The idea of a paperless office, and more broadly a paperless society, has been percolating for a half century. Paper, after all, is an old technology that’s not terribly efficient and is environmentally costly.
The reality though is that we still use a lot of paper, despite the near ubiquity of personal computers, smartphones, and other digital devices, despite the increasing popularity of online bill paying and other digital transactions, and despite the declining revenue of the U.S. Postal Service.
Each year the world produces around 300 million tons of paper, which requires almost 4 billion trees to be cut down, according to the Association for Information and Image Management. The organization sponsors “World Paper Free Day” every year to raise awareness about how we use paper.
Paper, even with its costs and inefficiencies, still has its lure. Some people simply like reading a paper magazine, newspaper, or book, enjoying the tactile feel of the pages, even appreciating the smell of wood pulp and ink. When it comes to reading, paper has a similar romance that vinyl has when it comes to listening.
Paper has a much longer history, though writing didn’t start with it. It’s all prologue, informing the present.
The Sumerians are most often credited with inventing writing, along with civilization, around 4000 B.C. Instead of sending texts and tweets about what they ate for lunch, the Sumerians recorded their inventories of grain and other supplies on soft clay, which they hardened by baking in the sun. The ancient Egyptians famously used papyrus, made from the spongy material inside the stems of reeds growing in shallow water, which they rolled into scrolls.
Several thousand years later, the ancient Greeks wrote on parchment, made from animal skins, as did others after them. Vellum was originally a type of parchment made from calf skin. Today’s vellum, used for blueprints and other technical drawings, is vegetable-based, with some higher quality paper also described using this term. Throughout history many cultures have used beaten bark or flattened leaves as writing materials.
The oldest surviving material onto which humans have expressed themselves was the stone walls inside caves, beginning about 40,000 years ago. The expressions produced were pictures, not words.
But it has been paper, over time, that has most transmitted learning and accelerated the advancement of culture and civilization. The Chinese were the ones who invented paper, though the archeological evidence about the exact timing isn’t definitive. It may have happened in the early second century A.D. or it may have happened slightly earlier.
Among the first materials used in making paper was hemp. This is the same Cannabis sativa plant used in the cultivation of marijuana, though not all cannabis varieties produce psychoactive leaves and flowers. Hemp has long been used in the making of cloth, rope, and other materials as well.
From China papermaking spread to Korea and other parts of Asia along with Central Asia, Persia, Egypt, and Morocco. Paper was introduced to Europe by the Moors, the Muslim invaders of Spain, in the twelfth century A.D. Because of paper’s Muslim connections, the Christian world initially rejected it in favor of traditional parchment. In 1221 A.D. the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II declared that all official documents written on paper were invalid.
The dramatic improvements of the printing press by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 and the consequent mechanization of bookmaking sealed the fate of paper. Primarily made from wood or rags and often coated with gelatin, clay, or other substances, paper is largely the same today as it has been for centuries.
Among with learning, paper has also promoted rationalism, the middle class, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, mass communication, modernity, and the democratization of knowledge.
Paper may have a long and illustrious history, but like any technology it’s not necessarily destined for eternity. Spurred by the popularization of personal computers in the mid-1980s, the popularization of the Internet in the mid-1990s, and the popularization of smartphones in the mid-2000s, digital technology has taken what paper has given us to the next level.
But don’t count paper out just yet. The term “paperless office” initially was a marketing slogan introduced in the 1960s to sell IBM mainframe computers. An article in the January 1970 issue of Administrative Management magazine predicted that society would climb out of the “Gutenberg rut” by the end of the 1970s. The printing of paper, though challenged on multiple fronts, is still happening, as any look around a bookstore, post office, or typical office will attest.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.