The Alkaline Paper Advocate

Volume 2, Number 3
Aug 1989


The Paradoxical Proliferation of Paper

by Edward Tenner

Copyright 1988 by Edward Tenner. Reprinted with permission from Harvard Magazine, March-April 1988, p. 23-26.

Science editor at Princeton University Press and author of Tech Speak, or How to Talk High Tech (Crown). He has written frequently for Harvard Magazine; his "Warning: Nature May Be Hazardous to Your Health" appeared in the September-October 1987 issue.

Bad news for trees. Information technology was supposed to let us taper off paper. But we emphatically haven't. The paperless office, the bookless library, the printless newspaper, the cashless, checkless society--all have gone the way of the Empire State Building's dirigible mooring, the backyard helipad, the nuclear-powered convertible, and the vitamin-pill dinner. The Micro Millenium is turning out to be the Cellulose Century.

Futurists have never liked paper, except in forms that nobody ever asked for, like disposable underwear. As early as 1895 a pair of French satirists were predicting that the record player would bring "the end of the book." Around the turn of the century Jules Verne doubted there would be novels or romances in fifty to a hundred years. By the 1960s Marshall McLuhan was writing as though the Gutenberg Galaxy would collapse into a black hole.

Makers of computer hardware were equally unsympathetic. Not so long ago they treated printers as boring peripherals. When IBM introduced its original K in 1981, it didn't deign to make the printer itself. But paper, that mere commodity, took its revenge. Paper prices began to rise. So did the shares of paper mills and office supply makers on the stock exchanges. In July 1986 General Binding's earnings per share had increased 62.5 percent over July 1985. IBM's original printer contractor, Epson, now successfully makes competing microcomputers. On its way out is the old automated-office fantasy of spotless desks and electronic mail. In its place: an empire of vanity publishers swapping memorandums enhanced by bit-mapped graphics.

The statistics speak for themselves. From 1959 to 1986 America's consumption of writing and printing paper increased from 6.83 million to 21.99 million tons, or 320 percent, while the real gross national product rose 280 percent. One magazine for records managers estimated that between 1981 and 1984 alone, U.S. business use of paper went from 850 billion to 1.4 trillion pages. About 2.17 million tons of form bond were used in 1986. And between 1986 and 1990, printed material may rise from 2.5 trillion to 4 trillion pages. German ships that bring Mercedes and BMWs, Leitz and Zeiss instruments, and Heidelberg printing presses to the United States return laden with wastepaper for recycling--at last an export in which America excels.

From 1936 to 1986 the volume of U.S. mail increased from 80 billion to 146 billion pieces a year, and the postal service estimates a total volume of 170 billion pieces by 1990. In Manhattan, where volume is increasing at the rate of 10 percent annually, the post office is planning to spend $200 million on a new facility for handling old-fashioned paper mail. Meanwhile, none of the ten-odd American public electronic-mail networks has more than thirty thousand subscribers.

In the summer of 1987 newsprint production was approaching capacity (consumption had increased from 11.9 million metric tons in 1986 to 12.2 million metric tons), with prices rising and a 10 percent increase of domestic plant capacity planned for the next three years. A single newsstand in the Pan Am Building in New York stocks 2,500 magazines, and a trade association reports that 265 more magazine titles were published in 1987 than in 1986. Even the Information Industry Association, which includes most of the leading database services as well as print media, distributes news to its members by a weekly (paper) letter, not an on-line service.

Barkers may have chilled the passbook savings account, but they have replaced it with a quarterly or even monthly statement. Consumers are still avoiding the home-computer-based on-line services that some banks and brokerages began to offer with a flourish in the early 1980s. And old-fashioned cheeks are thriving. In 1985 American banks processed 40 to 45 billion checks, according to a Federal Reserve Board official--more than 66 times the number of electronic funds transfers.

Credit cards may be plastic, but everything else about them is paper: a bank copy, a merchant copy, and one or two customer copies, three or four sheets of carbon paper, a monthly statment with return envelope--and a check. The automated-teller machine (ATM) is popularly called, for good reason, a cash machine. The newest models have as many as six cartridges holding three thousand bills each of one- to fifty-dollar bills, or up to $258,000; there were 4.4 billion ATM transactions in 1986. The Federal Reserve Board estimates that over $135 billion in greenbacks circulate worldwide.

