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 second of a two part post, I will deal with the real sin of paperwork – the banality of it.
Am I the only one who feels a small piece of my soul sucked from my body with each bureaucratic form that needs to be filled and signed. All this so I may simply continue living in the warm embrace of my paper trail. In the magical world of tomorrow, why do I still need to perform the menial task of filling out so much paperwork, be it in paper or electronic form? Maybe I have been spoiled by an unrealistic expectation of convenience in the modern world, but I can’t help feeling deep seeded resentment for this type of menial mental labour.
So much of our modern lives are spent in the banal manipulation of information. Is it not ironic that a proficiency in navigating paperwork is such a necessary and desirable competency in the modern age? I argue that the drudgery of paperwork forces us to become more robotic; it demeans the human condition to employ so many in repetitious and robotic manipulation of paperwork, demanding nothing of nobler human abilities like creativity or abstract thinking.
The age of paperwork probably began somewhere around turn of the 20th century. The industrial revolution was gloriously freeing people from raw physical labour But as mechanization replaced back braking physical toil, mental toil rose to fill the void. We created new types of jobs involving the menial manipulation and transmission of information. Even now, how many jobs today could probably be accomplished by well designed software?
Today, we are swimming in a sea of paperwork, but we also stand in the midst of a computer revolution. Could we not be further along in implementing more efficient and less frustrating ways of getting things done?
Let us take the filing of taxes for instance. Why are we required to endure the frustrating task of filling out a form with information, most of which the government already knows.
I was shocked (yet unsurprised) by this story last week. The article exposes how Intuit (the makers of TurboTax) have been waging a concerted campaign of lobbying the federal government to block the adoption of something known as “return-free-filing”, wherein the IRS would send out a pre-filled tax form. If you choose you would be able to look over the form, make a few changes to and send it back for your return. Just like that – no fuss, no muss. But in this case, inefficiency is just too profitable, and the powers that be are not going to let it slip away.
This story provides a perfect example the friction that exists between the new and the old ways of doing things. Make no mistake, it is also a story echoed in every piece of paperwork. Is there not a better way to fill out these stupid time sheets? Should we not be trying to find a simpler means of accessing the legal system? Is there not a better way to file this application? etc…
The answer to these endless questions is always, of course, yes. But even if solutions already exist, the current system is not necessarily ready for things to change. Inefficient bureaucracy is the armour of the established system; it allows the old to dominate the new.
The established power structure has a tendency towards inertia if no strong impetus for change exists. Nonetheless, the established power structure can only swim against the current so long. People increasingly have their eyes open to the possibilities of technology. They can see how easy these things could really be, if some of these artificial inefficiencies were dissolves. They see the potential, and their frustration is growing.
We are in the midst of a profound change from physical to digital storage of information. The physical storage of information may have once necessitated an army of human labour to process data; filling out endless forms and shuttling them from one place to another, but in the paradigm of digital information these tasks become trivial.
Most people today simply surrender themselves to filling and filing of paper as just a necessary part of modern life. They suppress their natural frustration, out of a good natured spirit of getting things done (and getting a pay check). Well I say, we should be frustrated. If necessity is the mother of invention then maybe frustration is the father. If we want to one day set aside mental toil as we did with physical toil, we will need energy to drive this change. We need to expect better if we want better.
Harnessing our collective frustration with mindless drudgery will be necessary to provide the energy to overcome the economic inertia which holds us back.
So embrace your frustration, it might just be what sets you free.