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The paperless office? Don’t talk sheet

What side are you on, anyway?

Something for the Weekend, Sir? A report has arrived in my email inbox, claiming to provide information on “the paperless office”. Instinctively, I check the calendar. No, it isn’t 1985. Perhaps I misread the subject line? Nope. There it is: “the paperless office”.

Ah bless. I’ve heard people talking about the concept of office work without paper since my very first day in long-term employment, and here we are, some twenty-[cough] years later, still pretending it’s going to happen in our lifetimes.

I wonder what this latest missive has to say. Give me a moment while I print it out.

OK, here we go. According to some survey or other, it says, fewer than 5 per cent of offices can claim to be paperless.

Gosh, there’s a shock. Hold the front page, eh? Unless of course you’re among the 5 per cent, in which case you should hold the home page or the first slide or something equally intangible, proprietary and prone to crashing.

No doubt my tetchy response to the email leads you to suspect that I have a particular fondness for print. This is not true. I may have spent my first two years in London heavily involved in print and paper buying, but all you should deduce from this is simply that my connection to print is more complex – dare I say more informed – than it is for many people.

This can be problematic. For some reason, newsagents don't seem to mind shifty punters loitering around their shop for hours, standing shoulder-to-shoulder like a police cordon facing the magazine racks and reading everything without paying. Yet as soon as they see me innocently ripping open a copy of H&E International from the top shelf to analyse the line screen and dot gain in the skin tones under a jeweller's eyeglass, they seem to get the hump.

Bookshops are just as bad. Other customers can spend all day wholly unmolested as they tear covers, break spines and crumple the back pages in their desperation to find out whodunnit, but the owners feel compelled to call security to drag me away by my nipples for the (surely victimless) crime of paper-sniffing.

When every brainless moron’s favourite catchphrase “print is dead” first arose in the late 1990s, you can guess my reaction. I even wrote a shirty opinion column about this very subject in 1999 for Adobe’s marketing team of all people… who, bless them, put it online without argument.

You can still read it here. I hope you enjoy the gloriously dated references to CD-ROMs, WAP mobile phones and the Palm V.

The reason I am no longer in print and paper buying is because my employer announced in 1989 it would be investing in some Apple Macintoshes – or, as we used to write in the late 1980s, “Applemacs” – to do our own page layout, so I got trained to use them.

The bosses predicted this would put an end to our expensive and wasteful habit of getting the typesetters to provide three print proofs per page. How right they were: once the necessary digital technology was put into our own hands, we were soon printing 30 proofs per page.

Looking back, we should have smelled the heady scent of inevitability in the wind. Email means fewer letters get posted but in every other circumstance, computers generate more use of paper, not less.

Going even further back, was I really such a nerd that I discussed the potential of paperless offices on my first day in my first proper job after graduation? No I wasn’t but yes I did.

This was a year before I moved to London, carrying a spotty cloth bag on a stick over my shoulder and accompanied by a cat. They’d said the streets of London were paved with gold but from further inspection I established that they were paved with slabs of composite granite and cement.

Come to think of it, not only were they wrong about the gold, they forgot to mention all the dog turds.

Anyway, before all that, I began my career employed as an admin assistant for a clearing house dealing with postgraduate applications for the Psychology department at a certain northern university. In those days, the entire application and selection process involved reams of paper, paper, paper and yet more paper. By the end of my first day, I was knee-deep in applicants’ letters, index cards and photocopies, suffering from pinch wounds from unrelenting rolodexes and bearing bloody scars inflicted by the vicious edges of green-painted, metal filing cabinets.

However, my boss’s desk was almost entirely zen save for three items. She had a dainty pair of shallow foolscap document baskets – one marked IN and the other marked OUT, both empty – and rising up incongruously between them like a spare-bedroom Rosicrucian altar was an Amstrad PCW.

“It’s our first step towards the paperless office,” she told me, as another foot-high sheaf of applications slid off my desk onto the floor.

Other members of the department told me she had some sort of database thingy running on it. I had to take their word for it as I never got to see for myself, although the departmental technician told me he got close to looking one day when he had to change a fuse on a nearby plug.

It was only later that I learnt that a PCW contained a word processor – or, as we used to write in the late 1980s, a “wordprocessor” – but I wasn’t aware that she ever used it. Whenever she had any correspondence or reports to compose, she’d have me type them up on a 1980s Olivetti golf-ball typewriter, which sat on my 1980s desk surrounded by mountainous stacks of 1980s dead tree.

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“The paperless office,” she’d say to me, waggling a floppy disk in my direction. “That’s what the world is moving to.”

That’s not to say she didn’t print the occasional file onto paper. There was a dot-matrix printer for this purpose connected to the back of the PCW by a parallel cable thicker than a child’s arm and as flexible as an iron bar, but this was situated on a trolley next to my desk, not hers.

Some of you reading this may never have experienced the thrill of sitting next to a cheap dot-matrix without acoustic hood. Imagine someone standing with their lips touching your ear and screaming at you as loud as they can, taking a breath and then doing it again. And again and again.

Whenever she set it to print, everyone else spontaneously took a coffee break in the staff kitchen. They never invited me, the bastards. Or perhaps they did and I never heard them because I had become profoundly deaf.

Back to the present day, one snippet in that email I received about “the paperless office” has grabbed my attention. It says that two-thirds of office workers can’t print from their smartphones or tablets, even though 100 per cent of them own at least one or the other.

Well, duh, of course they can’t print to ordinary office printers like proper computers can. Smartphones and tablets are entirely different from computers, aren’t they? For example, handheld devices don’t support the kind of connectivity standards that printers use – such as USB, bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

No, hang on, that’s not right. Er… It’s because they use a special kind of app code that isn’t compatible with ordinary printers: their binary digits are the wrong shape, I think.

No, that’s not it. Do AirPrint printers use a special print technology that only iPhones can use? Oh, I know, it might be because smartphones use a different internet. Or something.

Whatever the reason, it makes my heart swell to know that Apple’s mobile division is leading the way towards finally making the paperless office a reality by preventing you from printing anything in the first place.

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He observes that AirPrint is every bit as well-received and widely supported as Apple’s other hit technology, USB-C, and wonders whether device manufacturers could reduce worldwide power consumption by making their products compatible only with a special kind of electricity that no-one has. He has read rumours that Apple is planning on making headphones a thing of the past too.


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