Sunday, October 7, 2012

The end of paper as we know it.

Back in the '90's there was lots of talk about "going paperless", a utopian vision of a world where we no longer used paper, notepads were passe, and file cabinets were for suckas. That never happened. We still have notepads, laser printers, and lots of file cabinets. But the role of paper has changed since the digital age came upon us.

Since the 13th century paper as been used for record keeping and communication.  Paper has some very unique properties  made it successful for 700 years. It's light, cheap, easy to add data to (writing), data can be retrieved easily by anyone without special equipment (reading), and its durable. These properties made it the go-to method  for record keeping and communication. Its biggest disadvantage was that if you want to see the data, you have to go to it or have it brought to you.  Reports were written on paper, if you needed to collect metrics, someone reviewed the paper, made calculations and wrote it on a new piece of paper. Paper was so important to the successful operation of society, that the governments created agencies to transport paper under protection of the law (postal service), and other laws to protect content (copyrights).

Enter the late 20th and Early 21st century. The ability of computers to process and disseminate information have relegated data that used to be stored on paper to databases and file systems. Information  that used to be disseminated on paper is now transmitted digitally. 50 years ago business records like invoices and customers data were stored in file cabinets, now they are stored in databases. Paper is not just another method to display content.

While this revolution has allowed us to make great advances in almost every field of human endeavor, it has also led to new challenges. Age old institutions are searching for relevance (the postal service); hundreds of years of legal precedents no longer are relevant (copyright). Most importantly, since access to data is governed by technology, as that technology progresses we run the risk of loosing information forever.

We are moving into a new age, we need to start thinking about how we will manage data for ourselves and future generations.


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