The Endurance and Evolution of Technology

A recent article, “Technological extinction, Only the digital dies,” in the January 26, 2013 issue of The Economist, got me thinking. The article started with the premise that “The ‘paperless office’ has earned a proud place on lists of technological promises that did not come to pass.” It concluded with the idea that “digital technologies may prove to be more ephemeral than their predecessors.”

After dissing the paperless office, the article went on to trumpet the durability of carbon paper, and the fact that it has survived through all types of technological innovations. With ABA TECHSHOW, the holy grail event of law and technology, just weeks away, I pondered the article. “Is technology really fleeting?” I thought, “Or have we made significant strides?”

Of course, the first thing I thought about was my practice and my clients – both in my law office and in my consulting business. In my own office, the paperless office is quite real. We actually notice when someone takes a ream of paper from the pile that sits next to water cooler. After all, the pile shrinks only about once every few weeks. Not bad, considering that three employees feed from the paper trough.

In addition, we thrive on being paperless. We almost never print out documents, not until we have to print the “final” version, i.e., the one that has to be mailed or filed or served (when e-filing or e-service just is not an option). When preparing briefs, we never print them out. Our case management system routes them throughout the office with ease. So, for us, paperless has happened. So too for our clients. Lawyers have begun to efficient the fact that it is simply easier to locate and review documents when they are saved in case management software or attached to an email. Yes, at times the documents are printed, but not like the old days (the carbon paper days) when everything was printed and we all feared hernias from frequently lifting cases of heavy copy paper.

Other law firms have embraced the idea of a paperless office, and so have others. For example, when I became a Commissioner in Haverford Township in 2008, the Township printed out our monthly meeting agendas and had the Police deliver them to our homes on the Thursday evening before our meetings. To me, this was a waste of resources (police delivering agendas, staff printing and collating 100s of pages of agendas, and then me scanning the agendas so they could be on my computer). I balked and, guess what, the Township began emailing the agendas to eight of the nine Commissioners (we still have one member of the Board who just does not do email, etc.), saving time, money, etc. Now, every Commissioner has a laptop at his or her seat at each meeting with the agenda and other documents. It has turned out to be less expensive to buy laptops (the ones they give the commissioners are very basic, but that is all they need) than to continue to devote all of the manpower to creating agendas. Most importantly, from this starting point, the Township began to embrace scanning documents and, five years later, everything is scanned, paper use is down, and the Township, while not “paperless,” uses far less paper and is far more efficient.

As for carbon paper, despite the fond memories suggested in The Economist, we just do not use it much in the office. Only a couple of forms use them, so it is rare that we have to leave our desks and saunter over to the typewriter (yes, we have one) and work with the carbon paper.

However, the article raises other questions, the prime one being whether “technostalgia” is behind the need for people to preserve all of the ways they have been doing things. In that vein, the article notes that, “Steam locomotives; trebuchets; papyrus scrolls: all boast bands of enthusiasts making or restoring them, and sometimes making a nice profit selling the results to kindred aficionados with money to spare. As a result technologies from all the way back to the stone age persist and even flourish in the modern world.”

While that may be true, I have a different take on the author’s conclusion that “early digital technologies do seem to be vanishing” and “revolutionary digital technologies may yet consign older ones to the dustbin.” That, my friends, is not antiquity; it is the reality that things change. When I graduated from college (and from law school), there were no computers (not at least for the masses). We used Selectric typewriters, carbon paper/carbon sets, and Shepard’s was a series of books that lawyers used to try to figure out if the case or statute they were researching was good law, always believing that we had missed something.” Now no one uses the Shepard’s pocket parts (do they even exist?) and checking on the vitality of a case is merely a mouse click.

Yes, technology evolves, but so do we. Moreover, contrary to The Economist’s perspective, the paperless office exists, but it is, as I have always called it, the “less paper” office. Sure, we will always need paper and some antiquities will always exist, but to think or believe that the good old days of paper and carbon paper were so good is really not reality. Heck, can anyone imaging living without a Smartphone, or a scanner, or even a wireless remote control (remember when remote controls were attached to your TVs and VCRs with a cable?)? Why would you want to? 

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