Review: The Myth of the Paperless Office

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper. In the midst of the publicity surrounding the  Kindle and other e-Ink based e-book readers, this is a perfect book to understand why paper is such a pervasive and useful tool even in environments that are predominately computerized (for example, a computer science research lab) .

While the title of the book (I suspect) is meant to be controversial, the content is not. The authors are not Luddites, what they are is researchers trying to understand how paper can inform the development of electronic tools. They do this through several case studies that involved the transition from paper to a technological solution. The case studies ranged from police work and air traffic control to an office at the IMF. To me, the case studies were informative because they made me realize how paper enables people to do their job in very tiny but important ways.

For example, in the police case study, the police department studied wanted to have statements and notes at the crime scene electronically entered so the department could have immediate updates to their reporting system. However, the introduction of the electronic system was less than successful not because the system didn’t work technically but because of the nature of police work. Police officers are not just investigators at a crime scene they are also social workers. They have to comfort and attend to the witnesses or victims at the scene. This is a difficult task as it involves the officer being aware of the interviewee’s psychological state.  The electronic system given to the officers were not adapted to this kind of sensitive environment and got in the way of the social work aspect of the task. Paper, unlike the electronic system, did not get in the way of the officers job while still allowing them to gather data. 

Throughout these case studies the authors highlight how understanding the affordances of paper are critical when designing new technology especially technology that is supposed to integrate with existing work practices. They identified the following affordances:

  • A single sheet is light and physically flexible.
  • It is porous, which means that is markable and that marks are fixed and spatially invariant with respect the the underlying medium.
  • It is a tangible, physical object.
  • Engagement with paper for the purpose of marking or reading is direct and local. In other words , the medium is immediately responsive to executed actions, and interaction depends on physical copresence.

These affordances lead to certain consequences. For example, the fact that paper is tangible and has locality means that when a paper is on my desk at work, it acts as a reminder to do something about it. Or, the fact that paper can be easily bent, means that I can easily tell what pages I should go back to when writing the blog post about this book. The book has many more examples of these sorts of consequences. 

The final thing I learned from the book (or had reinforced) was that paper is not a complete or even cursory repository of people’s knowledge. More often than not, it is used as a trigger for people’s recall. Indeed, it turns out that making all an organization’s information electronic does not provide instant access to an institution’s knowledge. From the book…

In other words, despite the mangers’ best efforts to leverage the knowledge in their documentation, ultimately the knowledge resided in the minds of the engineers. 

Hence, with respect to tracking provenance, it’s important to keep this in mind as it reminds us of the difficulty in the endeavor of documenting the true origins of things especially when it involves human thought and analysis.

Overall, The Myth of the Paperless Office was a worthwhile read. Even though it was published  2001 it still provides lessons for technology designers now. I hope that the authors publish an updated version soon. 

That being said, even after reading the book, I still want a Kindle.

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