The other day I was sitting in the bank watching a clerk copy information off a paper bank transfer to initiate a new wire transfer. Being a busy person I hate inefficiencies, and this was just plain bad. When I asked why the bank didn’t use an electronic copy to speed up the process, the clerk replied that using an electronic copy can create mistakes and cause liability for the bank. In the same way that people are mistrustful of electronic elections, they believe that a human being copying from a piece of paper is less prone to make mistakes than doing the same thing electronically. I smiled when I heard that, because I know it isn’t going to last.
According to Wikipedia, papermaking was developed in China during the early 2nd century. Since becoming the de facto medium for recording knowledge, paper has evolved to also become the medium of transferring information in the modern world. Now, however, paper is being surrounded by an increasing number of digital rivals. We can debate how long it will be before the next generation of e-book readers kills printed books, but the days of paper as an information storage medium are almost over. In this post we look at the role of paper in our information-rich lives, from books and newspapers, to receipts and office documents.
Paper as an Information Storage Medium
The power of persistent information is awesome. If you have never contemplated what it would be like without it, just take a moment now to think about it. In a world where passing information is only done orally, information transfer is very limited and inefficient. The invention of paper and writing was perhaps as important and critical in the development of modern humans as the invention of language. Persistent information is responsible for both the rise of living organisms (DNA), and the rise of civilization.
Most of the knowledge that we gain comes to us via the written word. The burning of the library at Alexandria by Julius Casesar is considered to be one of the greatest losses of knowledge of all times. Understandably so, because books used to be a precious commodity in the ancient times, accessible to an extremely limited number of people. With the invention of the printing press, books took off, followed soon after by newspapers. Then, suddenly paper was not only the preferred method of storing knowledge, but also the best way to record and transfer information.
Paper as an Information Transfer Medium
While nobody (yet) minds books, people are increasingly being fed up with receipts, envelopes, bank statements, and other forms of paper as an information transfer medium. We cringe at the lengthy receipts we get after a shopping trip to Costco and at stupid credit card statements like the one below. It is the moments when we see things like this that we realize: this is wrong and this has to go. Once again, Apple has it right before anyone else. At Apple stores, after paying by credit card you’re asked for your email address and your reciept is sent to you electronically.
With online banking becoming so ubiquitous we now let out a sigh every time we have to actually write a check. Not only are we annoyed with paper, we are annoyed with the process of hand writing – typing is so much more elegant and cleaner. And the change is not just happening at home, it is also quite visible at work. Yes, we still have a ton of paper around the office – but it is increasingly less. More people are now used to reading off the computer screen without having to print first. PDF is now the official means of corporate bureaucracy.
As mobile devices get smarter, the days of paper as an information transfer medium are nearing an end. In the next decade, we will get rid of receipts, doctors will not be hand writing us referrals, and banking will be done only online. The replacement of paper is not an accident, but a trend. Paper is bulkier, dirtier, less safe and not as good for the environment as its digital competition. Part of the bigger trend towards turning physical things into digital, paper is finally giving in after centuries of reign.