The “Paperless Office” Is Finally Arriving

When the Internet first arrived, we printed things more and more and more. Then something changed

Clive Thompson
6 min readAug 26


A stack of printed magazines, with small post-it notes poking out from inside
Photo by Bernd Klutsch on Unsplash

Remember the “paperless office”?

Back around the second world war, high-tech thinkers started predicting the demise of paper in white-collar workplaces. After all, if computers became ubiquitous and we all used “electronic mail”, then why would we need so many printed memos, letters, and reports? From the 50s up to the 90s, digital prophets from Vannevar Bush to J.C.R. Licklider to Bill Gates proclaimed that paper would eventually go the way of the dodo.

But it didn’t. Quite the contrary: As the office computerized, the use of paper exploded.

In 2002, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper published The Myth of the Paperless Of Office, in which they noted that paper usage in the US grew at a brisk pace in the 80s and 90s, even as computers sprouted all over the white-collar cubicleverse. Indeed, offices that adopted email saw on average a hefty 40% increase in their use of paper.

How to explain this apparent paradox? The first driver, Sellen and Harper observed, was that computers made it easier than ever to author documents and messages — so we created more than ever. The computer propelled a massive uptick in office communication.

The catch was, most office folks still preferred to print up most of these missives, emails, and reports. They weren’t content to simply read them on their computer screens. Why would that be the case?

Because, as officefolk told Sellen and Harper, paper back then had superior ergonomics. It was higher resolution and contrast than a screen, and was thus easier on the eyes. It had tactility — you could easily mark it up with a red pen, or put a sticky on a key page to quickly re-find it. And you could stack paper, turning your desk into a prosthetic memory device, with each paper document serving as a glanceable reminder of something you ought to be thinking about, or working on.

The digital realm had far worse ergonomics. Screens were squinty and low-rez. Digital documents were difficult to mark up. And if you filed digital documents in a folder on your computer desktop, they essentially…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.