Thursday, February 19, 2015

False Promises and Paperless Offices

 Remember those cock-sure computer commercials from the early ‘90s with all that bluster about how the paperless office was right around the corner?

They jumped the gun a little. In fact it started to look like it would never happen.

Studies found that paper consumption actually went up in the ‘90s. Type a letter. Print it out, see how it looks. Make a couple edits. Print it out again, take another look. Make more edits. Print it out again. See a recipe on the Internet? Print it out . . . and five unwanted pages spit out, too. In the ‘90s paper use was actually increasing 6-7% a year.

About that same time we were told books would quickly become rare fetish objects. That didn’t happen either. Books, dog-eared files and Post-it notes were hard to shake.

The paperless office promise may finally be coming true, but it sure took awhile.

The lag between technology arrival and society’s acceptance happened over a century ago with electricity. In the 1880s folks were amused and more than a little freightened by electricity. Sure, they were wowed by the early lamps and electric motors, but newspapers sensationalized stories of big city folks electrocuted when they stepped into a puddle of water that rested above a buried, faulty cable, or got shocked or had their houses burned down by a primitive electric toaster. And using it wasn’t practical. Early power stations didn’t run 24 hours a day and you’d have to get your house wired up, buy a bunch of appliances, and then hope you didn’t get eletricuted by that invisible force.

You can imagine people thinking, “Awe fuck it! Let’s just light the gas lamp and keep making toast in the skillet with pork lard.”

But the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 changed all that. Folks saw the city-sized fair grounds lit by electricity. They were transported on moving sidewalks powered by electricity. They saw improved toasters, electric lamps, stoves, telephones, and every manner of machine that could be powered by electric motors. That fair had the greatest attendance of any temporary event in U.S. history and is credited with demystifying electricity for Americans. Jump ahead 20 years: the average American home could be lit, heated, and fed by electricity. It took a generation for the technology to become truly functional and for folks to get comfortable with the idea.

The early predictions that computers would eliminate paper use were similar.

People are reading fewer paperbound books now, as was predicted, but that took time, too, and I figure that’s only half because they found something easier than paper. Some of the reason people don’t read books is because they’ve developed short attention spans. Who has time to read a book with all that Honey Boo-Boo and CSI and YouTube to watch?

But of course people also don’t read paper books because they’re reading Kindles and iPads and Nooks. Some folks like to grumble about this, but I don’t think it’s bad at all. A couple winters ago I read the entire Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series on my iPhone while riding a stationary bike at the gym. Last winter I read The Old Man And the Sea and Things Fall Apart. That’s five books I read on my phone rather than watching cat GIFs and reading snarky memes on Facebook.

How can that be bad?

And now my own real estate company has finally introduced a document system that truly IS revolutionizing my industry. Lemme tell ya, real estate offices have been huge wasters of paper – making multiple copies of every damn document in a transaction. But consider this: Last week I received a purchase agreement that was created on a computer. The buyer had signed it electronically – no touch screen needed, just credentials sufficient to allow them to click-in a facsimile signature. I uploaded it to my company’s new document system, called Dotloop, added language saying we were submitting a counter offer and invited my seller to create an identity so he could sign electronically. We negotiated the entire offer with no party printing out a single piece of paper. The inspection, complete with photos was submitted electronically and negotiated using the same software.

Note that my seller was in Florida the entire time, is over 70 years old and a little intimidated by technology. But he had little trouble with the simple software instructions.

Until just weeks ago, when transactions were finished, Realtors in my company submitted thick paper files we were required by law to keep for several years. Now, we’ll submit an accumulated electronic file for approval, and it’s stored in “the cloud.” No paper. No file. No warehouse with years of files.

And I’m a “mobile agent.” My office is called, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone;” wherever I lay my laptop is my home. So I love this new paperless world. My desk is in my backpack and my office immediately appears wherever I sit down and open my phone or computer. But breezing through my company’s local office, I still pass other agent’s private offices that have desks and file cabinets and credenzas and I wonder what they keep in all that furniture. That’s the next revolution: why do we have this building and all this furniture? I meet my clients at Noble Coffee, Matteo’s, Starbucks, and at their kitchen tables and they can sign documents with their finger on a phone?

And just like a century ago when light bulbs were being bought by folks for the first time and their gas lamps were being pulled down and thrown in the trash, history is quietly taking place in my office this year. File cabinets are emptying and will start disappearing. We have no need for them in a paperless office. That old promise is finally being realized.

The most recent: The Great Electric Railway Swindle of 1893


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