by Lindsey Vereen|
Voyager 1 was sent aloft in 1977 with a “message in a bottle”: images and sounds on a disk in analog format, accompanied by a cartridge, a needle, and symbolic instructions on how to
play the disk. Some 40,000 years from now, if spacefaring aliens stumble across Voyager 1 and can interpret the instructions to play the disk, they’ll find it a rich media experience.
We may be able to communicate more easily via means other than paper, but sharing information can still be difficult and cumbersome. Perhaps that’s why we’re still a long way from achieving the vaunted “paperless office.” Of 3.4 trillion e-mails sent and received last year, half of them were printed
out on paper, according to Xerox CEO G. Richard Thoman. The number of paper documents is going to multiply over the next few years. While the path from digital format to paper is easy, the one from paper to digital is somewhat steeper, Thoman acknowledges.
Historians may someday look back on this era as a transitional one caught between paper and digital format. We no longer have access to bound copies of many of the old periodicals in library stacks, and while some have been converted to microfiche, many
of them remain in limbo. It’s easy to find current information on the Internet but more difficult to locate older material. You’ll find a blizzard of reviews for movies released in the past four or five years, but go back 10 or 15 years or more and the drop off is astonishing. For example, the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) links to 95 reviews of the film
(1997), compared to 20 reviews of the original
and only seven to
Moving to digital media, though, may present obstacles to sharing knowledge with future generations. Since our ancestors were perspicacious enough to teach themselves to read and write, we have been moving toward increasingly fragile media — from characters engraved on clay tablets and stone to characters printed on paper stock that will self-destruct in a hundred years to bits stored on magnetic or optical media that require a technology infrastructure
to interpret. If our descendants don’t stay on the same technological path, it may be as difficult to communicate with them as it will be to alien civilizations. We could relegate much of our knowledge base to oblivion, and the digital information database we are amassing will be of as much consequence as a Rosetta Stone with no key.
The need for advances in engineering and human factors like user interfaces stand between us and the paperless office. Eliminating paper depends on framing information in
a context that’s easier to use and share than paper. It assumes that access devices will be less cumbersome than computer monitors. Most importantly, technology has to be a conduit for and not a barrier to communication. Information must be accessible to the technologically averse. The blinking “12:00” in all of its manifestations must disappear before we will be able to abandon paper. And if we have our wits about us, we’ll discover a way to assure that we can share what we know with