Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Notes And Comments

Paper Revolutions

If projects like E-Estonia mark a break with paper, they also represent the continuation of an administrative order made possible by the first paper revolution.

Richard Hughes Gibson

A party inviting people to become an e-residents of e-Estonia; photo by Aron Urb.

“The odd thing about paper is that we still use it. The stuff should be obsolete, a quaint, medieval anachronism, replaced by new information technologies like the personal computer. Yet quite the opposite has happened.”

So wrote the futurist Paul Saffo in the pages (still print) of Personal Computing in 1987. The arrival of the digital age as a popular phenomenon—via those personal computers Saffo mentioned—had not delivered the “paperless office,” much less the “paperless society” prophesied by tech gurus in previous decades. In fact, paper consumption was increasing rapidly. The next year, in Computerworld, Edward Tenner pithily observed that “the paperless office, the leafless library, the inkless newspaper, the cashless, checkless society…have gone the way of the Empire State Building’s dirigible mooring.” The paperless society appeared to many an exploded “myth,” an appraisal echoed often in the ensuing decades, including our own.

Yet Saffo contended that the volume of paper buildup obscured the real “paper revolution” taking place. Previously, vital information had been entrusted to paper; increasingly, that office fell to digital media. The majority of the printouts issuing from printers, Saffo noted, had short shelf lives ahead. Most of this paper would be read, maybe marked up, and then discarded, with the file tucked away on a disk for future use. In 1987, Saffo perceived that “paper as ‘storage’ was taking a back seat to paper as ‘interface.’” Five years later, he likened the new information order to “a huge electronic piñata, composed of a thin paper crust surrounding an electronic core. The paper crust is most noticeable, but the hidden electronic core that produces the crust is far larger—and growing more rapidly.” Saffo’s conclusion: “We are becoming paperless, but we hardly notice it at all.”

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