Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Demon of Writing and the Myth of the Paperless Office

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork
Ben Kafka

The Myth of the Paperless Office
Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper

Here we have two academic books about paper, one new and one old. The Myth of the Paperless Office deals with paper from the perspective of organizational behavior; The Demon of Writing deals with it in a manner that is historical, psychoanalytic, and political. Paperless addresses the uses of paper in the service of (presumably "good" - although readers may have their own opinions on the World Bank) organizational ends; Demon addresses how paper can both serve and subvert organizational ends, and those ends are, if not quite interrogated, at least critiqued. Both address what Paperless calls the affordances of paper - its ability to be written upon, shared, lost, or soaked in water and disposed of in the Seine.

That Sellen and Harper's book is readable isn't shocking, as both are industrial reseachers accustomed to explaining things to outsiders. More surprising is that Kafka's book is readable as well - Kafka writes with an accessible, even conversational, tone rare among those fluently conversant with Barthes and Zizek (admittedly, chapter four really does require at least a masters degree in a postmodern-influenced social sciences/humanities discipline to get through with one's self-esteem intact). This, surely, is one of the reasons it's become a hit, as much as academic books are ever "a hit." Humor even surfaces occasionally, as in Kafka's characterization of certain highly visible records as the "'charismatic megafauna' of paperwork," or in Sellen and Harper's discussion of their research at the World Bank. The thought of two ethnographers studying 500 economists is nearly irresistible to anyone in the social sciences, although the authors play this one straight.

In some sense, both volumes deal with the interplay of ideas, objects, and people, and the consequences of this interplay. "Not only was power resistible; it was water soluble," Kafka tells us. Sellen and Harper stay away from bigger ideas such as power in favor of ground-level questions such as Does it work? The latter book is outdated in some ways, of course; 11 years is a long time in tech. Today's entrepreneurs are unlikely to tear stories out of newspapers or carry beepers, and the book's prediction that the coming e-readers would be much more used for work than leisure reading has turned out precisely backwards. Yet much else has not changed; recently my students complained about e-textbooks because they don't have some of the affordances of paper, such as tactilely knowing how far you are in a document, or enabling a visual memory of where a particular passage is located. Sellen and Harper excel at documenting these issues and explaining why they aren't going away, even with technology-marinated generations replacing presumably hidebound older generations.

What both books bring home is how the technology of administration - be it oral, paperwork, or on a computers - shapes how work is done, but that shaping has limits. Replacing paper with computers doesn't endow computer screens with flexibility, portability, or high data density, just a few of the things paper excels at. But it would have freed up any number of copyists in the French Revolution to do more substantive work.