Even in that paragon of postpaper planning, the research library, patrons are insisting on hard copy. They love the new electronic catalogues at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, where each terminal has its own little printer. The Rush Medical Library in Chicago, one of the few to disclose its paper consumption, used 188.2 linear miles of paper in its photocopy machines In the year 1982-83 alone, the equivalent of over eight thousand 350-page seven-by-ten-inch books. In the early 1980s it was also using more than another hundred linear miles of paper in its thermal and computer printers and in printouts of its serials holdings. As the director observed, "Many libraries are now acting as printing presses for electronically stored information, and as duplicators of printed materials."

Outside the library, academic paper use seem to be increasing even faster. The Princeton University computer center, for example, used 5,765,000 pages of letter-sized laser paper in 1986, plus (including administrative use) 3,794 cartons of wide and 936 cartons of narrow green-bar impact printout paper--not to mention the paper used by the computer printers on campus. Harvard's computer printers use over 22.5 million pages a year, not counting the personally owned equipment of faculty and students.

It's evident that the more that people use computers, the more they want old-fashioned printed information about them. Ten years ago, even before IBM thought of introducing microcomputers, its documentation sales reportedly made it one of the world's largest publishers. Today, two series of fifteen to twenty volumes each of documentation are needed for the new IBM PS/2 disk operating system alone. For nearly all software, documentation and packaging account for the bulk of production cost. The inconvenience of photocopying manuals probably does more than any copy protection software to deter software piracy. According to Communications Trends Inc., of Larchmont, New York, computer magazine revenues will amount to $480 million in 1987, professional and textbook revenues over $300 million.

What went wrong with the assumption that electronics would take the place of paper? Why did almost nobody foresee that the microchip would be the best thing that has happened to paper since governments got people to accept the stuff as money? One reason may be that Americans have always been more conservative technologically than they have admitted to themselves, as the flop of metric conversions shows. We have not begun to adopt, for example, any national videotex system like the British Prestel or the French Minitel, with its almost three million subscribers averaging nearly four minutes of daily use (American services combined still have only about 750,000 subscribers). But in Europe, too, there seem to be no trend way from paper. At least some of the prophets of an Information Age made several mistakes.

First, they didn't take their own idea of an information explosion seriously enough. They thought of information as a fixed quantity and of electronic information as a single replacement for the printed kind. Something different has happened. Computers (and microforms) are capturing much more information than was ever saved before and storing it incredibly compactly.

One of the largest numbers in the world must be the bytes of information stored in all forms. Once, the inconvenience of clay tablets, stone slabs, parchment, and even papyrus imposed a certain discipline, but no longer. Much less of our information is on paper than ever before, and of it may never appear as hard copy. But since the total is so high, even the occasional reproduction of a small part of it may bring a big jump in the neither of pages actually produced. Even Ithiel de Sola Pool, who frowned on paper as a media "luxury" in Technologies of Freedom (1983), conceded that "the use of paper for display, reading, and current work may grow." Paul Saffo, of the Institute for the Future, in Menlo Park, California, acknowledged in the July 1987 Personal Computing magazine that paper is an "interface."

Second, people have good reasons for craving their information on paper. Reading things an computer screens is relatively inefficient, about 20 to 30 percent slower than print, according to industrial psychologists. Charles Bigelow, who won a MacArthur Fellowship for his work as a computer-based type designer, has pointed out that current screen resolution of 60 to 75 dots per inch would have to be improved tenfold for excellent visual quality. This in turn would demand 64 to 100 times the storage of current office computers.

