The Paperless Office Arrives (Again)

Monday, July 11, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

The paperless office seems to arrive every few years.  We heard the big push to eliminate paper in favor of electronic records already decades ago, e.g., a 1975 article from Business Week, “The Office of the Future”.  Despite the repeated promises and reiterated vision, we have used more, not less paper.  The diagram below is gathered from, showing the paper products usage in North America from 1961 to 2005.  Our voracious fiber appetite has only recently started to level off. 


My own office is not paperless yet. I actually work in a couple different offices and all of them seem to go through reams of paper.  It is too easy to print and thus we print web pages out for a little coupon or for a single confirmation number rather than writing down a few digits.  We print entire manuals and books to avoid purchasing them.  We print it out “just in case”. 

Christians should consider their roles as stewards when using so much paper.  As God’s hired managers of the earth’s resources, we are not free to abuse our position and use obscene amounts of any resource without regard to our impact on the overall ecosystem.  But we gorge ourselves on paper.  Is this not the vice of gluttony?

Why do I print?  Sometimes I need the information for a meeting.  Only in this last year have I attempted to leave meeting notes (agenda, minutes, reports, and the like) on my laptop and carry that to meetings – rather than printing it all out for the meeting and then recycling the stack.  It is working out for the most part.  There are still a few drawbacks to going electronic:

  • Paper is easier on the eyes than a computer display, though my laptop has good resolution and contrast that is almost equal to the task. 
  • I can more quickly mark up paper or add notes.  True, I can highlight text in an electronic document or add a comment on the side with either my current version of MS Word or with Preview for PDF docs.  However, this ability to annotate is relatively recent and isn’t quite as fast as pen and paper, though it is getting close. 
  • Sharing a document on paper with a colleague sitting next to me is slightly easier with paper sitting on the desk between us compared to angling my laptop screen. 
  • I can control paper documents more easily.  Confidential information can be handed around at a meeting and then re-gathered to be shredded afterwards.  Once distributed, ensuring deletion of electronic information is much more difficult. 

Stacked up against those drawbacks, electronic information also has some advantages:

  • I can search for a word within the document or across multiple documents much more quickly electronically than by eye for any document larger than a paragraph or so.
  • I can edit a document into a new version much more easily electronically (on paper, I’d merely note the changes and then do the actual revision electronically at a later time).
  • Using email or copying off a flash drive, I can share an electronic document faster than I can photocopy paper to share it.

Along with the rest of us, medical offices have been slow to move to electronic records, partly in concern over patient privacy, but also because they find it daunting to even contemplate the task of transferring massive amounts of information from paper to electronic.  However, there are some clear advantages to electronic records, such as the ease of sharing key data among several care providers – a prevalent need because many patients have multiple providers for a single illness due to specialization of the providers.  One positive example of a move to electronic records is a story from British Columbia, Canada, where they moved scheduling of cancer care from paper calendars to an electronic system:  “Until a year ago, chemotherapy scheduling was all done by hand on paper.  Last year, newly diagnosed cancer patients were likely to wait an average of 11 days for their first chemotherapy treatment at the Vancouver Centre of the BC Cancer Agency.  This year, thanks to the new software launched in June 2010, they’re likely to wait just five days.”  (Tracy Sherlock, “Scheduling tool cuts chemo waits,” The Vancouver Sun,  28 June 2011).

I wouldn’t recommend buying a laptop for the sole purpose of reducing one’s paper use.  You would need to save quite a number of trees worth of paper before you would offset the resource use in one laptop.  (Anyone know the tree-to-laptop exchange rate these days?)  But if you already have a laptop, then by all means, try saving some paper!  Even a desktop user can save paper at their own workstation by learning to use electronic annotation tools rather than printing something simply to mark it up with notes.  You can save paper bags at the grocery store by using the newly fashionable reusable fabric grocery bags.  Consider more intentional recycling at your work and home.  Both my offices (at Calvin and at DornerWorks) recycle paper, so when I do need to print, I make sure the paper goes in the right bin after I’m done with it.  Software engineers can help us fill our role as stewards by continuing to refine our software applications working with documents so that we can easily read, annotate, collaborate, and share our information without the need to print.  A low-fiber document diet at the office and our homes will make our planet a healthier place.


