Will Paper Ever Become Obsolete?

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Paper pile - April 2011

The paperless society is a seductive idea. Proponents maintain that less paper means more money, productivity space, security and that it will help the environment. They argued that the better the technology, the less reliant on paper we will become.  Instead, in the last few decades we have increased our paper use by making it easier to bulk print and photocopy.

People have been predicting the future of a paperless society for the last half-century, and yet it’s still not come to fruition. The 21st century has seen many things become old-fashioned. We no longer have a use for VCRs, floppy disks and even physical maps. However, paper endures.

Why do we still use so much paper?

To put it simply: we’re not ready yet. The people who are in positions of influence have grown up writing with pens, thumbing through books, magazines and newspapers, and saving paper receipts.

Today’s adults have a certain nostalgia for paper. Fundraising consultants Dunham+Company did a study in 2012 on the effects of direct mail versus email on donor behaviour. As it turned out, three times as many donors were prompted to give a gift online after receiving a letter in the post.

For the generation that is currently being born – Generation Z as many are apt to call it – will not be plagued with these problems. Technology is part of their vocabulary, their everyday life. Many teenagers don’t even know how to cursive write or sign their names—but surely there’s an app for that.

Will we cease to have a use for paper?

It’s unlikely. Digital documents are easy to change and that can have serious legal implications. Perhaps, as a solution, there will be an encryption code that requires every party’s biometric password before a document can be changed. What is more likely is that our reliance on, and relationship to, paper will change.

Paper as we know it will become a thing of past.

Paper will become ‘smarter,’ as it were. We still enjoy using paper because it has an intuitive interface that electronic displays haven’t duplicated or improved upon. The user can choose the manner in which things are displayed when they are on paper and it allows for kinaesthetic awareness that is not possible with electronic displays – yet.

A number of technology companies are running a race to create thin, flexible displays that are user-friendly and mass marketable. However, accessibility is a major obstacle to overcome.

One company, called Plastic Logic, is definitely at the front of the pack. They state on their website that they offer flexible and lightweight plastic displays that “have the same quality and user experience as paper…” It will be interesting to see what happens when these products are mass-produced and incorporated into things like billboard advertisements, marketing flyers, posters, newspapers and documents.

Once there is a technology that is as viscerally satisfying to use as it is to organise pieces of paper on a desk or flip through a magazine, then, perhaps paper will be obsolete. Until then, old habits die hard.

About the author

Alyssa James is a freelance writer with over four years of research and writing experience. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Travel + Escape, Matador Network, peer-reviewed journals and local newspapers. For more information, check out her website Alyssa Writes.

Category: Computers, Technology

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