Even when high-end computer screens become as legible as mediocre print--which won't be soon--paper will still be more secure. The cheapest newsprint, doomed as it is, may not fall apart for decades; a power surge from a cranky air conditioner can wipe out a computer's memory in an instant. This isn't a problem for organizations as such. They back up their accounts receivable and other vital records in bombproof vaults. (Even this isn't foolproof; crucial records of Britain's Open University, with backup tapes, were destroyed recently in a fire at a temporary warehouse.) Personal files may have no such protection. As employees do more computing, they will need--or think they need--more hard-copy backup. The more people use personal computers at work, the more information there will be to back up. Nor is this just an American habit. The Japanese, the world's greatest connoisseurs and recyclers of paper, cram their offices with the stuff.

In fact, the security of hard copy isn't just habit. It's law. You can file federal tax forms electronically to get an early refund if your accountant has the proper IRS-approved software, but you'll still have to certify the electronic form with another one in writing. You can't serve an electronic summons or present an electronic birth certificate. Licenses, passports, insurance policies, contracts, securities--the law nearly always demands a paper document, since more than a voltage spike is needed to wipe it out, and more than a password to alter it. Banks once tried to "truncate" canceled checks (their jargon for giving customers a microfilm print on request in place of the real thing), but most gave up.

Naturally, the more important a government transaction, the more paper the law seems to demand. Norman Augustine, vice chairman and chief executive officer of Martin Marietta, cites another aircraft maker's estimate that each time a new military airplane flew over the fence at his plant, paper accounted for 27 percent of its cost. The federal Procurement laws and regulations themselves, he also reports, fill 1,152 linear shelf feet; a single bidder for the C-5A transport aircraft contract submitted 1,466,346 pages 24,927 pounds. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service, charged with administering an eight-hundred-page tax simplification bill, employs a professional staff of forty to do nothing but develop new forms. The instruction book for 1987 returns has increased to two hundred pages from its former maximum of about one hundred fifty.

Third, the gains of office work at the e of manufacturing jobs have increased the number of document-generating people. In the electronics and electrical equipment industries alone, according to one publisher's study, production jobs fell from 1.35 million to 1.24 million from 1984 to 1986, while white-collar jobs increased from 854,000 to 919,000. Even if each office worker's use of paper hasn't changed, more positions mean more paper used.

But all these new workers are using paper differently, thanks not only to computers but also to photocopiers. When the Xerox Corporation introduced its 914 dry photocopier in 1959, one of America's leading industrial consulting companies estimated that no more than five thousand machines would be needed in the whole country. Instead, office workers discovered that they could build up private files to reduce their reliance on others, and that they could share their data and opinions with an almost unlimited number of colleagues.

In carbon-paper days, making more than a carbon or two could be a terrible chore. No more than seven or eight people could get a document simultaneously unless somebody took the trouble--and trouble it was--to duplicate it from a master. This limited the number of people who could see or were expected to see a document. At a community college where I taught in the 1970s, copies of the dean's authorization for my office key went to six other administrators, thanks to the photocopier. And once many people were able to receive information at the same time, they expected to. Collators, automatic document feed, two-sided copying--each advance in photocopying came about because more and more people expected to get more and more information, with each technological advance making the information easier to transmit.

The result: in corporate life, and to an even greater extent in law and government, access to information means physical distribution of paper. The Wall Street Journal, citing a personnel Journal study, reports that up to 70 percent of office workers' time is spent handling written material. In one growing suburban area, Fairfax County, Virginia, the monthly agenda distributed to each member of the board of supervisors now weighs up to twenty pounds, not including categories of papers that are not distributed with the main package.

Finally, paper is proliferating because electronics has blurred the distinction between original and copy. Until the mid-1970s, a book editor receiving a professionally typed proposal could assume safely that the author had sent it to m more than a few others. It was too much work to type a dozen or more copies on speculation. With each new generation of electronic typewriter and each new form-letter software program, it became easier to spread letters of inquiry Johnny Appleseed style. Laser printing may soon make academic the difference between master and duplicate. Already it isn't always possible to tell a laser-printed original from a photocopy, and vice versa. A few laser printers actually double as photocopiers. And this surely means more "personal" and transparently personalized letters in the future. The cults of the $250 cigar-sized fountain pen and the handwritten business note probably reflect the devalued sincerity of executive typewriting.

