The Role of Paper in NextGen Content Creation

October 16, 2008 at 1:26 pm | Posted in Book Review, Content Management, Information Work, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

Sellen and Harper’s “The Myth of the Paperless Office” (now with built in irony!  Buy it in a paperless Kindle edition, delivered wirelessly via Amazon Whispernet) argues that paper usage has increased despite the rise of technology and that technology is unlikely to displace paper in the workplace.  This is because paper has inherent advantages that techno-geeks overlook.  These “affordances” of paper define what people can do with it (e.g., grasping, carrying, maniuplating, folding, writing on it, bindable, can be spread out or stacked) versus the affordances of digital content.

Sellen and Harper would be interested then to see that paper use is finally declining for white collar workers according to the October 9th edition of The Economist:

American office workers’ use of paper has actually been in decline since 2001. What changed? The explanation seems to be sociological rather than technological. A new generation of workers, who have grown up with e-mail, word processing and the internet, feel less of a need to print documents out than their older colleagues did. Offices are still far from paperless, but the trend is clear.

Paper usage

In a recent blog posting, I wrote about my research and upcoming document on Next Generation (NextGen) Content Authoring trends.  I find that the trends I defined provide a useful method to frame the decrease of paper use in organizations that The Economist describes.

One of the trends I discuss is “living documents”.  A living document is one that may never be “finished”.  It is continually being changed and updated.  Wikipedia articles or a wiki-based tourism guide are examples of content that is constantly getting updated and where the concept of being “finished” or “published” doesn’t mean much.  In fact, in another book on the IMF, Sellen and Harper pointed out that documents have lives, careers, and even social lives of their own.  Such dynamic documents do not lend themselves to being printed unless that paper will be thrown out after it has been read.  Put simply, dead trees form a poor foundation for living documents.

Another related trend I discuss is “freshness preference”, where quality is compromised to some degree in exchange for timeliness.  Since the shelf life of content produced under this trend is lower, this decreases the archival value of printing. 

In any case, paper still exists in abundance in my office and I’m sure it will always exist in the offices of information workers.  Sellen and Harper’s book came out in 2002 and they would surely point out that their book goes to great lengths to clarify the advantages and disadvantages of paper and digital reading/writing.  Paper has stayed the same since 2002 and digital reading/writing has improved dramatically, which tips the balance.  I’m also happy to say that environmental awareness has increased dramatically and this “green” view, absent in “The Myth of the Paperless Office”, may now play a part as well.  It is certainly a combination of these factors that is slowly reversing a very long increase in the use of paper in organizations.


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