The Electronic Piñata
From the 1993 Ten-Year Forecast, Institute for the Future (c. October 1992)
Ever since the first computers arrived, visionaries have predicted a paperless future lurking just around the corner of our homes and offices. Of course, paper is anything but obsolete—the consumption of communications paper in the United States has grown at a rate greater than the growth in gross national product for every year since World War II. Meanwhile, though, the use of new electronic media for communications has increased much more rapidly. This apparent paradox offers important clues about the future of paper as a communications medium.
The relationship between our use of paper and electronics parallels the relationship between the surface area and the volume of a sphere. As a sphere expands, its volume inside increases more rapidly than the surface area. The information industry today is like a huge electronic piñata, composed of a thin paper crust surrounding an electronic core. The paper crust is most noticeable, but the hidden electronic core that produces the crust is far larger—and growing more rapidly. The result is that we are becoming paperless, but we hardly notice it at all. For example, The Wall Street Journal is written and edited on computer screens, electronically composed and typeset, and then bounced off satellites to remote printing plants all over the country. The Journal isn’t reduced to paper in any meaningful way until just hours before it appears on our doorsteps.
The same pattern can be discerned in our offices. Xerographic copiers are a classic pinata technology—by automating the once laborious copying process, they have buried us beneath an avalanche of fiber. It’s the paper we notice, but the underlying process—the copier—shows how the function of paper is changing.
This example also suggests a way for organizing particular technologies within the pinata as concentric rings of enabling processes. As depicted in Figure 1, xerographic copiers lie just beneath the surface of the piñata, with users and information on the outside. The copier represents a very shallow dive into that electronic core because, when you slap a page onto the glass screen, the image is converted into electronics only long enough to make another copy. Copiers duplicate, but they don’t manipulate. In contrast, desktop publishing systems—laser printers and PC combos—go slightly deeper by allowing users to edit and manipulate images. The Wall Street Journal goes deeper yet, exploiting a suite of complex computer and communications technologies to produce its daily edition.
Figure 1: Newspapers make a deeper dive
The piñata model also offers a useful metaphor for thinking about relationships among the different pieces of technology. For example, the laser printer is really just a typesetter for office copiers. Instead of duplicating the work of others, we’ve begun copying our own. If copiers make us all publishers, desktop publishing turns us all into editorial tyros. Thus, as Figure 2 illustrates, the two technologies occupy adjacent positions on the sphere, with the information they manipulate and propagate skipping in and out of the sphere as it goes from idea to electronics to paper to electronics to copy.
Figure 2: Copiers are just below the surface
The relationship among technologies illustrated by the copier and desktop publishing underscores what is driving the piñata’s expansion—synergies among the various technologies in the core. This synergy is accelerating our eventual abandonment of paper as a communications medium, and the shift is already visible in the form of subtle shifts in how we use paper today. We now think of paper as a communications medium, but historically it has been a storage medium above all. Think about your favorite book sitting on the bookshelf and how little time it spends in your hands compared to how much time it spends on a shelf gathering dust. Even bibles possessed by the most devout fundamentalist spend more time closed than open.
But this all changed in the mid-1980s, when the advent of cheap electronic storage and technologies like desktop publishing began turning paper into an “interface” rather than a storage medium. Paper today has become an increasingly volatile, disposable medium for viewing information on demand. We are solidly on our way to a future where we create and store information electronically, reducing it to paper only when we’re ready to read it, and then promptly disposing of it when we’re done.
It is this cross-impact among various pieces of electronic technology and paper output that makes the shape of our information future so wildly unpredictable. For example, fax machines have become tools of paper as interface in a remarkably perverse way. Faxes amount to wholesale substitution of electrons for postal trucks and couriers—yet we stubbornly cling to reducing those electrons to paper as the first and final step in the process, despite our distaste for slimy fax paper and the image degradation caused by a page scanner.
Of course this is changing, as the first trickles in true paperless business-to-business communication become visible. Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) is becoming a fixture in the largest of our corporations, eliminating the need for thousands of tons of paper invoices and business documents. And smaller organizations are witnessing a steady increase in the volume of computer-based e-mail. Business e-mail flows remain comparatively small—it is estimated that there are less than 15 million corporate e-mail users today—but there are signs elsewhere that this will change in the decade ahead.
At first glance, the academic community seems like the last place to look for hints of this paperless future, but e-mail has already replaced paper journals and even faxes in several particularly fast-breaking areas. This was dramatically demonstrated during the recent “cold fusion” controversy, when physicists and chemists around the globe monitored developments hourly via e-mail. The dominant network used by these professionals and the rest of the academic community is the Internet, a global computer network that is growing at the rate of 50% per year—and Internet traffic is increasing at the rate of 20% per month, according to some reports.