All these changes have something in common. Paper is flourishing, not in spite of but because of electronics. Powerful microprocessors have made high-speed computer printing possible. A new $2,000 laser printer may have more kilobytes of storage than the microcomputer that drives it. Automated canceling and address recognition have saved the postal service from collapse, just as magnetic imprinting has allowed to handle oceans of cheeks. While the original Xerox 914 was electromechanical, a new high-speed autofeeding, collating photocopier--the McCormick reaper of paperwork--is really a hybrid of camera and computer. The vast mailings of organizations from the Moral Majority to the Audubon Society to L.L. Bean would be unmanageable without sophisticated computer support. (In 1986, 44.7 billion pieces of bulk mail were sent in the United States.)

There is every reason to think that electronics will drive, not drive out, print and paper as forcefully in the next decade as it has in the last. Satellite text transmission, which has made possible eight regional editions of the Wall Street Journal, four of the New York Times, and a new national paper (USA Today), now has brought same-day transmission of the London Financial Times. Typeset-quality laser printers may be within the reach of small businesses soon. DataQuest Inc., a market research and analysis firm in San Jose, California, estimates that close to 250,000 page-makeup software packages were sold in 1987. American offices bought 200,000 facsimile machines in 1986, and the market is expected to increase at an annual rate of 20 to 30 percent at least for the next several years.

What of attempts to suppress paper files in offices? As Pool himself observed, "When no paper files are kept because bulk storage of them is too expensive, a new paper copy may be derived from the bulk electronic files every time an item needs to be seen, and then that copy can be thrown away-of

Meanwhile, the speed of change in electronic media will continue to make paper more important than ever for data storage. As a National Research Council report pointed out in 1985, we can't assume that electronic records will be readable for a fraction of the two- to three-hundred year life expectancy of acid-free paper. Information stored on tapes and floppy disks--and even on laser disks, it seems-degrades slowly but steadily. As obsolescent hardware is scrapped, reading older computer records becomes a challenge. Some Vietnam-era tapes now can be read only by one or two working computers in the world. Today's laser-disk texts may fare no better.

Paper, by contrast, is robust. Future generations or beings, even if they can't read it at first, can stare at our texts while awaiting their Champollion. When paper starts to crumble, we can just microfilm it or photocopy it onto new paper; xerography, applied to old documents, may be the first information technology in history to yield a copy superior to the original. Even soaking paper, burning it, or slicing it into ribbons may not erase its message for the determined, as the reassembled records of the U.S. embassy in Teheran attest.

What a compliment, then, the shredder is to paper's ubiquity and durability. The U.S. government buys several thousand shredders a year, according to a leading Washington-area dealer, and industry spends another $60 million annually. Oliver North's infamous Intimus Model 007-S, a White House favorite, can cross-cut sixty feet of paper a minute into 7,500 pieces a sheet, and the conveyor-belt-fed Intimus Model 580E can digest a filled three-inch loose-leaf binder. Yet paper is also more secure than conversation or electronic databases; the kind of bugs that penetrate it will never tell.

Sometimes electronic media do win over paper. Ninety percent of securities trades take place as electronic book entries (backed up, of course, by vaults of paper certificates). Recordings and photocopying have overwhelmed sheet-music publishing, already suffering from the piano's long-term decline and the educational computer's recent rise as a bourgeois totem. Telephones seem to have endangered personal letters but, interestingly, not greeting cards. In offices, banks, and libraries, bulky, obsolete, flammable stacks of wood-fiber sheets (including the soothsayers' dire prophesies for them) seem entrenched for a perpetual transitional decade. If the Soviet Union, as speculation has it, relaxes its fierce scrutiny of the photocopier, it will be the most fateful event in paper history since the invention of third-class mail. We will refine the last barrel of oil --it takes the equivalent of at least fifteen hundred pounds of petroleum to make a ton of paper--before we cut the last southern pine. The computer, ironically, has turned us from pencil pushing to print pumping.

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Timestamp: Sunday, 03-Mar-2013 21:41:21 PST
Retrieved: Tuesday, 21-Nov-2017 10:22:46 GMT