Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Paper Trail

Today, I organized and packed away all my 2011 paperwork: receipts, business documents, bills, contracts, etc. Everything was sorted into its own manila envelope and tucked into a banker's box for storage.

I usually dread this chore - because I still remember how much work it takes. But the problem is, I'm thinking back to 5-10 years ago! Back then, it was an 8+ hour chore, longer if I hadn't already done some mid-year sorting.

Today, it took me less than two hours!

I considered why my pile of business paper is so much smaller than it used to be. Easily 75% of the transactions and work that once required  me to generate paper to archive are done on the computer.

I pay almost all my bills on the computer. I still must write one physical check per month, and I procrastinate because I have to pull out that clunky binder, scrawl with an analog writing device, tear out the check, and then fish for an envelope and 44¢ stamp.

Overnight delivery is another relic I rarely use nowadays. Thanks to broadband internet, I can send massive computer files to printers anywhere in the country. Clients send me scans instead of physical photographs. I once used overnight services on a daily basis - now I use them around a half dozen times a year. And at the end of the year, I no longer have an inch-thick wad of receipts. Better yet, I'm no longer responsible for the consumption of countless gallons of fuel by jets and trucks.

I still have a printer, but it no longer needs to be the workhorse it once was. I save documents to PDF, and resort to print a few times a week. And when I do, I print on both sides of the paper before it goes into the recycling bin.

Is it good that my business and personal life require so much less paper? For the trees, definitely! But since I handle so many transactions sitting alone at my computer, I don't get out as often because I don't need to. The paperless world is a lot lonelier.

I've been thinking about how I miss the daily newspaper. In earlier decades, I loved hearing the early-morning thunk of the paper arriving at my doorstep - it was my alarm clock many mornings. And I miss the practice of receiving doses of information at a few daily intervals: in the morning with the arrival of the newspaper - and later in the evening, with the evening news broadcast. Somehow, it created more opportunity to discuss the day's news with others.

But the newspaper had its downside, too: I recalled how some people used the unfurled newspaper as a barricade in order to avoid contact. But I guess that barricade hasn't gone away- today, it exists in the form of bowed heads transfixed as if in prayer by the glow of smart phones and electronic tablets.

And though we spend more time in isolation thanks to the electronic world, we have less privacy. More companies have access to the minute details of our financial transactions than ever before. At best, we're giving them free marketing information. At worst, some of the information gathered could be used against us someday.

I suppose the transition from paper to electronics is a mixed bag. I delight in knowing that we're sacrificing less trees to the paper mill. But I miss the opportunities for human contact that accompanied the paper-based world. Maybe the solution is to call some folks and schedule a group hike on a path that winds through all those wonderful trees?

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