We communicate by text and email, receive our bank and utility statements online, fax machines were long ago consigned to the scrap heap and commercial printers can produce precise print runs thanks to digital printing  – yet global paper consumption continues to rise.  By 2012, the global demand for paper exceeded 400 million tons, the equivalent of 7.2 billion trees or an area about seven times the size of Greater London.  Against a background of flourishing digital media, the economic downturn and increasing pressure to try to live in an environmentally-friendly manner, we just can’t seem to break our addiction to paper.

Back in the 1970s, the paperless office seemed like the natural endpoint of the computing technology that had begun to revolutionise office life, and articles about how and when it would happen have been periodically appearing ever since.  Have we achieved the paperless office?  Not by a long shot. The office or rather “the last corporate holdout to the automation tide that has swept through the factory and accounting department”, as Businessweek put it in 1975, still shows no sign of giving up its fight to stay in print.

It was all predicted to be so different.  Xerox were convinced that, by the year 2000, we would live in a paperless world.  Sheets of paper would be replaced by electronic equivalents and stored in huge databases.  Paper documents would be scanned and clever software would turn the output into editable documents.  Paper documents would no longer need to pushed around internal mail systems or via the postal services, emails would rule the world.  The increasing sophistication and capability of printers and copying machines would make it possible to print out documents of a quality that were previously only available from commercial printers, but at a fraction of the cost.

Automation certainly has displaced paper from some activities.  On the London Underground, for example, over 80% of journeys are now undertaken without the issue of a paper ticket.  But the piles of paper that surround us show no indication of going away any time soon and one of the reasons for that is the human factor.  It’s difficult to change old habits.  Many documents are printed and filed simple as a matter of routine.

Electronic documents have changed the way we use paper, rather than eradicating it entirely.  Where once the hard copy was the central document, it’s now often more of a backup in case things go wrong with the digital version.  Document workflow is still just as important, it’s just a different workflow.  Paper is still likely to be preferable at either end of the communication process.

The way we use paper has come a long way, from Egyptian papyrus to digital printing.  Companies may well be shifting their filing systems from the paper version to a digital one but many are simply moving the bad habits from one storage system to another.  Every hour, every day, there is still someone, somewhere, asking that eternal question: now which folder did I put that file in again?