Paper and Airplanes: The Long Road to Obsolescence

12/25/12Follow @drmime

As the years go by, I increasingly find the history of the future as interesting as the future itself. We’ve all seen lists of incredibly bad technological predictions, and of course it’s always fun to smugly reflect on how wrong a smart person can be. Grandiose predictions of the future of technology often lead to backlash when that future is slow to arrive. But now and then, the last laugh goes to the person who made what looks, for years, like a very bad prediction.

We’re now living in a world where the role of paper is changing rapidly. As far back as the 1960s, futurists were predicting that computing technology would make paper largely obsolete. These beliefs hit the mainstream with a 1975 article in Business Week. Such predictions look most foolish when they limit themselves to specific dates. A 1975 prediction that “the use of paper in business for records and correspondence should be declining by 1980 and by 1990, most record-handling will be electronic,” is hard not to smile at today. But the predictions kept coming, steadily pushing the date further and further into the future.

As an environmentalist, I certainly wanted these predictions to be true, but after nearly 40 years I had pretty much inured myself to their optimistic enthusiasm. Then, almost without anyone noticing, the predictions finally began to come true. With fast networks giving global access to document management systems, and e-readers rapidly putting books and magazines out of business, the use of paper has begun to fall, steadily and dramatically, as Venkatesh Rao explained in Forbes magazine a few months ago. It seems that all those people who predicted the paperless office were spot-on, except for an overly optimistic analysis of how long it would take.

This got me wondering about other “failed” predictions that may yet succeed. One dear to my heart is that electronic communication technology will make physical offices irrelevant. Isaac Asimov took this notion to its logical extreme way back in 1953, in his novel “The Caves of Steel.” That tale was set in a world where communication technology had permitted nearly everyone to become agoraphobic, going years without the physical presence of another human being.

In real life, of course, our technology hasn’t been good enough to support most people working remotely, and not that many people even want to do so. Predictions about the “conquest of distance” came to seem irrelevant to most, and frustratingly inadequate to those of us who actually wanted it. Early proponents of telecommuting underestimated the technological requirements and overestimated our readiness to change.

Thus we have seen, in recent decades, visionary CEOs and technologists jetting all over the world to promote products and ideas they claimed would make physical presence less necessary. People from all over the world have converged, again and again, at conferences focused on remote collaboration technology. A cynic might suggest that the best way to profit from the emerging collaboration trends is to invest in airline stocks.

But, like the paperless office, the vision of a distributed workplace may yet come to pass, with its prophets largely correct in their vision, if not their chronology. It’s hard to know when you’ve reached critical mass, but the convergence of cheap, powerful computing devices; fast, near-ubiquitous networks; and imaginative applications make me suspect that we are, in 2012, approaching a golden age of distributed workplaces.

How will we know we’ve reached the tipping point? Where people spend their money is often the most telling sign. The sale of paper has recently begun to fall, but for years the introduction of computing technology tended to greatly increase the use of paper. Similarly, today the spread of distributed workplaces may be increasing the amount of business travel, as teams come together for periodic updates and resynchronization.

Early computer users tended to print everything, both because of the cost and scarcity of digital storage and because they simply didn’t trust it completely. Today, even where telecommuting is routine, there are generally regular events that bring teams together in person. This makes a lot of sense for people still learning how to work effectively at a distance. But perhaps a generation of workers who have taken entire courses online, without ever meeting their instructors, will begin to establish telecommuting as a routine activity with little need for physical reunions. When that happens, we will begin to see airlines worrying as business travel begins to decline, the way paper companies are now contemplating a smaller future. And while neither paper nor airplanes will disappear entirely from our world, they may no longer be essential requisites of every business.

That can’t happen too soon, as far as I or the health of our planet are concerned. For now, however, I will probably continue to spend half my time flying around the world, touting the joys of working from my remote home in the wilderness.

Nathaniel Borenstein is chief scientist at e-mail management firm Mimecast. Based in Michigan, he is the co-creator of the MIME e-mail standard and previously co-founded First Virtual Holdings and NetPOS. Follow @drmime

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  • Jim Morris

    There’s something nice about being able to reach across a table and choke someone. :-)