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Paperless office? Ha! How about a paperless life?

Is it possible to make everything digital? Is it desirable?

February 28, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The invention of the PC was supposed to usher in the "paperless office," a completely digital workplace without paper memos, forms, files or records. But that vision was ruined by another invention -- the printer. Now offices have more paper than ever.

So you can forget about ever working in a paperless office. But what about a paperless life?

Just three years ago, achieving a completely paperless personal life was very difficult to do. But since then, a wide range of products and services has become available that makes it much easier and much better. I'm going to tell you about those in a minute.

As a kind of "lifestyle experiment," I've been trying to completely eliminate paper as a data storage medium for the past six months. I've gotten rid of most check-based bill paying, moved most of my reading to digital forms, nearly stopped paper mail from coming to my house, eliminated paper records and nearly purged all paper-based files. I've gotten into the habit of literally photographing anything with words on it that I might want to remember later, and uploading them on a service I'm going to tell you about.

I'm now ready to declare my experiment a success.

The biggest upside to going paperless is that finding information is more like a Google search and less like a scavenger hunt. But I'm also a lot more productive and waste a lot less time, and my life is a lot less cluttered.

Another benefit -- also hard to quantify -- is that I can get all my information from anywhere. So regardless of whether I'm at home, at a local restaurant or traveling in Thailand, I can get access to all my records as long as I have Internet access or a cell phone.

Some aspects of going paperless cost more. But I've found these offset by savings elsewhere. For example, getting all postal mail delivered electronically isn't cheap. But getting books, newspapers and magazines electronically has saved me hundreds of dollars per year. On balance, going paperless saves me a little money, but not a lot.

I've also found that, despite my Utopian goals, going completely paperless isn't possible, at least for me. Paying my city for services like trash pickup and water absolutely requires paper checks sent by mail or delivered in person. Some books simply are not available in digital form yet. And, of course, there are documents like passports that have to be physical. Police officers aren't impressed when you show them a picture of your driver's license on a cell phone, for example.

Despite all this, going as paperless as possible is worth doing -- the less paper, the better.

The biggest objection many have is that online records may be less secure. But that's only true sometimes and potentially. Paper records aren't all that secure, either. If you're like most people, you rely on a single paper copy of, say, receipts for taxes. Those are potentially vulnerable to theft, loss, fire and other hazards. If you're careful about encryption and good password management, and retain redundant copies of your records electronically, you can maximize security with all-digital records.



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