Whatever happened to the paperless office? Or, for that matter, the paperless classroom?
The paperless office, its likely arrival and its endless deferral, has been a staple of journalistic desperation for about forty years, according to this article on the BBC website.
It seems that, regardless of the almost total diffusion (in the developed world) and dominance of alternative technologies, we still prefer to read on paper. Paper has been with us for centuries, as have bureaucratic systems that rely on paper as a medium of storage and diffusion. Personal habits create inertia, as do institutional structures.
And in spite of my best efforts, photocopies still proliferate in the classroom. While the classroom is, after all, an institutional phenomenon, it remains true that if you stick a bit of paper under someone’s nose, they tend to look at it, and they can easily annotate it – the majority of my students still seem to prefer to write something down, and evidence suggests that the act of writing, as opposed to typing, can be a mnemonic aid.
However, the paperless office is perhaps not a pipe-dream. According to one of my students, Jorge, ex-CEO of Banco Pastor in Spain, his bank has instituted the paperless office in recent years. It is both cost effective, efficient, and it is the future. Similarly in the office of the architect Frank Gehry, and doubtless in every other architecture firm, they have developed ways of feeding a world of that relies on paper:
The change, according to Jorge, was not easy, broadly for the reasons noted above (inertia and habit). But it was necessary. It could be that we have slowly reached a tipping point. As systems are changed over time, they are being changed in the direction of electronic media, and once a certain proportion of work is done in this format, the rest will rapidly follow.
I imagine such tipping point might be approaching in the classroom. I reach for my laptop or the class computer a dozen times a lesson; it is only possible to share certain sorts of media electronically. Paperlessness will not revolutionise the classroom – learning a language is not a matter of technological facility but dogged application for the most part – but it will no doubt eventually reconfigure it. I look forward to the day when I can dispense all my files with a swish of the finger, and stop worrying about black marks and smudges and wonky page settings. No doubt some monks, cloistered with their parchment and their inky fingers, felt the same about the advent of the printing press.