Why All Those Paper Scraps Are Driving Me Mad

Posted on June 10, 2013

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I can’t believe I just spent 15 minutes trying to figure out where I stashed the unused file folders I bought six months ago. Not desktop folders, but real manila ones, with three-position tabs.  I was looking for one in which to file a legal document that had been sent to me by snail mail and which I earlier had spent another 5 minutes searching for a specific provision.  I could have scanned the document and stored it online, but that wouldn’t make the text any more searchable than it is on paper, so I went for the folder.

It’s the second time in two days that I’ve been confronted by the ghosts of processes past. Yesterday I received a health form that needed to be completed manually when the provider could have helped all of us by posting an electronic form that could be filled out online, then stored and/or emailed. I doubt my vestigial handwriting was legible at all on that cramped, officiously off-putting paper.

I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll be able to handle these remnants from the ancient days of 2005 B.T. (Before Twitter) or if they’ll just drive us mad when they’re not on a drive. Some of this left-over paper is valuable and even comforting, of course—our favorite old books, framed artwork, Puffs. But in most instances, it all just gets in the way, slows us down or just puzzles us.

What, for example, should I do with my collection of newspaper clips extending back to the beginning of the space program? Like baseball cards, they lose the value of their provenance if simply scanned and catalogued. Why do I still have to empty wastebaskets and take the trash to the curb? Shouldn’t we have digitized this process by now? Even when I order online, when my shipment arrives I still have to unwrap it all, ripping into more paper, cardboard and Styrofoam to fill more trash bags.

Engineers are working hard to help us be done with these messes, once and for all.  No one clips newspapers anymore (maybe an occasional coupon), but today’s online editions are tremendous multimedia resources of video, audio, oral histories and live coverage. That sure beats my clip collection.

PlayStation is transforming baseball cards into animated Vine videos, bringing action to the traditional stats.

Trash, alas, will always be with us, I’m afraid. But many of the packaging excesses inherent in the production, shipment, display and purchase of manufactured goods may one day dwindle significantly, thanks to processes like additive layer manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. Before long, we’ll be creating our own personal copies of products using machines in our homes and offices. No packaging, physical shipping or unwrapping required.  We’ll be able to build intricate, lightweight, perfectly optimized devices that never could have been manufactured in a plant because of equipment and operational constraints but which we can produce on a table in our dining room quite easily.  The same goes for replacement parts.

I, for one, am ready to wish the scraps from the past a bon voyage. Let’s get the rest of all this stuff connected and finally staple our folders shut.

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