The little things
I spent two years working at an Innocence Project
in Pittsburgh. The job involved scouring thousands of letters from
prisoners who claim theyre wrongfully convicted of the crimes that
landed them behind bars and then writing journalism about the very few
innocence claims that seem legitimate.
Reading these letters and pursuing leads on promising cases its
clear that prisoners do not have access to the web or any other form of
digital communication. This is for security reasons, were told by
prison administrators. So every page of every trial transcript needs to
be copied and mailed. There are literally thousands of pages of certain
criminal trial transcripts and other assorted court documents. And all
correspondence with prisoners happens via post, in actual physical
letters. Mere conversations with prisoners can fill cubic feet of boxes
Prisoners are not the only group of people who use paper every day
Of course, prisoners are an aberration; there are 1.9 million people in lockup nationwide (PDF), which only amounts to about 0.6 percent of the overall U.S. population.
But, at least regarding paper use, maybe theyre not an aberration.
Prisoners are not the only population lacking access to reliable
computers with secure Internet connections. Prisoners are not the only
population befuddled by the process of transforming a piece of paper
into an image on a screen. Prisoners are not the only group of people
who use paper every day.
The Myth of the Paperless Office is the quintessential book
about paper in the digital world. Its authors a cognitive
psychologist, Abigail J. Sellen; and a digital researcher, Richard H. R.
Harper, who now conduct research for Microsoft point out that paper
is just easier to use in some cases. For obvious reasons, they offer the
collaborative process involved in writing a book as an example:
[W]hen one of us finishes some work on a chapter, we print it out
and hand it to the other. We read it, mark it up, and then discuss it by
flipping through the marked-up pages together. There is the
proofreading process: we print out the final version of each chapter to
catch the surface-level errors (typos, spelling, and grammar) and, more
important, to get a sense of the text and the way it flows. Finally,
there is the importance of the paper as a tangible object. Ultimately,
we want a bound volume in hand a physical product that testifies to
our efforts and that we can hand to family, friends, and colleagues.
In a 2002 review of the book,
Malcolm Gladwell romanticizes similar processes. In Gladwells view, an
office devoid of paper is often unproductive. In the tasks that face
modern knowledge workers, paper is most useful out in the open, where it
can be shuffled and sorted and annotated and spread out, he writes.
The mark of the contemporary office is not the file. It’s the pile.
Its a luxury, of course (and some might say its a waste), to print
entire book chapters or make productivity piles in the office just so
you can collaborate and edit with a pen rather than a cursor. And both The Myth of the Paperless Office and Gladwells review of it were both published a decade ago. So perhaps things have changed?
Despite whatever we may think about digital advances and their
influence on paper usage, the amount of paper used globally since 1980
has increased by about half. And books certainly arent going the way of the dodo; while ebooks have grown immensely in recent years, some paperback and hardcover book markets are still growing.
Maybe the cost benefit of going paperless simply doesnt match the
inconvenience of fundamentally altering everything we do with paper.
What would it cost to eliminate whatever security concerns paper
instills among prison administrators? What would it cost to recondition
authors not to print chapters during the editing process? What would it
cost to inspire office workers to collaborate in a different way?
While Ive not read any comprehensive estimates about what it would
cost to make a city such as Chicago completely paperless, Paul N.
Courant and Matthew Buzzy Nielsen wrote an essay called, On the Cost
of Keeping a Book. Its on page 81 of this PDF. And its worth thinking about.
And going completely paperless may be more difficult than simply declaring a war on the tyranny of paper waste
and Nielsen put the cost of storing a book in a high density library
stack at $28.77 annually. It costs less than half that around $13.10
to store a book electronically in a redundant, backed up format that
wont be lost forever if a server unexpectedly catches fire or floods or
otherwise loses data. Theres a cost savings in going digital, yes. But
its an eventual cost savings. And it assumes libraries or
archives or government agencies can acquire the funding and expertise
necessary to introduce and then carry out a digital conversion. Easier
said than done. As the authors point out: Storing and providing access
to electronic material is indeed expensive and poses many problems, both
technical and economic.
