The Paperless Office: Are We Headed that Way at Last?

As computers became widespread in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, a common prediction was that we were headed for the “paperless office.” But that prediction went badly astray, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper pointed out in their 2002 book, The Myth of the Paperless Office.
For example, they cited evidence that consumption of common office paper rose by 14.7% from 1995 and 2000 and they argued that that when organizations started using e-mail, their consumption of paper rose by 40%.

But although the transition took some time, it now appears that at least U.S. offices are becoming, if not quite paperless, much less paper-intensive. Here’s a figure from the Environmental Paper Network’s State of the Paper Industry 2011, which came out last year. Notice in particular the decline in paper use since about 2007 in North America and Western Europe.

I think the way that information technology first drove paper usage up, and now it appears down  is an application of price theory.  You can think of it as the many affects of an increase in productivity.

The ability to get the same amount of product with less input of labor has two effects.

The first seems pretty straight forward.  To produce the same output requires few workers, so a firm may well reduce the number of employees.  This effect has dominated in the dramatic reduction in the number of farmers.  (Not so many generation a large majority of humans spent time hunting, scavenging, foraging or growing food, but not it is a tiny percent.)

That’s not the whole story though.  If less labor can produce the same amount of a good, the cost/price of the good in terms of other goods is less.  If demand is elastic then, the amount of the product purchased in an industry rising productivity may rise so much that the total amount of labor employed will increase.  It’s been argued that energy efficiency programs realize less savings  or even no saving if people for example drive 20% more if cars are 10% more efficient.  If I buy a computer to right:  I may well spend more time writing not less, because I can produce much more in an hour and respond to this by increasing my writing more than my productivity increased.  This effect didn’t predominate in agriculture, because the demand for food is pretty inelastic to price.  More efficient farmers has meant much fewer farmers.

The increase in the use of paper with computers was clearly an example of that.   The use of the computer to communicate in writing supplanted the use of the phone in office a great deal I think.  You don’t hear nearly the phone conversations you use to in an office.  More writing swamped the effect of less paper per written communication for a long-time.

But I think accumulation of human capital happened over time too.  People stopped using computers to create paper and realized that the purposes of writing could be accomplished with out all the paper.  Think about how in the early the 80’s the objective of word processing was to produce documents that looked like they had been typed!!! 

Remember how common the use of courier was as a font, though it isn’t that attractive.  The whole Dan Rather fiasco grew from the doubt that a proportionate font would have been used when Mr. Bush was avoiding the draft by hook or crook.  That’s not true now.  People generally don’t use word to produce a document that looks like it was produced on a typewriter.

That process has cumulative in acceptance of paperless documents, and reduced paper usage.



I remember stories from the old days of computerized offices, maybe 15-20 years ago, about executives who wanted all their e-mails and reports printed out. Those days are gone. But it’s interesting to me that even for a change that seems as obvious as electronic communication leading to less paper, it took some years and the pressures of a recession for substantial change to take effect. Similarly, it wasn’t until about 2006 that the volume of mail carried by the U.S. Postal Service took a nosedive. All the consequences of major technological changes can take decades to ripple through an economy.

The Paperless Office: Headed that Way at Last?
Timothy Taylor
Tue, 20 Nov 2012 15:00:00 GMT


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