Paper is well on its way to becoming a metaphor rather than a medium. As the balloon expands, thin spots and holes are beginning to appear. These gaps represent places where paper is eliminated in favor of new digital media. At first glance, it is easy to dismiss these holes as mere curiosities, but they are the first signs that we are headed into a new paperless world. The foregoing examples of EDI communications and academic e-mail are among these signs.
Meanwhile, the piñata technologies affecting businesses are also changing the shape of the publishing industry. Like The Wall Street Journal, book and magazine publishers are doing more and more production electronically. This is also changing the shape of the final paper output, as publishers discover that their new tools allow them to create product customized to ever smaller audiences. For example, publishers routinely use selective binding techniques to cost-effectively create regionalized versions of national publications, and tailoring magazines to individual subscribers is already on the horizon. Last year, Time delivered an issue customized for subscribers by printing their names on the cover. Book publishers are also turning to “selective publishing” to provide new kinds of print products—for example, McGraw-Hill and R. R. Donnelley are combining forces to produce semi-customized textbooks. Magazine publishers also have turned to interactive fax reader response systems as substitutes for mailed-in reader response cards, delivering instant reader gratification and better preference capture for advertisers.
The holes and thin spots appear in very odd spots on this balloon, but the holes also are growing, and they’re beginning to drift together. These are the first halting signs of a new paperless world. It will take about 30 years for this paperless future to arrive, but the process is well underway today. Paper is becoming ever more a metaphor and ever less a medium. The result will be some remarkable structural shifts in our knowledge industries, and some remarkable surprises in our offices. Here are a few implications drawn from a much longer list:
- New online media will first appear as electronic extensions to traditional print. Screens of ASCII-based text generated by electronic information systems like Dialog or Dow Jones News Retrieval will quickly become distant memories, replaced by easier to access, more customized information presented with a format and layout sophistication approaching that of national newspapers. These new formats will prove to be platforms for yet newer kinds of custom business services.
- Paper will become a powerful organizing metaphor for our new information tools. We are already seeing pen-based computers that substitute stylus and screen for pen and paper, turning the writer’s scribblings into ASCII text and computer-based images. Look for ever more capable systems to continue mimicking what we already do with pencil and pad.
- Paper will become a two-way interface medium between humans and computers. Today, paper is largely a display medium only, but over the course of this decade, it will emerge as an input and control medium as well. For example, Xerox has already released one product, “PaperWorks,” which uses the company’s proprietary “glyph” technology to unobtrusively embed computer-readable information on paper documents. In the future, documents such as invoices and order forms will routinely contain such information, formatted in a way to be utterly unnoticeable by human readers.
- “Digital paper” and “sushi” computers will become business realities after this decade is over. An entirely new form of electronic exotica is waiting in the wings—devices that resemble paper but behave like computers. Imagine a sheet of paper that behaves like a pen-based PC, and you begin to come close to this extravagant vision. One Japanese researcher nicknames these “sushi computers” in the belief that they will be as flexible as a piece of nori, and easily rolled into a scroll. Implicit in this vision is the assumption that these new devices will take many forms. Some will even approach the cost of paper itself. The result may be a business world of disposable computers with sizes and costs comparable to Post-It pads.
This entry into a paperless world will trigger fundamental shifts in knowledge industry structures. Competitors on the surface of the balloon will come from unexpected areas, as players hunt for new market opportunities. For instance, Sony has reoriented itself as a vertically integrated information company in a new information world where they will own the software that goes on the disks they press, that play on the drives they build, that are installed in the machines they sell. In the process, Sony’s initiatives are presenting traditional media players with substantial surprises. Look for this pattern to be multiplied many times over in the next decade.
The 1990s will be a transitional decade bringing us ever closer to a paperless world. In the short run, paper will become increasingly a transient display and control medium. Add in environmental trends, and it is clear that paper will become short-lived, lightweight, and ever more biodegradable. Ultimately, it will become an artifact. Of course, paper will never disappear entirely, but it may become irrelevant as a business tool sooner than we suspect. In the end, we will become paperless the same way we once became horseless. Horses are still around, but they are ridden by hobbyists, not commuters.
Paper will thus be doomed by the arrival of entirely new forms of business structures and environments tailored to take advantage of new paperless media. Commuters didn’t trade horses for cars; rather, commuting coevolved along with the automobile into business reality. Similarly, an entirely new paperless business world is coemerging with the advent of our new digital tools. Don’t expect this world to arrive less than 20 or 30 years from now, but its impact is already felt in businesses today.