Fuck Paperwork – Part 1: Fuck Paper

I fucking hate paperwork. I apologize for the profanity, but there is nothing in my life that more strongly elicits that visceral reaction: “It’s 2013 – why do I still have to do this?”. In this first of a two part post, I will deal with the physical sin of paperwork – the paper itself.

Why is any information still being sent to me in the form of scratchings on flattened plant fibre? I watched this ad about the future of paper this week, it’s a comedic ad and does well to point out a couple of niche areas where paper is unlikely to be replaced any time soon. Nonetheless, the ad has spurned me to think more critically about the role of paper in our society, and I have come to the following scientific conclusion: fuck paper.

Paper has been a key tool, and a convenient technology for the transmission of information, but it’s time has come and gone. Let’s enumerate the advantages of electronic documents over physical ones:

  1. Electronic documents are searchable – In 2013 if I have something that is not indexed and searchable, then it doesn’t exist. The amount of time I need to spend performing the nightmarish task of sifting through documents in meatspace is rapidly heading to 0. Yes, I am spending more time combing my email history for documents I need, but in this context 30 seconds spent searching my email feels like an arduous task. There is simply no comparison between electronic and physical documentation in this respect. 
  2. No physical clutter – It’s ridiculous to think about how much physical space is filled with documents that nobody will ever read. Even the modest amount of paper which I am obliged to keep on file feels like a lead anchor on my clean modern existence. 
  3. Less (wasted) human labour - So you are saying that they used to pay people just to fold paper and put it into envelopes?
  4. Vanishingly small likelihood of losing an electronic document – If you are taking appropriate steps to back up your documents online, there is really next to no chance of losing your files. To the less technologically savvy (of which I am sure, few read this blog) this is really as easy as emailing a document to yourself. Doom-sayers might worry about what will happen if electronic communication breaks down, but if the modern world were to experience such a catastrophe I am confident we would have much more important things to worry about then where we put our latest phone bill.
  5. Document security – Ok, this one might be arguable, but again, if you take appropriate measures to protect your electronic repositories then they should be less accessible to nefarious sorts then a physical document. You realize of course, that there is no inherent security built into a piece of paper; we must take steps to prevent people from accessing our physical documents. Doing so electronically, can be equally as effective.

Given all this, why does my electrical company insist on taking an electronic document, turning it into a physical one, then paying someone to deliver it across space and time to me? In my case, this is promptly followed by turning it back into an electronic document and destroying the physical one! What mode of insanity is this? I will admit that most billers are rapidly moving to a paperless system, but in my opinion, this can’t happen fast enough. The sin of physical paperwork gets more egregious with every passing day.

And even though billing might thankfully be going the way of the dinosaur, what is with the scraps of paper that get handed to me every time I buy a coffee? Why has no company figured this out yet? Yes, we would like to track our purchases, but paper is so utterly useless in this regard. Why do I have a wallet full of receipts for things that I might like to return?

Let me spell this out: why hasn’t an enterprising banking or credit card company created a means to automatically email electronic receipts? This could be relegated to a specialized account so as not to clog up your normal inbox. This solves both the problem of tracking expenses as well as keeping a proof of purchase on file. This is such an easy win for everyone: retailers use less paper, customers are happier, and we waste less paper. I am dumbfounded why it hasn’t happened yet.

But, but, what about my books!? Well, you can have your books. The use of paper for books really represents a minuscule amount of paper in the grand scheme. I am comfortable with my e-reader at this point, and the convenience of being able to download books outweighs any cons in my opinion. But, there is no need to rush to a complete eradication of all uses of paper, let’s just concentrate on the pointless and wasteful uses of paper.

Paper is an inefficient and archaic means of delivering information and should be cast out of our modern lives forever. The efficiency gap between paper and electronic documents is at least as wide as the gap between stone tablets and paper. Even disregarding the environmental cost of paper, the efficiency cost is enough to get upset about.  So next time you receive some stupid document printed on stupid paper, let yourself feel the anger; after all, it is 2013.