What the Bible says about Kangaroos and iPads

Sunday, July 03, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Kangaroos must not exist because they aren’t mentioned in the Bible.  That was how my friend Bob Keeley answered a student (during the class on science fiction that we co-taught a few years ago) who “proved” that there could not be any other life in the universe because aliens from outer space aren’t mentioned in the Bible.  But of course there are many things we know exist, yet are not found in scripture:  kangaroos, penguins, and the planet Neptune, to name a few.  While we haven’t picked up signs of life outside of earth (yet!), there are certainly many devices that have been invented since Biblical times and thus we do not have any direct scriptural guidance on how we should use them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t infer some solid principles for designing and using technology.

Apple recently released their newest touch device, the iPad2.  Although it offers some interesting new features over the original iPad (such as a faster processor, front and back cameras, and FaceTime, the Apple video-phone application), it is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary improvement.  Even the original iPad was just one more attempt at producing a technically effective and commercially successful tablet computer – and by most accounts it appears that Apple has hit this target niche well. The iPad2 features a 1 GHz dual-core low-power microprocessor (the custom designed A5 mobile processor).  This provides a faster response (particularly for video and pictures) than the original iPad.  The display is a bit smaller than a sheet of paper (the case is 7.3 x 9.5” with about an inch of border on each side of the display).  The display itself is 9.7” diagonal with a resolution of 1024x768.  It is quite thin – the iPad2 is .34” thick, compared to the original iPad at 0.5”. It weighs 1.3 pounds.  Price starts out at $500 (more for 3G cellular data connection and more for higher capacity flash memory beyond the standard 16GB).  In one sense, the iPad is a giant-screened version of the iPod Touch or iPhone, tapping into the 400,000+ mobile apps from Apple.  In another sense it is an electronic reader, competing with the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook.  It also serves as an electronic photo frame when it runs a photo screen saver as it sits on your coffee table or kitchen counter.  I have even seen people using the iPad in place of a laptop, typing away on the virtual on-screen keyboard for email or word-processing, though I suspect most of us still prefer the tactile feel of physical keys for speed-typing.

Now let’s try applying a few Biblical principles (or call them norms or virtues if you like).  The cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 calls for imaginative cultivation of the creation, including development of technology.  I think the iPad is a nice example of aesthetic, smart design, fitting this principle well.  It integrates some key technologies (flash memory, high resolution touch display, low-power mobile microprocessor, wireless communication) in a beautiful aluminum and glass case with software that is quite intuitive. 

However, early Genesis not only calls us to develop the creation and culture, but also directs us to steward the resources we find, making careful use of the materials in the creation.  The principle of stewardship has restrained me in this case – I didn’t run out to buy a new iPad2 to replace my now outdated iPad1.  This is always a tough call, especially for technology connoisseurs who can’t wait to sample the latest and greatest high-tech gadgets.  Moore’s law continues to drive the computer technology curve on an exponential rise and thus newer products too quickly outpace our suddenly “old” devices.  My evaluation of stewardship runs through several levels.  First, is the personal expenditure justified?  Second, even if I can afford it, is this the best use of those funds.  Third, even if the financial questions are satisfied, what is the environmental impact?  For computer gadgetry, I need to consider the use of exotic and sometimes toxic materials that are packaged in ways that make them extremely difficult to extract once the device is discarded.  This one is easy to forget at the front end, when I’m purchasing the device and the thought of eventual disposal rarely crosses my mind.  Apple has made some strides towards making electronics slightly more friendly to the environment. The iPad2 display is free of mercury and arsenic; the aluminum and glass case is relatively easy to recycle.  The new societal emphasis on environmentalism is helping to drive this, and Apple takes advantage of this drive by marketing their devices as environmentally friendly (though this is only relative to other electronic devices that are notoriously difficult to recycle).

Humility in design acknowledges that something could go wrong.  Like most consumer electronics today, Apple provides a limited warranty and then offers a service package at additional cost.  This is a form of humility because the provider recognizes the potential need for repair of the device in the future.  The software apps on the device are easily updated, not only to add new features, but also to fix bugs – again, a form of humility.  The principle of humility also applies to the user of the iPad. Expensive, cutting-edge electronics are often purchased in order to boast:  owning such a machine demonstrates one’s wealth or intelligence.  However, this is the sin of pride, the opposite of humility.  Our pride should be in Christ alone, not in ourselves or our wealth or our treasure.

It doesn’t stop here either.  Biblical principles such as justice, love, and truthfulness also apply to the iPad.  Although the Bible was written in the language of the time and reflects the culture and society of that era, the authors were inspired by God to write timeless truths, giving us sure guidelines even for things the Biblical writers never envisioned, from kangaroos to iPads.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest