COMPUTING MYTHS, PART 1
by Karl E.
Office." Remember that phrase? It was popular some years back when the
soothsayers predicted that the mounds of paperwork filling the average
business office would be replaced by the efficient and pollution-free
flow of electrons among coworkers. Nice idea. But I'm here today to
tell you that it ain't gonna happen. In fact, quite the opposite has
taken place. The ubiquitous presence of the computer in America's
offices has caused the demise of perfectly good trees at an
unprecedented rate. Let me explain some of the reasons why the
paperless office hasn't become a reality, using my own workplace as an
One problem is that, when wildly predicting the
all-electronic office, no one anticipated the need for computer
manuals. In the olden days, you had room in your office for a few
mementos, family pictures and humorous parting gifts from subordinates.
No more: Every square inch is likely to be occupied by obtuse
publications purporting to make your working hours more productive.
Even the most computer-phobic manager has a tidy row of manuals in his
office, albeit still in the shrink-wrap.
It's worse for us professional software types. Being
a scientist by training, I decided to quantify the extent to which
printed manuals have filled my office. As of today, my office (about
eight feet square) contains some 175 computer manuals and books: 76
user guides for different applications programs (counting the ones I
wrote myself); 40 reference manuals for eight different programming
languages; 38 treatises on various aspects of software development; 17
operating systems manuals for three different computer systems; four
hardware-reference manuals; zero partridges in pear trees.
Now, these publications occupy quite a bit of space.
More precisely, they use up 18 linear feet of shelf space, 14 square
feet of shelf space or 12 cubic feet of the office. And my best
estimate of the combined weight of the paper contained in all this
literature is 715 pounds. I can't even guess at the number of pages of
computer knowledge contained in my office. It appears that the notion
of on line computer help has a ways to go before I can toss out all
Manuals aren't the only scourge acting to oppose the
paperless office. Consider electronic mail. The early enthusiasts
anticipated that electronic mail would greatly reduce the volume of
paper being circulated and stored. But it didn't work out that way, for
a number of reasons.
To be sure, electronic mail is fast and efficient.
But it's still easier to read things on paper than on the screen, so
most people still print out the notes they exchange. It's hard to do
the electronic equivalent of flipping back and forth among several
pieces of paper using your standard 80-column x 24-line display. And
it's darned near impossible to proofread something effectively on the
tube, although electronic spelling-checkers keep a lot of people from
making silly mistakes.
Electronic mail is so much fun to use that people
send notes when a phone call would suffice, thereby giving them
something else to print out. The electronic-mail system my employer
uses has the additional quirk of printing a full header page for each
note, which doubles the paper consumed when printing your average
Here's another problem: Before the days of
electronic mail, a secretary might have typed up some meeting notes or
a memo, run off 30 copies and mailed them to the recipients. Now you
send the notes electronically to 60 people (which is just as easy as to
30), each of whom uses valuable printer and computer time printing out
his own copy, complete with header page. Sounds like a step away from
the paperless office to me.
Take word processing (please). Precomputer days, a
typed report or letter would usually go out after no more than one or
two drafts. But now it might take four or five printouts to get it
looking just the way you want, particularly if you aren't using a
WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) computer system that allows
accurate screen previews. Paper, paper, everywhere. The good news is
that the quality of the final product is usually higher these days,
because all documents benefit from editing and revision.
For security, space or legal reasons, many companies
are concerned about excessive retention of documents. Electronic files
now fall under the same kinds of records-management rules. How do you
deal with this? Someone tells you to erase an obsolete file, so you
print out a copy just to be sure it isn't gone forever in case you need
it again some day. You stuff it in your desk, along with the other
archival records. Basically, we're just like squirrels, stashing away
paper instead of acorns.
How about electronic meeting notices? Great idea:
Everyone gets the same notice at the same time. It's easy to send out
revisions, too. But do you carry your computer terminal around
everywhere in case you want to check your calendar? Of course not. You
print out the meeting notices and attach them to the side of your file
cabinet with magnets. Our computer system has an electronic calendar
and scheduling facility, fully equipped with a utility to print out
your daily calendar in a handy pocket-size format. That's what I call
Software developers aren't any closer to the
paperless office than anyone else. The advent of computer-aided
software engineering (CASE) tools lets us do a lot of our design work
on the screen, rather than on the backs of envelopes or whatever. But
most systems can only show part of one diagram at a time, so we have to
print the things out to study the overall picture or to show our design
to someone else. And CASE tools make it easy to redraw the same diagram
over and over, making it better each time (I hope). Naturally, I have
to print the whole thing out each time so I can see if I'm done yet. I
actually had a guy tell me once that he supported CASE because it would
help people get the paper off their desks! This fellow had clearly
never seen the mountains of printouts in an office like mine.
Don't get me wrong; I like computers. I like the
ways computers can make my life easier and I like wrestling with them
(to a point) when they try to make my life more difficult. But I think
the notion that computers will eliminate, or even reduce, paperwork is
naive. I hate to see all that virgin timber crashing down so that I
might feed a laser printer. But I do what I can to compensate. All of
my scratch paper consists of the backs of rejected printouts, not nice
new legal pads from the stockroom. I do my best work on the backs of
someone else's header pages.
Karl Wiegers, Ph.D., spent the '70s
learning how to be an organic chemist, then spent the '80s wrestling
with computers. He is now a software engineer in the Eastman Kodak
Company photographic research labs. He hasn't selected a career for the
'90s yet. It may be interesting to note that, although this article was
submitted and edited on disk, a hard copy accompanied the original
submission. After editing, a final manuscript was printed and sent to
the production department (along with the disk), where the manuscript
was photocopied numerous times for distribution to several other
departments. Once the file was transferred from disk to the typesetting
equipment, at least six versions of the galleys (the typeset article)
were generated before the final page was shipped to the printer.
Somewhere, a forest is screaming.
ANALOG Computing invites
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aspect of Atari computing. Any style or type of essay is
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