Paperless Office, Paperless Toilet

In 1975, a Business Week article predicted that office of the future would be paperless. Hasn’t happened. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each office worker produces about two pounds of paper waste every day. Even with ebooks, paperbacks and hardbound books abound. Moreover, go into any K-12 school  and paper–not e-paper–is everywhere even in 1:1 laptop classrooms. Hey, even flight controllers surrounded by radar screens use paper, “flight controller strips,” to track  aircraft landings and take offs. And universities, well, professors’ offices are awash in paper. Nearly four decades after the prediction, paper is with us and will continue to be with us because paper serves important cognitive needs regardless of how advanced information and communication technologies get.

Consider what Abigal Sellen and Richard Harper in The Myth of the Paperless Office wrote:

Paper is tangible: we can pick up a document, flip through it, read little bits here and there, and quickly get a sense of it. (In another study on reading habits, Sellen and Harper observed that in the workplace, people almost never read a document sequentially, from beginning to end, the way they would read a novel.) Paper is spatially flexible, meaning that we can spread it out and arrange it in the way that suits us best. And it’s tailorable: we can easily annotate it, and scribble on it as we read, without altering the original text.

Some examples.

*In my home office, I work at my computer and I am surrounded by paper. I print out certain documents that I want to look at carefully, underline, and make notes in the margin that get me thinking about connections I want to make or had not thought of. When I wrote my last book, I used a combination of paper and saved PDFs on my desktop computer to write. Some PDFs I printed out and kept in, yes, paper file folders stored in a metal file cabinet. Others I kept on my desktop screen in “folders.” I used both. It was cumbersome at times but that is what I have worked out so far in writing for this blog, articles, and books.

In an earlier book written with four other people, we used Google Docs to make notes on everyone’s contribution and shared online editing. After the back-and-forth collaboration, I printed out a copy of the entire book with comments. I then revised the manuscript. I sent the revisions to two co-authors and they made edits to which I then printed out another copy and finished the manuscript to turn into the publisher.  So there were important cognitive tasks, thinking aloud, looking at others’ comments, and determining what to change and what to keep. I do not foresee my home office ever being paperless. Although I would sure like to reduce the paper I have in those metal metal cabinets.

*Consider paper checklists used by doctors to reduce deaths as a result of surgery.  Atul Gawande, a surgeon and professor at Harvard University medical school, created short  “to do” lists that surgeons in operating suites can check off that have reduced infections and deaths.

Before the operation begins, the checklist calls for the team to confirm the identity of the patient and the nature of the procedure. Afterward, the doctors and nurses are supposed to review what has been done, including discussing any special steps that need to be taken to aid recovery and confirming no equipment has been left in the patient.

Sounds so simple but the “to do” list, a piece of paper, when adopted by surgeons and nurses when operating on a patient has saved lives.

doctor and checklist

OK, Larry, you talked about the importance of paper to flight controllers, for writers, and surgeons, what about paperless toilets that is in the title of this post?

Toilet tissue reigns supreme in the bathroom. Americans, it is claimed, use more toilet tissue that any nation in the world. Environmentalists continually have urged the reduction of toilet paper as a way of saving forests in the world. But times are changing.

Japanese manufacturer Toto has produced a bathroom device that uses warm water and air, no tissue, to clean a person. Other manufacturers have produced toilet appliances with bidets that do away with bathroom paper.


Skeptics, however, may doubt that technological innovations will lead to paperless toilets. One French enthusiast for using less paper in the house and depending more on electronic tablets, however, may change his mind. Watch this French commercial called “Emma.”

Paper has a future in my office, at airports, in hospitals, and, yes, at home.



Filed under school reform policies

6 responses to “Paperless Office, Paperless Toilet

  1. Larry, reminds me of The Office. The final episode has a real tribute to paper! The last scene of this episode shows piece of art of the Office building done by one of the Office staff Reminds me that all visual art can’t be electronic either. Sondra

  2. Larry, here’s my own experience at home with personal records, in the tech world, in higher ed, and as a new teacher.

    1. In my personal life, I started scanning all those loose papers on my desk to PDF about 3 years ago. The reduction in clutter has been a real relief. The ability to find things in my growing archive is limited by the file name (!) that I give things since it isn’t immediately obvious what is in a file called scan-17026.pdf. But I am hoping that technology to more deeply search into PDF that wasn’t initially OCR’ed will happen at some point and I will be rescued by technology. I no longer keep paper copies of utility bills that go back, say multiple years, and that I think is mostly a good thing.

    2. While at Microsoft (1998-2011) there were some documents like design specifications that just could not be digested without printing a paper copy. Furthermore, there were review meetings where paper copies were requested by all in attendance. It was not a paperless office, even in the home of Office.

    3. At Seattle Pacific University (2010-2012) I attempted to do all my work using Microsoft OneNote. I would draft essays in OneNote, copy/scan articles to OneNote (for annotation and archival), print electronic textbooks to OneNote to “read” them, and use OneNote to capture my own impressions and interactions with our online course system.

    [On the right computer OneNote is a fantastic program and claims to be an evolutionary step towards “e-paper”. I have blogged some about using OneNote in my Master’s program:

    4. My first year of teaching was very paper intensive, as usual. Students kept lab notebooks (*not* spiral, and *not* 3-ring-binder), and then turned in papers, which I graded and handed back. Many teachers are using Edmodo or Moodle technologies to reduce the flow of paper and leverage technology, but again, until tablet-type computing is ubiquitous (like paper) we are a far cry from the paperless classroom.

    Final notes:
    o I agree there is something cognitively satisfying about paper especially in creative processes like art, composing, writing.
    o Tablet computing is coming around again (footnote your posts on the cyclical nature of many technology “advances”), but until people recognize a PDF signed on my computer just like they recognize my signature on a check or mortgage or other legal document we have not arrived.
    o Getting from paper copy to electronic equivalent is still too hard, cumbersome and expensive. Imagine being able to hold a document up to your screen and it gets converted to electronic, that would be amazing.
    o I have had some success taking pictures of documents with my cell phone and then using those documents. I even photograph things like library cards (with bar codes) into my phone so I don’t need to carry them in my wallet, but not all bar code readers can resolve something on the screen of a smartphone.

    • larrycuban

      John, I found it most interesting in your recounting how you reduced paper flow in your daily life as student, at Microsoft, using OneNote, and as a teacher. Thanks for doing that.

  3. Pingback: Accomplishment is fish in the freezer and going paperless | On (or close to) Schedule

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