Words that Fail to Pass

Really High, Technology


The Paperless Groundhog


February 2nd is Groundhog Day. February 2nd also marks the midpoint of the winter season, in the United States, which officially begins on December 21st (the winter solstice) and lasts till March 20th. Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are nice furry creatures that live underground and prefer to burrow under tree trunks. Groundhogs hibernate in winter in their tree trunk habitats. Trees produce paper, and hence paper production may be a cause of the waning supply and escalating prices of groundhog homes.


On Groundhog Day, the most famous groundhog of them all, “Phil” of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, wakes up at 7:25 am, from his winter hibernation to emerge from his tree trunk to look at his shadow. If the sun is strong enough for Phil to see his shadow, he goes back to sleep thus predicting 6 more weeks of cold and blistery winter. If the day is cloudy, he does not see his shadow, and decides to call off the hibernation and signals to the world that winter will come to an early end. Phil is so accurate in his predictions, that the shadow spotting event is attended by about 20,000 spectators who travel to the remote, unknown town called Punxsutawney and brave the subzero temperatures early in the morning to see a rodent bumbling around. The event is carried live on every national television network. Weird as this may sound, it is all true. Read about it at www.groundhog.com.


This year, 2001, the early morning sun shone bright in Punxsutawney, and Phil saw his shadow predicting more bad weather. Three days later, on Feb 5th the Northeastern United States was blasted by a severe snowstorm that dumped up to three feet of snow bringing life to a somber standstill and snarled air and ground transportation to an excruciating and dangerous chaos. It caught me unawares as I struggled through the side edge of the storm via slippery streets to reach Newark Airport near New York City to catch a 3pm flight to Phoenix. Little did I know that I would be reading 5 newspapers and 10 magazines while I waited till 11pm for the flight to be cleared for takeoff. About 200 of the 400 scheduled flights that afternoon from Newark were cancelled. Thank you, Phil.


The printed words on paper gave me company during the frustrating wait in a snow bound airport, while the wind howled and the parked planes became encrusted with the white stuff. Eventually, as the aircraft sped over the bumpy ice-crusted runway and soared off, way above the billowing storm, headed to the warm and dry deserts of Arizona, just 2300 miles away, I picked up my travel worn laptop to write this article on electronic paper.


Paper has served mankind very well. Even though it is flimsy, easily spoilt, low-tech and comes from trees. Paper has been, and still is the medium of communication, of currency, of expression, of archiving, and of immense value to human knowledge. Paper is used for purposes literary, to purposes sanitary. Yet many amongst us want to do away with paper. Do we really need paper? Phil wants you to say no.


The thought of retiring paper is hailed by environmentalists, computer freaks, groundhogs and is detested by lumberjacks, the publishing business, newspapers, catalog merchants, paper-mill workers and a host of other industries. Anything, or really “almost anything”, that can be done on paper can be done on digital media. Documents can be generated on computers. Books can be written on computers. Catalogs can be Emailed, or put on web pages. Newspapers and magazines can be published on the web (and most, including the Statesman are). Older documents can be scanned and stored. Of course, computers excel at filing and archiving, and digital documents can be searched at amazing speeds, which is a wonderful advantage. The invention of the digital storage led to the loftiest challenge to the paper industry, and was well on it way to annihilate the use of paper. Even digital cash has been invented. However, lowly paper rose to the challenge and survived. Will this victory be long lived? Only time will tell. No one has invented the digital napkin, yet.


The paperless office was conceived around 1975 and in about 1980 predictors confidently decreed that the office would be paperless in 5 to 10 years. What is the need for paper in the office? After all that goes in an office can be done better with computers than paper. A computer can send a memo, create a form, send a purchase order, keep records, and store legal documents faster and cheaper and better. Why fill a form in quadruplicate, when a computer can generate a thousand copies in a blink of an eye? Paper is predicted to be soon in the dustbin of history.


Groundhog-less predictions of course, rarely work. The personal computer was invented in the early 1980’s so that housewives could store their recipes and children could type letters to Grandma. The majority of the humans did not buy into that idea. Even when Email became a reality, it was not marketed to the masses, as no enlightened person could imagine, that in the era of prolific telephones and cheap long distance calling, the unwashed massed would actually type a letter. The telephone had already killed letter writing. Suddenly, came the Big Bang.


A poor unsuspecting Physics graduate student in Geneva, Switzerland, called Tim Berners-Lee, invented the Web Browser (1990) and later, with Marc Andreessen of University of Illinois, created the concept of the World Wide Web (1993). The rest, as they say is history. Suddenly, computers and Internet access became the most sought after thing, since sliced bread. And then the masses discovered Email (if you have web access, you have Email by default). Suddenly, letter writing is back in vogue. Even a groundhog could not have predicted that.


Paperless storage has some stunning characteristics. The Encyclopedia Britannica has over 30 volumes, and weighs over 50Kgs. All of it fits on to a 10 gram CD with space to spare. Every word in the digital version of the Encyclopedia can be found by a computer search in about 10 seconds. CDs are old technology, currently the DVD which looks and feels the same as the CD holds more information than 20 CDs. Higher capacities have already been announced. Compression technology makes it possible to store pictures and sound and videos on digital media in a very space efficient manner (a DVD can hold 4 hours of video along with high quality 4 channel audio).  The web has more information stored in its nooks and crannies than anything humankind has ever invented. The whole web is stored without using a scrap of paper. The parade of predicted extinction is not just limited to paper, film (pictures and movies) tape (audio) are also slated for a speedy demise. Maybe.


After we were convinced paper would be a relic, the actual use of paper soared. What went wrong? The paperless office consumed more paper than ever before. Consider the case of the watch repair business of Ms. Anita Hammer and her 20 employees. In 1975 if Ms. Hammer wanted to wish all of her employees Happy Groundhog Day, she told her trusty assistant, Ms. Effy Shent to send out a memo. Ms. Effy would type up a note with the names of all the employees listed on top. Alice would be the first one to get the memo, as she would be first, alphabetically. She would read it and cross out her name and hand it to Bob, the next person, and subsequently Carol and David and the rest got the memo, eventually.


Fast forward to 1985. Now Effy Shent has a computer and, oh no, a copier. She types the memo, prints it, and runs off 20 copies. Oh, and if she found a typo after she copied them, there is no need to correct it by hand, just print it again and hit the copy button again.


Computers save paper? With the widespread use of office computers there was a need for low-cost printing. So affordable printers got invented. Since a printer and copier are about the same thing (they put tiny ink dots on paper) copiers became prolific. Soon everyone and her brother had access to printers and copiers, and everyone started printing and copying everything they could lay their hands on. Multiple times, of course.


Fast forward to 1995. The computer came home, and with it came the printer and the bundles of paper. So also came Email. So also the need to print the Email, to print the pictures that came over Email, to print the pages from the Web. As we march towards a digital, paperless society, the consumption of paper is swinging wildly out of control. According to the paper industry, the consumption of paper worldwide in the last 6 years has increased by 27%.


As we turn into the new millennium, the misguided foes of paper are relentlessly predicting a slowdown in paper consumption. Better quality and larger monitors mean documents can be read well on the screen without the need for printing. Humans, who are exposed to computers at an early age, are more comfortable perusing on-screen and often use the printer, less. So maybe, just maybe, the printing may subside. Maybe all of Punxsutawney’s furry Phil’s relatives would cheer for affordable housing. Only time will tell.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking.


 Partha Dasgupta