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8 thoughts on “Fuck Paperwork – Part 1: Fuck Paper

  1. Regarding receipts “This could be relegated to a specialized account so as not to clog up your normal inbox.” Why not just use rules/auto-sorting features to move it to a specific folder? Almost every email client has the ability to do this already.

    I also agree with you on books; eReaders are for some people, audiobooks for others, but I still like my hardcover, paper books. Nothing like curling up on the chase or sitting out in nice spring weather with a book.

  2. One thing that can only be done on paper is an ink signature, which is what many companies and our government rely on for legal accountability. I know signatures can be forged, but copying the image of an e-signature is much easier. Hopefully we can solve this with some sort of secure unique identifier, but I’m not aware of any such solution.

    • I think when we look back, people will be awestruck that we used to accept a few scribbles as proof of anything.

      • It certainly isn’t good proof, but it is a legal authorization that can be analyzed for validity more thoroughly than an e-signature. Maybe with the addition of biometrics, we can achieve a higher level of accountability.

      • I’m not sure what will replace it. Maybe the oversight of some sort of reliable AI, maybe some geolocational e-data and a voice recording. Could be anything, but what I am sure of is that a scribble is essentially worthless.

    • @Alex, digital signatures have been legally accepted (at least in the US, not sure about other countries) since the mid 1990s.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_signature I think this wikipedia article talks a bit about it. Of course, the widespread implementation is still lacking, but the underlying tech is proven and legally accepted.

      To your broader point, I would argue that a 512-bit encrypted digital signature (similar to what is used with many Public Key Infrastructure systems) is far more secure (resistant to both forgery and non-repudiation [claiming you DIDN'T sign something that you did]) than an ink signature (as many high school permission slips can attest).

      Unfortunately, most of the resistance to adopting e-sigs is procedural inertia (though, there’s probably a reasonable degree of delay due to not having a solution for some of the less digitally connected citizens/customers).

  3. @ThoughtInfected, I definitely agree w/ the general sentiment of your post, but I think there are still some useful roles for paper — but, I think most of those roles are more due to the shortcomings of modern digital systems, than to the inherent advantages of paper…and I’d like to believe that tech will overcome these. But, until they do, I see value in paper.

    Probably the biggest advantage that I still find w/ paper is the ease of a natural, flexible (not in the physical sense, but in the sense of “unconstrained”) interface. When I’m reading (particularly for work, or something really thought provoking), I prefer to scribble notes in the margin or sketch out ideas. Of course, as you note, most of these notes are essentially locked away & might as well be flushed. I’d get more out of being able to sort, label, archive and share my notes — but most digital readers don’t have good interfaces for this (let alone easily integrated between systems).

    Another big advantage (currently) for paper is the ease of scaling between a global and local level in large documents. By this, I mean that it generally seems easier (and this is just my perception, though it could probably be evaluated w/ experiments) to jump around to different sections of a document while keeping track of where you are in context — such as flipping back and forth between a few key pages, figures or tables while reading something. Again, this SHOULD be easily implemented w/ a digital interface, but many systems seem lacking.

    Finally, paper provides a much easier (and cheaper) day to rapidly scale the visual interface and associated bandwidth. If you’ve ever worked with several different printouts spread across a table, or worked in a conference room where you’ve tacked up a bunch of pages on a wall, you know what I mean. Again, it’s not that this ISN’T doable w/ digital systems, just that most don’t (yet) do it well.

    But, I still agree that for many common purposes too many businesses are still too wedded to sticking w/ paper w/o thinking about how moving digital could help both them and their customers.

    BTW, there’s a great book (about 10 or 12 years old now) called “The Social Life of Information” (by John Seeley Brown and Paul Daguid, I think, from PARC). It talks a lot about information in modern organizations, and particularly about the differences between information and knowledge. It has a whole section on why paper has so stubbornly refused to go away. If you’re at all interested in information, technology, and organizations (and you seem to be), I highly recommend that book.

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