper fuels the economy. It drives the pencil industry. It drives the paperclip industry. It drives the trash bag industry. Thanks to all the paper, I'm actually using that stupid paperweight that says "World's Best Husband", even though my wife's not speaking to me right now because I ran over her gladiolas with the minivan.

My faith is bent, but not broken. Maybe someday all of this will go away. Maybe we will go paperless. Everything electronically-stored. My life nicely organized in computerized files and folders. Heck, my boss claims he's given us a system like that now! But I have no idea how to use it. I guess I should read the manual… I know it's around here someplace.

Mike Cohn lives in Atlanta, and has more paper than he ever needs, except occasionally when he's using a public restroom.

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