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The crumple zone

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The Myth of the Paperless Office By Abigail J Sellen and Richard H R Harper.MIT Press, 2001. 242pp. £16.95

What do you get when you mix a cognitive psychologist and researcher at computerindustry giant Hewlett-Packard with a sociological ethnographer from the University of Surrey's Digital World Research Centre? A book that must explain why it is a book, and not a CD-ROM or file on your PDA.

This sober tome rather supports the authors' thesis: despite decades in thrall to the phrase 'the paperless office', paper remains ideal for many office tasks. Digital technologies have not yet, and probably will never, replace the paper office. Instead, digitech and paper will coexist happily, each serving different purposes.

'One has only to look at any workplace to see how firmly paper is woven into the fabric of our lives, ' the book intones sagely.

For a variety of reasons that Sellen and Harper explore in detail, we still prefer to read on the stuff, annotate on it, crumple it, spread it across our desks - and, eventually, bin it.

The authors divide the problems of paper into three: symbolic - paper is perceived as old-fashioned and low-tech;

costly - paper is expensive to print on and distribute; and interactional - paper cannot be shared in the same way as can a HTML document.

The story follows the era of the computer 'desktop' in the early 1970s through to the birth of the Web in the early '90s. From the dream of paperlessness, they explain why they think, for certain tasks, paper has, and will, prevail. They back up their argument with interviews, graphs, statistics, case studies, amusing anecdotes and a substantial reference section.

The book's most interesting tale examines the origin of the paperless myth, apocryphally attributed to researchers at Xerox PARC, which, as it happens was simultaneously engaged in promoting the biggest waster of paper ever invented: the photocopier. Nowadays, the internet, which everyone expected to reduce the use of paper, only encourages the printing out of web pages, both in the office and at home.

The tone of the book is regrettably schoolmarmish: 'The physical properties of paper (its being thin, light, porous, opaque, flexible, and so on) afford many different human actions, such as grasping, carrying, manipulating, folding, and in combination with a marking tool, writing on.' Possibly in academic circles this passes for meaningful insight; in fact, it is merely stating the obvious and verges on the imbecilic.

A tightly written article would have conveyed the thrust of the book equally well. Ironic, that a book about requiring less paper uses more paper than, perhaps, the subject truly merits.

Liz Bailey writes about technology, design and vehicles. E-mail lizzie@lizzie. net

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