Thursday, May 10, 2007

Paperless World?

At my day job, copyediting in the Department of Legislative Services for the General Assembly of Maryland, we're struggling to adjust to the (latest) "new" system for processing bills, the House and Senate journals, etc. This go-round it's Microsoft Word, which displays serious limitations when forced to perform as a publishing system. When I started in this job, veterans from the earliest days of legislative proofreading told me that upon the introduction of computers it was predicted that soon proofreaders wouldn't be needed. You probably won't be surprised to learn that every legislative session we hire new staff, and horizontal surfaces throughout the office constantly sprout veritable mountain ranges of paper. The vision of the "paperless office" is still a long way from fulfillment in reality.

Personally, I have no ambition to eliminate paper from my life. I don't trust electronic storage that much. One little electrical surge could obliterate it. Whenever I want to keep a piece of information, I always print a hard copy. Likewise, I can't see the attraction of reading the newspaper online. To look up specific articles, sure. But not as a substitute for sitting at the breakfast table while browsing the whole paper and reading the comics. Online access works better for some functions, but not all. If I had to read the paper by clicking on links instead of flipping pages, I'd surely miss a lot of articles that might otherwise catch my eye. What about books? As an e-book author, I'm naturally in favor of the widespread adoption of electronic texts. Given a cheap, durable, user-friendly e-reader, electronic books will eventually become as common as cell phones and iPods. That reader doesn't exist yet, unfortunately, but some form of PDA or iPod-like device will probably evolve to fill the niche. I've noticed that among avid readers of e-books, the Palm Pilot-type product seems to be the favored reading medium. Already, many people who haven't yet discovered e-books keep their calendars, address books, and memos on handheld devices. (Another trend that leaves me unenthused, personally. Why would I prefer to switch on an electronic gadget when it's much easier to open a paper calendar and jot a note in pen? And the old-fashioned pocket calendar has no risk of batteries dying or memory crashing.)

However, I don't expect e-texts to drive paper books into extinction. Each form has its advantages. E-books, for example, take up less space, are cheaper (if the publisher is marketing them properly instead of expecting consumers to pay near-hardcover prices—and then using the resulting low sales as "proof" that nobody wants e-books in the first place), and can be read in the dark. They're clearly the wave of the future for textbook publishing—inexpensive, easily updated, and virtually weightless. Yet for some purposes, e.g. flipping through pages at random to browse the contents, they imperfectly mimic what bound books do well. (There's a good reason why the codex replaced the scroll back in the Dark Ages.) Even in future worlds such as the Star Trek universe and J. D. Robb's "In Death" series, where e-texts have become the norm, true bibliophiles still collect bound volumes, too.

TV, videos, and DVDs haven't abolished theatrical movies. Earlier, TV didn't drive radio out of existence. Thousands (if not millions) of devotees still play dice-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons despite the allure of World of Warcraft. Even vinyl records, I've heard, are making a comeback. Old media don't necessarily die; they simply adapt to new technological and marketing environments. In my ideal future, new media would become readily and cheaply available to everyone without loss of the old.


  1. Anonymous5:11 PM EDT

    >Personally, I have no ambition to eliminate paper from my life.

    Well, I'll work doubly hard, then, to eliminate it from mine so my descendents will know what trees are...if there are any left.

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  3. RE paper and trees: As I understand it, making paper doesn't "kill trees" that would otherwise continue to live out their lives happily in the wild. Isn't most paper made from trees specifically grown for the purpose? If so, the process actually causes more trees to be planted that wouldn't otherwise exist, thereby contributing a positive rather than a negative influence (preventing erosion, taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, etc.). The problem I see with paper is the manufacturing part of the process, which surely adds to pollution. Not sure what the solution to that drawback would be, since recycling requires factories, too.