Will we ever stop needing paper?

We’ve been talking about it for decades but paper isn't about to disappear anytime soon and its legacy will probably linger on for centuries.

The end of paper. We’ve been talking about it for decades. “Technology” was meant to usher in this new era but it seems to have done nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s probably had the opposite effect and with the cost of printers so low we are consuming more paper than ever before.

So when will it stop?

The reality is its going to be a long slow decline of usage, punctuated with the odd big leap and the elapsed time will be somewhere in the order of 15 – 25 years to get most of the way there. But even then some form of paper will always remain and the legacy of this era will probably last for centuries (e.g., old book shops!!).

Three things have to happen on the journey:

  1. Technology has to get better, way better.
  2. The cost of paper has to rise radically, and
  3. Using paper has to become a cultural stigma

On the technology front let’s just get the hot news out of the way first. The year 2011 marked the biggest leap in the history of paper since the printing press was invented. And that is that the world finally decided that digital devices (i.e., e-readers) like the Kindle are acceptable ways to read novels. If you had asked someone two years ago to predict when this was going to happen the answer would have been “never” as no one believed we could ever replace books. That has now changed. (applause).

The other side of this equation are newspapers and magazines and 2010 marked the breakthrough year for their imminent (albeit way distant) demise with the successful launch, after decades of trying, of a tablet computer, namely the iPad. Sitting on the couch, lying in bed, or standing on the train reading news on a tablet computer is now considered a satisfactory alternative to a holding a physical piece of paper and the millions of devices sold to date are the proof.

Although they are an acceptable replacement, they are still not perfect, so it will still take some time to ramp up to full adoption. The technology simply has to get better to improve the experience before the masses will move across. An interesting aspect of this is that e-readers still use a book metaphor to mimic the reading experience. You have to click to the next “page” and the graphics sometimes imitate an actual page turning and you can insert “bookmarks” etc. The world wide web started this way too with Next and Back buttons being the primary navigation to replicate the document reading experience, but 15 years on is slowly moving into its own style.

Digital reading will eventually do the same and find better ways to let people read and scan text. But for now we need the simple metaphors to keep people comfortable during the transition. Something that will go a long way to helping this is digital paper: bigger, lighter and more flexible reading surfaces. Human vision is phenomenal at scanning, taking in large amounts of data in one go and then filtering down until we focus in on just the bits we want more detail on. Screens today are too small to allow this but it’s a few years off still until we have true e-paper (or should I say iPaper?).

So what will happen to book shops and libraries, are they doomed? Not by a long shot, but they will certainly have to evolve with the times. The personal experience of going to a store, browsing the new releases, talking to someone knowledgeable about what might suite your taste, and having a coffee while you decide cannot yet be replaced with technology. One day book shops will be forests of giant touch screens podiums, rather than stacks of books on tables, showing graphics and videos and testimonials of new releases and you will walk around with your e-reader or tablet downloading samples, listening to interviews on your own (built-in?) headphones, waving your phone to make purchases and automatically applying discount coupons.

Books and newspapers are two big paper transformations, but where else do we use paper?

The office! Although consumers are making fair progress with paper, small business and big corporates alike are still way behind. You’d think with all the laptops, tablets, smart phones and high-tech digerati roaming modern offices finding a piece a paper amongst all that would be like finding a needle in a haystack. But it ain’t.

Taking notes for example is still easier, faster, and a lot more expressive with pen and paper. Rough diagrams, scribbled pictures, boxed groupings, circled relationships, etc., all easy on paper and very hard and very slow on a computer or tablet. Even with a digital stylus or touch screen. Possibly the Kinect type of technology has a shot at giving that area a boost (think Minority Report), but there is nothing concrete on the radar as yet to fill the gap. So technology needs to radically improve in that department too.

Then there is printing. City office blocks wipe out whole forests worth of printing every day – but why? Two reasons, a) it’s cheap and b) it’s easy. Once again when we connect the brilliant human ability of scanning text, flipping pages back and forth, and scribbling comments on a huge multi-page digital document with the cost and ease of printing and using a pen, it’s simply doesn’t cross the benefit threshold yet.

That all said, we could get by just on a screen if we really tried but there is something more powerful than all that, which is the cultural barrier. There is simply no stigma attached to using paper and until this happens we won’t see change. Even at a very basic level sitting in a meeting typing on a computer or tapping into a phone is still considered “rude”, but writing in a note book is fine and expected.

The problem here boils down to the fact that the “paper generation” are still in charge. Only when the “facebook generation” become our CEOs will we start to see real change. Either that or paper becomes ridiculously expensive but I wouldn’t count on that any time soon.

But even if all that cultural and technological changes come about paper will still live forever. And that’s because as a medium it is stunningly beautiful. Its expressive, it’s rich, it’s versatile, textured, and tactile. Each piece of paper is a piece of art.

That said, we should only use paper in proportion to the rate we can sustainably create it.

I walked into my home office the other day and there, to my absolute dismay, was my 5 year-old son sticky taping together reams of paper he had printed covered with cartoon pictures of superheros he’d found on the Internet.

“Look daddy! I made a colouring book!”

That’s my boy.

Simon Raik-Allen is the chief technical officer at MYOB. 

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