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The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press)…

The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press) (edition 2003)

by Abigail J. Sellen (Author)

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1395122,972 (3.92)2
Title:The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press)
Authors:Abigail J. Sellen (Author)
Info:The MIT Press (2003), Edition: Reprint, 245 pages
Collections:non-fiction, Wishlist, Read but unowned
Tags:reading, books

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The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail J. Sellen



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Showing 5 of 5
The core of this book is based on many years of robust social-science studies of the use of paper in a variety of knowledge-work contexts. Sellen and Harper show how the uses and affordances of paper are related in complex and dynamic ways to work structures and social structures, and do a fantastic job of penetrating the information ecologies of knowledge work. This is a very important resource to any interaction designer addressing knowledge work and professional information handling, which I suppose includes many of us. The core of the book is wrapped in arguments against the notion of paperless offices and in design implications for new reading technologies and document management systems that are carefully based on the reported studies. Even though Sellen and Harper argue at length that basing design on thorough fieldwork does not preclude innovation, most of their design proposals seem rather incremental, which is certainly important but may run the risk of overlooking design directions starting from why the knowledge work is done in the first place.
  jonas.lowgren | Aug 5, 2011 |
This book was suggested to me in response to a declaration I made that I wanted to get rid of my printer and stop using paper at work.

The writers of this book are consultants on organizational culture and document management, and although the book is now dated, their anthropological approach to the subject is interesting. Visiting workplaces from the imf to an air traffic controller tower, they study the "affordances" of paper and try to understand why we are so reluctant to give it up. Because they are technology consultants, they use the word "affordance" instead of "advantage" because they don't want to discredit themselves by being seen as defenders of paper. They argue for an assessment of paper that allows software and device designers to mimic the advantages of paper, without that, you cannot discard paper in an office without redesigning office procedures and organizational culture.

An example was at the IMF, where analysts delivered documents to one another by hand, so as to have an excuse to informally introduce and discuss the information with the recipient. Or for air traffic controllers, the ability to quickly change the position of a strip of paper 90 degrees to indicate that a plane was doing something unusual, so that a glance around the room showed how much unusual activity was taking place.

As I was reading this book, I referred back to Chapter 4 of Jeff Johnson's "Designing with the Mind in Mind," in which he describes how we struggle with the unnatural task of reading, for which our human brains were not evolved. The physical aspects of paper and document construction that we've invented over centuries were developed to ease this task.

For example paper makes it easy to arrange documents side by side, and to move our eyes from one to another without tools or software getting in the way, to use the tactile skill of writing to take notes that reinforce memory, to use location memory to recall where something is fixed on a page so that we can follow the structure of a complicated idea, to flip back and forth between parts of a book using nothing but fingers to hold our place, to glance at a document on a desk and identify it and assess its key features.

The ephemeral nature of paper, its sharing limitations, and its fragility are limitations, but those characteristics also make it easy to control access tightly when needed, to tear, fold, shift, flip and dogtag, to arrange around a desk or workspace easily, and to mark it permanently and anonymously.

More importantly, work processes have been developed over decades that make the most of these features of paper, and that is why it remains stubbornly with us. The authors conclude that we need document management systems that can better mimic what paper can do. At the time of the writing of this book, those were rare, but with touchscreen tablets and wikis so common today, I believe that is finally changing. Interestingly their criticism of e-book readers still does hold true in my opinion--while preserving the bare experience of reading they still have removed many of the "affordances" of paper that make the reading process easier on the human brain. ( )
2 vote karenmerguerian | May 27, 2011 |
This would have made a great essay. Like Clanchy, who I read an excellent article of before reading his book, the authors seem to waste too much paper (pun intended) rehashing the same points, causing some fascinating research to be buried. I ended up skimming through many parts of the book, interestingly enough skimming is one of the advantages of paper the authors mention frequently. Cynicism aside, I do appreciate the value of the intensive research studies detailed in this book and some of the most fascinating parts come in the samples from the case studies. I like how the looked at the issue objectively, not taking sides neither too technological nor Luddite. The evaluate the advantages (affordances as they call them) of paper and its value and don’t seek to substitute electronic technologies, but change the practices that create so much paper. Interesting research, even if it is a rather dull book.

