Thirty years ago, as new computing and communications technology started to come to the fore, technology researchers and analysts began to talk confidently about the coming paperless society.
Today, many such experts would settle for a society that simply uses a little less paper.
“The paperless-society goal is a very nice and noble one,” said Arpad Horvath, an associate professor at the University of California-Berkeley who has studied the issue of replacing paper with wireless technologies. “Unfortunately, I don't see any trace of progress toward it.”
The very technologies that were supposed to replace paper – things like e-mail, electronic data storage and the Web – have led to more paper usage than ever before.
So technologists and analysts are downsizing their ambitions. Instead of trying to create a paperless society, they're focusing on helping companies and individuals reduce their paper usage.
“There's a difference between paperless and paper-less that needs to be recognized,” said Jim Joyce, senior vice president for Xerox's office services division.
Xerox is a case in point of the scaled-down expectations. The vision of the paperless office came in part from innovations it developed, technologies such as the graphical user interface and Ethernet networking.
Xerox still has many projects and services that could support the paperless vision. But at a recent demonstration at PARC, the company chose to tout something that falls more into the “paper-less” rubric: erasable, reusable printing paper. The idea is that if you can use a piece of paper over and over again, you might reduce overall paper usage.
“People love this concept, this technology,” said Paul Smith, a laboratory manager who is helping develop the erasable paper product. “It's not that they don't want to print. It's that they want to use less paper.”
Even the modest goal of using less paper has been hard to achieve in the U.S. From the mid-1970s, when the concept of the paperless office was first bandied about, to 2006, the amount of paper imported or produced for use each year grew more than 85 percent to 100.7 million tons. That's about 665 pounds per person.
Analysts expect paper consumption for certain purposes to get worse before it gets better. IDC, a market research firm, estimates that American printers or multifunction devices churned out 1.53 trillion pages last year, a total that it expects to rise to 1.64 trillion by 2010.
That's not to say that paper usage isn't changing. In recent years, the legal industry has rapidly replaced its old system of documents stored in physical file cabinets with electronic documents stored in server computers, according to IDC's Jake Wang. Similarly, many major mortgage lenders have moved toward an electronic application process, said Judson Phillips, vice president of marketing at Xerox's mortgage services division.
But such moves haven't necessarily decreased paper usage. Thanks to their new systems, which make retrieving documents much easier than before, lawyers are now photocopying less, but printing more, Wang said.
Similar unintended results have followed related technology shifts. For example, some 50 percent of what a home office worker prints comes from the Internet, whether Web pages or e-mail, Joyce said.
For all the wonders of electronic documents, paper still retains some advantages, analysts note. Particularly for older people, paper is much easier to read than a computer monitor. Many people find it easier to digest longer documents in printed form, rather than on a screen. And paper is a lot more portable than a mobile device.
That said, there are good environmental reasons for cutting back on paper usage. Not only does America's paper usage gobble up a lot of trees, but it also uses a lot of energy.
Consultants such as Joyce offer tools to help companies and organizations monitor paper usage. Some companies that Xerox has worked with underestimated the amount they were spending on printing by 30 percent to 40 percent, Joyce noted.
“Most companies don't know how many faxes or printers they have,” he said. “You can't manage what you can't see or what you can't understand.”