Paper is still an important medium on which to record or convey information whether between individuals organisations. Why this reliance on paper in the age of IT? Various factors combine to explain this situation.
Readily produced, easy to handle and with a history harking back to the use of papyrus some 5,500 years ago, paper is a familiar, uncomplicated medium on which to record information. It requires no special technology or skill to use, and facilitates review and browsing of information.
In early days communication of information (other than by word-of-mouth) required manuscripts to be transcribed to enable wider distribution, thereby providing the first example of a ‘copy’. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th century overcame this problem and hence the publishing industry was born.
The coming of the typewriter in the late 18th century was a major ‘information technology’ development. It enabled a much wider population to record or capture of information and, from a social perspective, greatly influenced female employment prospects and social and physical arrangements in the office; the word ‘typewriter’ originally referred to the female operator rather than the machine itself. Its impact was certainly greater than that which would be encountered later with the introduction of computer-based word-processing.
Carbon paper used between two sheets of ordinary paper to make one or more copies of an original document was developed in the early 1800s and was initially used to copy hand-written private or business documents. Its use expanded greatly with the availability of typewriters.
It together with stencil technologies such as the mimeograph enabled small numbers of copies to be reproduced automatically for distribution, reference or safe-guard against loss. Although the later development of the photocopier caused the demise of carbon paper and its later derivatives in most offices and businesses, it has survived in the world of emails as ‘cc’ (carbon copy) to indicate additional copies for distribution.
The late 19th century saw the invention of microfilm by René Dagron, who was granted the first patent for microfilm in 1859. By the early part of the 20th century microfilm was being adopted commercially to save space and costs and this usage increased greatly on into the 1980s using a variety of formats – roll film, aperture cards (microfilm image mounted in a punched card), and microfiche (rectangular sheets of film). Microfilm is not primarily a substitute for paper and hence the ‘all-paper’ world was virtually unassailable until the coming of computers whose development, like many advances, was largely boosted by the Second World War.
Early applications of computers were not focussed so much on replacing paper but rather on producing paper documents more effectively. Allied technology such as fax machines and photocopiers did little to dampen the enthusiasm for paper. Computers initially needed manual intervention to undertake calculations. Punched cards were then used, these having the digital information represented by the presence or absence of holes in predefined positions. Then came the ability to store the required actions as programs and execute them from the computer’s memory, thereby eliminating the need for manual intervention or the cards.
The miniaturisation of components and advances in manufacture made computers increasingly affordable. However a major attraction for users was the introduction of standardized software for the production of text documents, tabular material in the form of spreadsheets and graphical output, as exemplified by Microsoft and its Office Suite. The ability of individuals to control what they produced and to manage their output in electronic form, rather than solely in paper, was liberating.
However effective management of information was now more challenging given the proliferation of electronic records and the need to organize these along with paper versions and perhaps microfilmed archives. Communication networks, higher capacity storage systems and the birth of email provided the opportunity to share electronic records but also highlighted the need to agree on ways to organize electronic folders (whether private or public) to facilitate finding the required information. These were embryonic document management systems using the basic metadata of electronic files and folders and of the office software to organize and classify the records.
The development of scanners from early telephotography input devices in the 1920s enabled the conversion of paper documents, and later microfilm itself, into an electronic form. Initially using dedicated screens and imaging software, scanners came into greater prominence as storage systems and computer hardware were able to offer the required capacity and speed, and as imaging standards were put in place. Although document image processing, subsequently embedded in document management systems, fostered the vision for managing all recorded information in electronic form, in reality this vision has not been fully realised and must await technology that matches the alluring nature of paper as a medium.
Arguably the more significant advances have centred around communication technology. The development of the text-based internet arising from US military requirements in the early 1970s was followed by the creation of the World Wide Web in the 90s which allowed multimedia communication and the creation of new forms of mediated interaction as well as commercial opportunities.
On the software front, the relational database designed by IBM in the 1970s was a major advance as structured data about the information and the means to manage it could be readily stored, accessed and extended without requiring all the existing applications to be altered. Relational technology remains at the heart of modern electronic document, records and content management systems.
The major challenge has been to process and enable the searching of unstructured information contained in text documents and emails. The automatic indexing of content can be traced to Salton (1989). It involves mechanical analysis of the words in a document and typically the creation of a ‘book-type’ index providing a pointer from a search term in the index to where it can be found in the document. Although such ‘inverted files’ are still used to find ‘keywords’, great strides have been made to understand the idea behind a search term or phrase and the context in which they appear – so called conceptual searching. Software technology is now available to enable searching across all types of information system in or available to an organization. This federated searching capability is important as increasingly organizations must be able to demonstrate that a search has covered every nook and cranny to find relevant information.
Despite the importance of paper as a convenience medium rather than as the master record, digital information has long predominated. According to mass storage company Seagate, by 2025 there will be 175 zettabytes of data in the global datasphere (a zetabyte is 2 to the 70th power bytes) – all spread across a vast number of storage devices. Managing this data and these information containers creates a tremendous management challenge for both businesses and consumers. Of that portion of the digital universe created by individuals, less than half can be accounted for by user activity. The rest constitutes a digital ‘shadow’ of surveillance photos, Web search histories, financial transaction journals, mailing lists, and so on. Pixelated papyri are likely to be included in this digital universe! (1)
So why consider using a typewriter now?
The development of typewriters has long been a source of fascination for those with an interest in technological developments. The fact that many of us are of a certain age may engender feelings of nostalgia, and there is a growing awareness of the benefits that can accrue with their use:
- Typed paper documents are immediately available – no need to initiate printing
- The document is human readable, requiring no additional technology
- With care paper documents can be preserved for 100s of years
- No need for electricity to power them
- Immune to computer malware
- You can’t lose a document by failing to hit the save button
- Consumables such as typewriter ribbons are much cheaper than ink or toner printer cartridges
- They make the user think before hitting the keyboard as making corrections is more difficult
- They are a distraction-free way to write
- They are just fun to use!
Examples of old typewriters I’ve examined
A Remington Travel-riter de Luxe – see post
An Underwood Noiseless portable – see post
A Facit Privat typewriter – see post
An Olympia Splendid 66 – see post
An L C Smith Corona 4 – see post