From the earliest writings placed on papyrus by the Ancient Egyptians in 3000 BC; the discovery and use of paper in China during the Han Dynasty in 206 BC; the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 in Europe; the first commercial typewriter in 1868 from America; the WordStar Word Processor from 1979 (and most popular software program of the 1980’s); all rendered insignificant by the sign in many modern offices “This is a Paperless Office”.
Of the many predictions of the future and life in the 21st century to include flying cars, robots, space stations galore, and the use of apes as trained domestic servants, none took notice that paper was to become something to be shunned and eradicated. While certainly convenient that 128 GB IPad can hold 11,599 digital books, and all 129 pounds and 32 volumes and 50 million words of the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica (sorry, no longer to be printed after 2010) can easily fit several times over on a single 8GB Micro SD card weighing a couple grams, is a paperless world truly an advance?
We now have paperless offices, paperless books and a world of digitized information and media, all amazing for the ability to deal with huge volumes of information with little space requirement, and minimum resources expended. Is this all progress or is there a dark underside of potential danger not being considered. While progress haters lament any change, perhaps in some cases change is not automatically all good and benign.
The problem of storage and size/volume has been an issue with nearly every endeavor ever pursued by mankind. From the storage of food for the earliest modern human species trying to expand across the Old World 40,000- 60,000 years ago during a respite in the ice ages, to the thousands of man hours used to decide the most essential equipment to place in the very small size of the space station, the question of how to get the most use of limited capacities and storage ability has been plaguing the world.
When it comes to the storage of the greatest asset to humankind - the storage of knowledge and history- it would seem clear to some that the answer is arrived, and now the final solution is simply shedding a few grams. When a copy every single book ever written or scholarly text compiled throughout the world’s history could now be stored in good sized room if it were all digitalized properly, surely storage is no longer an issue. A paperless office is a no-brainer.
So what is wrong with this concept and why shouldn’t we get rid of and completely stop wasting precious resources on something so outdated as printed papers and books? There are literally government warehouses full of printed documents, businesses devoted to the storage and archive printed records, and the massive Library of Congress and its 838 miles of shelves holding 37 million books and other printed items that could be rendered digitally to fit in the average sized school library with a few dozen terminals and downloaded on WIFI whenever viewing was desired.
With all of the clear advantages of moving to a paperless world and the inevitable push in that direction, there are also some serious things to consider, the most important being the preservation of an original record. There have already been more times in history than countable of history being changed- literally rewritten. Historical revisionism has existed as long as recorded history.
From textbooks to the bible, modern reference books have undergone countless revisions, some to correct facts and some to intentionally obscure the truth. While with each instance of revision facts change, in widely disseminated printed form there are always copies left somewhere of the original texts. It is from these lost and found or carefully stored and hidden originals future generations are able to correct the story back to a closer version of truth.
The Vatican made the acquisition of the original bible texts its top priority in the first millennium, and each bible was carefully collected and revised and reissued with the “corrections” deemed appropriate by the current Pope, to include the complete exclusion of some of the original testaments according to some. While it will be forever debated so long as texts appear from some hidden collection there will always be at least discussion of which is truth.
When the printed word disappears and all books and copies of all documents become nothing more than strings of characters in a computer what happens when somebody that controls that document chooses to make a correction? Digitalized text is so easy to change then any remaining copies could be easily played as the doctored the doctored copies. Whoever controlled the official file would have complete control of declaring the veracity. Censorship becomes as easy as deleting a file or passage. Entire textbooks for a generation could be changed in minutes, added to, altered, or deleted at will.
It is already a truism that people believe if they see it on the internet it must be true- so what happens when the internet is the only source t check facts with and every original is stored in a “cloud” waiting to be accessed and changed at a whim? The falsification of records has always been a problem but with digital records it is so easy to change and that change becomes the accepted truth readily available to all so quickly.
There will be no need for book burnings in the future of a paperless society because it can all be done with a delete key and the updating of a popular operating system to ensure only the official copy is readable and available. While there is certainly some paranoia and conspiracy theory rhetoric in this debate, it cannot be denied the possibility for abuse by those that control the central data storage or those that find way to access that data clearly exists.
When all signatures are reduced to four or five digit pins cracked by simple guesswork, the days of a forged signature will seem much more secure. To allow all knowledge and history and all documents to be stored as simple digital files the amount of trust to believe the veracity of all that data will need to be immense. To this point in the world it has been shown too many times that absolute trust of the few in control of information is seldom a wise choice. Perhaps storing a few books and some documents in a format as old fashioned and obsolete as paper is not such a bad idea.