‘De-Papering’ My Life

I am ‘one of those people’ who does take the environment seriously. I try very hard to reduce energy usage with all of the devices I use (I run the screen brightness on my Mac, iPhone and netbook ridiculously low, and even try to drive in a way that saves as much fuel as possible). I am pretty successful in this area, and I do make other environmentally friendly actions, but one area I always have trouble is with reducing paper usage. I recently read a well put together article on Lifehacker about removing paper from and digitising your life. The post goes to great details on how to digitise a lot of different media types. But there is a fundamental problem. People aren’t set-up or prepared to take the step into a fully digital world. There are a few areas where I can see issues that make going paperless farther from a reality than we would like to think.

Billing and Accounts

I know very well that most companies (especially mobile phone carriers) would like you to do all your billing and payments online. While I think this is nice, they miss a fundamental issue: redundancy and information availability. They are asking you to solely rely on them. Is this fair given how sneaky and unreliable they are most of the time? Most of your account information is on there, and let me tell you, is it important. I recently changed my rateplan for my iPhone (increase, I make a lot of phone calls these days), and they needed all sorts of information, most of which I had no real way of knowing. Thank goodness I had bought my last bill with me. While it still took a while to change (the system crashed on the poor trainee who was serving me), the fact that the bill had this information was invaluable. Beyond that, online systems are wont to fail, resulting in payment and account use issues, which is far from optimal for mission-critical uses. Yes they charge extra for a paper bill, and then extra for paying that bill by EFTPOS at Australia Post, but really, at least I have a backup copy, and something I can rely on if the system breaks.


University introduces a whole new area for paper consumption. Most of the content is delivered electronically (PowerPoints for lectures, Word documents for tutorial work), but there is always a need to make notes on these. Studying fully electronically is difficult, as is fitting a computer (even a netbook) on one of the myriad types of lecture desks to make notes with. Enter the Livescribe Pulse pen. This expensive little piece of equipment impresses everyone (except me, the price makes me want to run away and live in a cave), and does a great job in recording what I write and the lecture audio, but the books are massive, with huge amounts of paper (so maybe they are value for money, but A$40 is still steep for 4 books). Then academic staff insist on bringing in handouts, on paper. Then come the 65 page assignments for Business Analysis. Printed. Bound. Handed in in a cardboard envelope. With another piece of paper attached. Then there is the the marking sheet that comes back too. Do this a couple of times, and paper (and printing) becomes expensive. While some of my assignments are electronic, it would help if they were all electronic. While I go to a tech-focused university, the ways of old are still too embedded to make the transition. I hope tablets (yes, iPad style) and things like this can fix this problem up.

The workplace

This is the killer. Businesses still rely heavily on paper. I think we can attribute this to business culture, and the attachment Baby Boomers and Gen X have to it (yes, I am Gen Y; let the generational disagreement begin!) You can never replace the paper proposal, the paper invoice or the paper meeting handouts in this environment. Collaboration is also often very spontaneous, and you aren’t necessarily in front of your workstation. Out comes the paper and pen, and notes are made. Then your desk gets cluttered with paper, but at least you have the notes you need to remember things and to do your work. This creativity is difficult to create with the fixed-location workstations of the workplace today, but tablet technologies may provide a way forward.

These are just three of the ridiculous number of areas where paper is too deeply embedded and process too reliant on paper to enable a quick transition to a fully digital world. All we can do is try our best with what we have, and hope that technology catches up.

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