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A Digital Life: Trying to go paper-free? I almost pulled it off

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I discovered this spring that I had to file my taxes on paper, rather than via e-filing. Because I didn’t own a printer, I spent a lot of time walking to my local FedEx and using their services to print my tax documents. Not only was it an expensive experience, it was frusterating: FedEx is only open for a limited number of hours a day, and half the time, it seemed like the printer was jammed.

Once, the printer I was using refused to print my documents, which, of course, were full of important information like my Social Security number. The FedEx employee assured me that the printer wouldn’t spit those documents out later for other patrons to view. But the following week, another jam produced someone else’s abaondoned tax papers, and they had the same kind of sensitive information I had been concerned about. It was obviously an imperfect solution.

So this year, I broke down and purchased a printer, after years of being persuaded that I could live a digital-only existance. It was easy to buy a printer, and relatively cheap. But having the thing sitting on my desk and taking up valuable space is a constant reminder that we’re still very much in a transition period when it comes to digital documents and communication. Even if I wanted to live a paper-free life, it only takes one person or scenario that’s comitted to paper to kill that dream.

I made it paper-free for so long that I was surprised to find I needed a printer at all. Like a lot of people, most of my documents are entirely digital at this point: I depend on Gmail to save most important information, from my doctor’s name to my frequent flier numbers to my favorite pie recipe. I read books through my Kindle app, and take pictures of receipts to email to myself. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s pretty easy.

I’m not alone in trying to lead a fully digital existence, only to be pulled back to an earlier era. “The network effects of documents and paper is very strong,” Joseph Walla, the CEO of HelloFax, told me. Walla is someone who thinks about paper a lot: His business helps people send and receive faxes when they don’t have a fax machine.

“It just takes one person in your network to require faxing or paper and suddenly it makes you do it, too,” Walla said. “If you’re a business, and you have to interact with me, but I require you to send me invoices with a fax machine, you’re not going to say, ‘I’m not going to do this, I don’t want your $10,000 in business.’ The only way you can stop faxing is if I stop faxing.”

If you live or work in the tech industry, it’s easy to think that technology like printers or scanners or fax machines are becoming obsolete. But in reality, that’s not the case for everyone. People in Japan still love the fax machine, as a recent New York Times article pointed out — in 2011, 100 percent of businesses and 45 percent of homes in Japan had fax machines, so anyone doing business there (or with Japanese counterparts) might still need to fax.

In the U.S., certain industries like law or finance or health care that rely extensively on sensitive documents to do business are still more reliant on paper than other industries. And have you signed a lease on an apartment recently, bought a house, or recieved HR documents for a new job? Chances are good you worked with paper versions of documents.

Since I bought my printer, I’ve found that I actually haven’t used it much. Aside from printing some tax documents, I’ve used it maybe three or four times. Once to scan a stack of papers to send to my landlord (which I could have done more slowly with a scanner app on my iPhone), and a few times to print shipping labels and return something I bought online. With the memories of my trips to FedEx still fresh, it feels like an anachronistic luxury every time I send a document to the printer.

Market research has found that businesses are trying to get rid of printers, copiers and fax machines, and they’re encouraging employees to print less as a cost-saving measure. In fact, GigaOM is a great example of a company that’s gone mainly paper-free: We use Expensify for receipts and reimbursements, Google apps for business for email and calendars, TriNet for human resources and paperless payroll, and Socialcast for communicating across the company. The only time I interact with paper at work is usually when I attend conferences and someone hands me a paper name badge or schedule, or when I exchange business cards with someone (a practice that just won’t go away).

So my goal for 2014? Ditch the printer that seemed so useful in 2013.

5 Responses to “A Digital Life: Trying to go paper-free? I almost pulled it off”

  1. Kim Spence-Jones

    You don’t need a fax machine to send/receive faxes. PC add-ons have been available for decades. And you can paste your signature onto the electronic document you’re about to fax where that’s required. (Which just shows what a nonsense it is to require a signature on a faxed document.)

  2. @mfocazio

    >There are certain documents that are too important to be trusted to fragile electronics

    Well said. Putting things in your corner of the cloud makes plenty of sense, but who is going to own that 50 years from now, or even 10 years from now?

    Meanwhile, it’s hard to beat acid-free paper.

  3. mfocazio

    Going paperless has pitfalls that you might not expect.
    Here are three examples that you might not have thought of. All have happened to me and have forced me back to paper for a number of situations.

    1. If you fly and want to use those smartphone boarding passes, good luck if you’re hoping to actually board your plane. Not all TSA lines have the ability to scan the boarding pass (this happens at LAX all the time in the morning) but you don’t find this out until you’re at the mid-point of the line – the point before where you actually line up for the pornoscanners. Then you have to go to a kiosk, print a board pass they can scribble on, and miss your flight. So you really should carry a printed boarding pass.

    2. If you have gone “paperless” with your bills, make sure you’re downloading and storing and backing up every damn bill, because if you’re not, rest assured, you’ll lose access to those e-records one day when the biller changes their system or is acquired.

    3. I’ve never had a piece of paper fail because it got wet or ran out of batteries or could not connect to the internet. There are certain documents that are too important to be trusted to fragile electronics – these range from identity documents to reference materials. In all cases where a document really matters, I’ve left it on paper, in a safe. Nothing digital is as safe and secure.

    With all that said, I know I sound like a luddite, but in reality, all of these cases are the result of years and years of trying – and failing due to external realities – to go paperless.

    • Eliza Kern

      That’s a good point about TSA docs — I had a friend miss a flight when they wouldn’t accept her mobile boarding pass. Assume that’s becoming less of an issue now, but I understand people who don’t use them.

  4. Great thoughts! Thanks for sharing. I definitely tried to move away, but I can’t escape my hand-written daily list. And it seems like so many businesses need to catch up on technology as a whole before we can move forward in a paper-free land. For example, so many people still do not accept digitally signed docs, so we need to print, sign and scan/fax back. Convenience and efficiency seem to hit a roadblock called ‘the way things have always been done’.