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Will Paper Come Back to the Future?

DYLAN PATRICK

A Pew (Washington, DC) survey on science and technology from earlier in the decade found that there's one area where often pessimistic US. citizens (according to the results of other polls about the future) claim they see a "brighter" future: More than 60 percent of Americans think our future will be at least partly free of paper.

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said they believe paper newspapers, paper money, and letters sent via paper mail would cease to exist by 2050, according to Pew. But Americans also said the federal government's efforts to go paperless hurt older Americans, people without Internet access, and the poor, according to a 2013 poll from Americans for Paper Options, an industry advocacy group. So is a future without paper really wise, or even possible?

Perhaps there are some things the public currently overlooks and takes for granted when it comes to paper, including several issues that may not be noticed until sometime in the future, when the benefits of paper become a renewed interest or even a demand in society. That demand would likely require at least a certain degree of entirely new, higher level production of conventional P&W paper grades for the first time in decades. There are already signs that growing sectors such as healthcare are behind a renewed demand for paper. And more and more campaigns are gaining momentum that are standing up for consumer rights to have paper statements and bills.

For the Record
"The vision of paperless healthcare records has really been driven by the push for improved quality and safety in health care. It hasn't been driven as much by efficiency and environmental purposes." This was the explanation Julia Adler-Milstein at the University of Michigan gave to The Week (New York) in an interview published in 2016. The Week was curious as to why paper use hasn't been reduced in the healthcare industry compared with other industries where reduction, or even elimination of paper, is becoming progressively more common.

Adler-Milstein added that, in some cases, electronic records have actually led to more paper use. Regulations in some states require extensive record keeping, which means every electronic record has to have a paper duplicate. And many of the digital record systems don't communicate well with each other, so when patients change doctors or visit a new hospital, their records are often printed out on paper and mailed or faxed.

One major unintended side effect of the "paperless push" in healthcare is that, with digital storage virtually unlimited, doctors can document much more information about a patient than they could in the past, according to Adler-Milstein. So when it comes time to print that information, paper records have bulged in size.

In addition to new paper records growing in the healthcare industry, there is also a realization that archives can't simply throw out and replace all paper records from the past with information on a flash drive. It cannot guarantee ongoing compatibility with changing technology—unlike paper, which can and will if it's used to document information. Paper is eternally "compatible" in the sense that it is physical—the ink is real, not coded into binary bits that will be read and recorded differently by different machines.

In a Metropolis Magazine (New York) article published this past year, magazine editor Susan Szenazy found herself disillusioned by paper recycling, or as she called it, "trashing" hard copy materials that she thinks should have been at least reviewed for archiving the magazine's history. But Metropolis has built a new headquarters that was deliberately designed to reduce the use and storage of paper. She noted that the new building had its benefits, such as sunlit offices with a great view of midtown Manhattan. However, many employees, including Szenazy, found themselves confused in a building designed for digital use, while many workers at the publication require paper to compose and record quick notes and to gather research when working on a project. "We are trying to figure out how the paradigm of the digital office, with its emphasis on minimal physical artifacts, will work for us," she said.

She also recalled writing an obituary where she could not find what she felt would be sufficient information on a personal history throughout a lifetime. Szenazy was working with a brief, bare-bones obituary she found online that contained little more information than the time of her birth, death, and survivors. Later she heard that extensive archives from her old profession were destroyed. The thousands of photographs she took of new buildings, interiors, people, and events—a record of the state of interior design as it evolved through the years, and the people who made that evolution possible, her clippings of news stories through decades of avid reading—all were gone forever. It was a collection of notes for her never-written book about the story of the profession she loved, details that should have been in the story of her life. But, unfortunately, it became more trash.

Will our society continue to allow the destruction of physical records simply because they don't fit or were never scanned and saved on a flash drive? It seems like a decision that comes with potential negative consequences that outweigh the possible benefits of saving storage space. When our written history is put in a binary format and our photographs pixelated in a digital format that itself will age to the point of incompatibility with newer machines, instead of simply archiving the past in one filing, then constant copying from older digital mediums to newer ones could become an inconvenient yet necessary need in our society. And in that process, more and more information could be accidentally skipped over each time.

"Even though we've gone electronic, we haven't gone paperless," Szenazy remarked. "It's a funny paradox... In our mad dash into the digital world, what happens to our non-digital history?"

All this trash made her wonder what happens to non-digital history. Billions are invested every day in apps, gadgets, and services that will eventually become obsolete as "smart money" finds new ventures. Constant evolution of digital devices creates inevitable incompatibility issues, unlike with paper. But she was doubtful her business and others will be wise enough in the present climate to invest in archiving the less exciting, but still essential physical record of the work it took to build a solid foundation for professional practices.

Writing the Future
An article by Viral Stormer (Provo, Utah) published last year in regard to the future of paper use reminds us that it's important to remember that the future isn't written. Heard that phrase before? Movie fans of the Back to the Future trilogy may recognize it.

In the final scene in the trilogy of Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and the time traveling Delorean (which had just been destroyed by a passing train), Brown has returned to the railroad tracks in his new hovering time traveling train. The film implies he had somehow built a new time traveling vehicle from parts he found during his life in the Old West. He has come specifically back to that moment in time to present Marty with a gift. Marty opens it and finds their photo together in front of the infamous Hill Valley Clock Tower when it was first built. Marty's girlfriend Jennifer then takes out a paper note from their visit to "the future" of 2015, where their family home was filled with dozens of printers and fax machines—a future that many paper companies probably wish had been accurate, although in hindsight, in the "real" 2015, that type of excessive printing seemed comically absurd.

The movie ends with the following exchange:

Jennifer Parker: Dr. Brown, I brought this note back from the future and—now it's erased.

Doc: Of course it's erased!

Jennifer Parker: But what does that mean?

Doc: It means your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.

It will be up to the innovative power and creativity of the next generation of pulp and paper engineers and salespeople to create a good future with a practical balance between both paper products and digital technology in modern offices. When our real future is written, it should not be erased. It may become considered to be necessary, or at least wise, to record in hardcopy format, which means using paper as a primary medium. Digital information is vulnerable from not only growing incompatibility over each generation of the evolution of computing, but also from legitimate national security threats that have been mentioned by scientists—such as electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attacks, or even a natural EMP caused by a once-in-a-lifetime solar flare. Once the future has arrived, and recorded, it becomes history. If that history is erased—like a time-traveling note of events that never end up happening in the first place—we may lose the memories of a lifetime.

In an earlier Weekly Spotlight editorial, we asked how print on paper may be becoming, ironically, a form of new media. Columbia Journalism Review (New York) observed that print is beautiful in both a "serene and practical way for focusing on work." The report noted that it won't notify you every time an often irrelevant email arrives, it can't be accidentally tweeted mid-sentence, and (perhaps best of all) it will not shut down without a charger. Perhaps paper, in addition to being eternally useful for physical archiving, is more practical in the 21st century office than many designers and managers realize, in spite of the current trend of building "all-digital" workplaces.

Dylan Patrick is editor for the TAPPI weekly e-newsletter Over the Wire, where this original editorial first appeared.

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