“There were two main problems that filing of cold materials need to address. First, the owners of these files would eventually move on … At that point the meaning of the files would be lost … what we have seen is that the relation between these documents and the activities they were part of is not self-evident: the documents do not speak for themselves. What this means is that putting a file in cold storage will take work to make its meaning, provenance, and importance clear to others who might wan to access it sometime in the future.” (p. 133-34) Records management and archives to the rescue!

“Iin the digital world, the stories disappear because the owners disappear. And there is another problem: in the paper world, if there is no one to tell the story, people try to reconstruct it by identifying the relation between documents on the basis of their own experience … On of the affordances of a DMS (Digital Management System) is something that can undermine attempts to reconstruct the story surrounding filed documents. A DMS allows users to view and reorganize documents in many different ways, and only a few of these … actually reflect the way in which those files were originally related to one another by the people who created or owned them.” (p. 180)

“Consider the lowly wastebasket. In the past, a wastebasket stuffed to the brim with paper could symbolize inefficiency and an organization looking to the past rather than the future. . . . According to the vision we have outlined, a full bin will reflect the fact people are working effectively because they are using paper at various stages in the document life cycle, particularly in the knowledge-intensive stages.” (p. 211) ( )
  Othemts | Jun 24, 2008 |
The evidence that the paperless office is a myth.
  muir | Nov 27, 2007 |
This book has been an inspiration to me. Sellen and Harper took a couple of organisational constructs, (paperless offices and the idea of hotdesking) and analysed them in the context of actual human practice. This book demonstrates exactly how to report an ethnographic study, but is also an interesting portrait of people working in the real world.

Well written, accessible, and full of wonderful stories (and ideas of how to make offices truly paperless), I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in organisational culture and sopcial impact on technology. ( )
  danamckay | Oct 1, 2007 |
Showing 5 of 5
"Throughout these case studies the authors highlight how understanding the affordances of paper are critical when designing new technology especially technology that is supposed to integrate with existing work practices. They identified the following affordances:

'A single sheet is light and physically flexible.
It is porous, which means that is markable and that marks are fixed and spatially invariant with respect the the underlying medium.
It is a tangible, physical object.
Engagement with paper for the purpose of marking or reading is direct and local. In other words , the medium is immediately responsive to executed actions, and interaction depends on physical copresence.'
These affordances lead to certain consequences. For example, the fact that paper is tangible and has locality means that when a paper is on my desk at work, it acts as a reminder to do something about it. Or, the fact that paper can be easily bent, means that I can easily tell what pages I should go back to when writing the blog post about this book. The book has many more examples of these sorts of consequences. "

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Abigail J. Sellenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Harper, Richard H. R.main authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 026269283X, Paperback)

Over the past thirty years, many people have proclaimed the imminent arrival of the paperless office. Yet even the World Wide Web, which allows almost any computer to read and display another computer's documents, has increased the amount of printing done. The use of e-mail in an organization causes an average 40 percent increase in paper consumption. In The Myth of the Paperless Office, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper use the study of paper as a way to understand the work that people do and the reasons they do it the way they do. Using the tools of ethnography and cognitive psychology, they look at paper use from the level of the individual up to that of organizational culture.Central to Sellen and Harper's investigation is the concept of "affordances" -- the activities that an object allows, or affords. The physical properties of paper (its being thin, light, porous, opaque, and flexible) afford the human actions of grasping, carrying, folding, writing, and so on. The concept of affordance allows them to compare the affordances of paper with those of existing digital devices. They can then ask what kinds of devices or systems would make new kinds of activities possible or better support current activities. The authors argue that paper will continue to play an important role in office life. Rather than pursue the ideal of the paperless office, we should work toward a future in which paper and electronic document tools work in concert and organizational processes make optimal use of both.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:32 -0400)

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