For years, if not decades, environmental activists and futurists have been dreaming about a future with a “paperless” society. The general idea is simple: use digital systems to replace paper wherever possible. Eventually, paper will become unnecessary, and we can rely exclusively on digital systems for things like communication, data storage and documentation, and exchange.
On some level, it may seem like a futuristic daydream, but could a paperless society become a reality? And if so, when can we expect to achieve it?
Advancements Toward Paperless
Already, we seem to be making progress toward more paperless systems. Many businesses, especially in the tech world, have tried to make their operations flow with as little paper as possible. They gather and store information with project management and digital finance platforms, and even pay their employees via direct deposit so they can avoid printing checks.
Similarly, government agencies around the world have been attempting to transition to more paperless systems. For example, the ESTA program allows international travelers to apply for travel authorization online—without the need to mail in bulky forms.
Of course, there’s still a long way to go. Every day, you likely throw away multiple pieces of paper junk mail. You write notes to yourself or keep a physical calendar. And you know at least a handful of people who avoid digital systems like the plague.
The Advantages of Paperless
Why should we advance to paperless in the first place? There are several advantages, some of which you may not have considered:
- Environmental impact. The most commonly touted benefit is the reduced environmental impact. Paper products are developed from trees, which are cultivated by the paper industry. If we could fully go paperless, we could drastically reduce our consumption of trees, reducing our destruction of the environment and preserving our world for the future. We would also require less shipping and delivery, reducing the fuel consumed by airplanes, trains, and automobiles.
- Cost savings. Paper costs money. Offices with a traditional approach to paper recordkeeping and storage can spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year on paper alone; that’s not even including the costs of mailing items to customers and employees. Granted, the digital systems that replace paper products also cost money, but most businesses going paperless end up seeing favorable results.
- Convenience. Some employees may disagree, but most people believe that paperless systems are much more convenient. It’s easier to send an email with the click of a mouse than it is to physically package and mail a form. It’s simpler to find a file with a search bar than by combing through years of folders in filing cabinets. This saves a ton of time, energy, and stress.
With such impressive benefits, it’s almost strange to think that we haven’t already made the transition to be fully paperless. But there are several holdouts preventing us, as a society, from getting to a fully paperless status—and you’ve likely encountered most, if not all of these factors in your own life.
- The cost of digital. First, understand that we’re replacing paper with digital systems. If you have three laptops, all the software you’ve ever wanted, and enough disposable income to buy whatever new resources you need to operate digitally, this may not seem like a big deal. But there are plenty of people out there who don’t even own a home computer because they can’t afford one. Hardware and software are both expensive investments, and not everyone can afford to make the transition—even if it saves them money in the long term. The only hopes for development in this area are radically cheaper electronics (which is a possibility), or some kind of government-subsidized program that allows people to get access to digital systems cheaper.
- Training and accommodation. Even if everyone had access to their own digital device, complete with all the software they needed for daily functioning, you’d still need to train people to make sure they could use it appropriately. Many people struggle to learn new technologies, and if we eliminate the possibility of paper transactions altogether, they could suffer. For example, imagine a retired octogenarian trying to log into their bank account to authorize a transaction and failing, but also being unable to write a physical check because their bank has gone paperless.
- Digitizing legacy systems. Going digital now doesn’t make all our previous paperwork magically go away. Businesses and individuals may have years, or even decades of information stored on paper, in folders and filing cabinets. If this information is required indefinitely, you’ll need some method to digitize those legacy forms of paperwork. In many situations, this means hiring someone to take all your old paper records and enter them into a digital system. This is time consuming and prone to errors.
- Bureaucratic and old-fashioned organizations. Some businesses and organizations simply don’t want to transition, either because they’re too old-fashioned, or because to change a process requires so many individual steps that nothing can get done efficiently. This is a big reason why most “paperless” businesses tend to be new startups, which are both starting from scratch and agile enough to make changes quickly. Unless you made some kind of law to enforce the transition to paperless, we may never win the battle against these older organizations.
- Paper products. It’s easy to forget just how big a role paper plays in our lives. We may be able to get rid of things like checks, paper invoices, and physical calendars, but what about napkins? Paper towels? Toilet paper? The disposable cup you get from the coffee shop? Going truly paperless would require a massive amount of effort to reduce our reliance on products like these—and few people would be willing to make the jump.
- The look and feel of paper. There’s also the look and feel of paper, which is hard to replicate. For some people, the permanently accessible, visual nature of a physical calendar can’t be reproduced with a digital calendar. The feel of reading a physical book isn’t something that a digital tablet can capture. These people will fight to make sure they can maintain access to these paper elements.
- A backup plan. Remember, most of our digital systems are contingent on our access to many independent systems. To access our information, we need electricity, an internet connection, a functioning device, access to our login credentials, and our chosen software or service being fully operational. If any link in this chain is broken, we may find ourselves practically helpless. For the time being, paper products are still a good backup plan—and are something we’ll have access to, regardless of electricity or internet status.
- Legal requirements. Currently, there are some functions that must be physically mailed or physically presented to individuals; a digital version isn’t enough.
Due to the sheer number of challenges, hurdles, and complicating factors, it seems unlikely that a paperless society could ever be achieved, or at least be achieved in our lifetimes. No matter how much our technology advances, or how advantageous the switch becomes, there will always be at least some applications for which paper is useful.
Do We Really Need to Be Paperless?
Before you breathe a deep sigh of hopelessness, keep in mind that we don’t need to go fully paperless to enjoy the benefits of a reduced-paper society. Individuals, businesses, and organizations all around the world can work actively to reduce the amount of paper they consume, making paperless choices when convenient while still using paper when it’s practically necessary. Any reduction of paper consumption will still have a positive environmental impact, with lower costs and increased convenience for all parties involved—and that should be enough to motivate us.
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