Can paper survive the digital age?

Paper on my desk
Image caption The dream of a paperless office has not been realised for many, including me

The phrase 'paperless office' was coined way back in the 1970s, when commentators, buoyed by the exciting potential offered by technology, predicted that all record handling would be purely electronic by the 1990s.

But, as the above picture of my desk demonstrates - we are still a long way off.

Partly that is down to cost - it is a whole lot cheaper to give employees a piece of paper than an electronic device - and the cloud storage that many companies are adopting can also have high costs.

But on a more visceral level, there is something quite comforting about paper.

"When the act of writing takes on a personal dimension, that's when paper and handwriting is superior to typing on a keypad," said Arrigo Berni, chief executive of Italian notebook maker Moleskine.


Moleskine was recently at Ted (the technology, entertainment and design conference) in Vancouver, talking up the benefits of paper and keen to show how it can live side by side with digital alternatives.

The company may at first seem like an unlikely bedfellow for the conference known for its cutting-edge tech demos.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Does the art of writing require a pen and paper?

But the notebook has become a staple of the conference - given away in the famous Ted gift bag and often used by delegates for note-taking during its 18-minute Ted talks.

As Mr Berni pointed out, everyone needs to make notes and, at a conference whose tagline is 'ideas worth spreading', there is certainly no shortage of scribbling.

"Paper will always be around. It helps express a fundamental part of human experience," he said.

Smart notebooks

But, he acknowledged, paper does face competition from digital tools.

To address this Moleskine has formed partnerships with firms such as Adobe and Livescribe, a provider of electronically-enabled pens.

Image copyright Moleskine
Image caption The Moleskine stand at Ted invited delegates to answer a series of paper-related questions

In 2012 it hooked up with Evernote to create a paper-digital hybrid notebook.

Evernote, the quintessential Silicon Valley start-up that promised to digitise our productivity, now has 100 million users.

Its partnership with Moleskine created smart notebooks which mean users can photograph their paper notes and place them in Evernote's app where they become catalogued, searchable digital content.

The notebooks have a special layout to make it easy to capture handwriting while smart stickers allow users to sort and search the notes.

Paperless future

Smart notebooks offer to bridge the physical and digital worlds as part of an increasing move to eliminate the waste and confusion that piles of paper creates.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption People are far less likely to read newspapers on trains when scrolling through a tablet is so much easier

And our paperless journey does not end there.

Look around you on your next commuter journey and far fewer people are negotiating unwieldy newspapers - opting instead to read their news via a smartphone or tablet.

Get off the train and the sea of commuters are much more likely to flow through the barriers with the swipe of a smartcard or credit card, while paper tickets are becoming a rarity at airports too.

Even our interactions with government are taking a decidedly digital turn, with the UK government scrapping the paper car tax disc and people now routinely filling in tax returns electronically.

Paper plane

According to the American Forest and Paper Association, total US paper shipments decreased by 5% in February, compared to the same time last year while anecdotal data suggests that we use a third less paper than 20 years ago.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption How would we make a paper aeroplane in a digital-only world?

Despite this, the industry remains pretty healthy - last year the US produced about 21 million tons of paper - equivalent to between 55 to 110 million trees, according to some estimates.

And in offices, paper remains a key tool. According to sustainability charity Wrap (Waste and Resources Action Programme), the average office worker uses up to 45 sheets of paper per day, of which over half is considered waste while office productivity firm Iron Mountain estimates that only a paltry 1% of offices are truly paperless.

"Paper is declining slowly, but the sky is not going to fall in any time soon," said Mick Heys, an analyst at research firm IDC.

"I now board a plane by showing an electronic ticket on my phone, but I still have a paper passport and that document is going to take a while to replace."

Offices are making incremental steps towards reducing their paper loads - and even something as simple as a print management system, which will cancel jobs not printed overnight or restrict how many emails can be printed out, can reduce paper use by up to 20%, according to Mr Heys.

"But paper remains better for some things and people like it. Studies have shown that learning from a screen activates a different part of the brain to learning from paper," he added.

So it seems paper will be with us for a while longer - which, if nothing else, will probably please a generation of bored schoolchildren for whom the humble paper aeroplane can still provide some much-needed distraction.

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