The Myth of the Paperless Office addresses the cost issue,
too: In 2002, the authors cite best estimates showing that paper forms
are the major paper expenditure in U.S. offices. At the time, an
estimated $1 billion was spent on designing and printing those forms but
between $25 and $35 billion was spent maintaining, updating, and
distributing them. [T]he cost of dealing with paper forms after they
are produced vastly outweighs the cost of producing them, the authors
write. That means administrative costs, not material costs, are the main
expense. So eliminating paper only solves a small piece of the money
Which is to say Reinhardts funding shortage and his hesitancy about
going paperless at the Illinois state archives is not unique. And going
completely paperless in prisons, in book publishing, and especially in
a massive city government such as Chicagos by 2015 may be more
difficult than simply declaring a war on the tyranny of paper waste.
In October, the Emanuel administration released its 2013 budget overview. It is 187 pages (PDF)
of single-spaced text about how the City of Chicago plans to spend
nearly $3 billion next year. It contains exactly one paragraph about
paper, with no specific amount given for paperless expenditures and
technology investments related to going paperless. It says, by 2013,
approximately 48,000 taxpayers are expected to file tax returns and
real property tax declarations online. The City will also distribute
employees statements of earnings and W2s electronically by 2013, and
employees will be able to scan invoices and vouchers for electronic
storage and retrieval.
In all, that sounds good. Paperless payroll, online tax returns, electronic storage.
But speaking of aberrations: Consider that Chicago has 2.7 million
residents. If 48,000 are filing online tax forms, that equals only 1.7
percent of the overall population. And the two major changes this year
involve digital W2s and scanning invoices that have already been printed on paper.
I guess its the little things that matter.
A Chicago nonprofit group called the Uhlich Childrens Advantage
Network or UCAN attempted to go paperless a few years back. Walter
Grauer, Vice President of Information Technology at UCAN, says the group
initially pursued a paperless office because UCAN wanted to go green.
But they quickly realized they could actually save some money if they
were more efficient.
Going green is one thing, but it needs to have an added benefit
for costs, he says. You need to be saving money as well as paper.
What they found is that the biggest general wastes in their office
were paper timesheets and people clicking print at their desktops and
then forgetting to pick up what theyd printed from the printer. The
answer: Electronic timesheets. And now employees are required to
physically stand up and push a button on the printer if they want to
print something; they need to click print twice once at their desktop,
once at the printer itself.
With small changes, Grauer says they reduced their printing output by
about 300,000 sheets of paper every month. They print a lot of paper
300,000 is about seven percent of their monthly output but still, he
says: It saved some cash, definitely.
You’d be naive to think that there’s not going to be some initial
expense involved in going paperless, Kyle Hillman admits. But you’re
not just talking about saving money on paper. Youre looking at
secondary costs, storage, printing, transporting, technology failure.
When you look at the long term cost, its clear you’re saving money by
reducing reliance on paper.
Hillman also points out that eliminating forms and bringing more
services online could make business processes easier for savvy business
owners in the city something the Emanuel administration says it wants
You can’t move forward with technology in government if youre
redundantly moving around multiple copies of pieces of paper, he says.
To me, its shocking that were still talking about forms.
But Hillman also acknowledges that there are major roadblocks. Cost
is less an issue, he surmises, than overcoming the governmental status quo.
To make a paperless government work, you would need a paradigm
shift, Hillman says. You have entire departments the fire
department, the Department of Revenue that run with their paper. This
is how they do things. So when you shift to a paperless government, you
have major staffing changes. You have people saying, Well this is not
how we do this. So thats going to be the biggest hangup.
But it may be more than a mere hangup.
Dr. David Y. Miller at the University of Pittsburgh worked in city
governments for years and now lectures on regional governance, urban
public finance, the law and politics of local government, and theories
of public management.
There are parallels with efforts to go green elsewhere, he says.
In essence, you have to be able to demonstrate that the reduction
also has a financial payoff, he says. In a recession, governments are
not going to make all the needed investments.
Furthermore, he says, politicians have term limits. And while a
reduction in paper use can be a positive thing, it might take a while.
Mayor Emanuel, for example, is up for reelection in 2015. Retooling a
large citys approach to paper in three years might be tough.
Its one thing for the mayor of a large city to promise to try and
make things a little easier for people, to make it more convenient, he
says. But youve gotta keep in mind that these are extraordinarily
large and complicated bureaucracies. Going into the code enforcement
department, for example, and spending millions on new technology and
training and retooling its a huge expense and its going to disrupt
the process. So unless theres a really huge financial benefit, its
Share this story