Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Paperless Life will liberate our souls

Well, at least the kind of paper employed primarily for disseminating information. I see this happening from this report that product discount coupons in the form of bar codes can now be sent to customers' cellphones which can be scanned in the store and immediately erased:

Samplesaint Inc., a mobile marketing company in Chicago, for example, has developed technology that lets supermarket scanners pick up the image of a coupon bar code directly from the display on a cellphone. In Samplesaint’s system, coupons are sent directly to consumers’ cellphones by text message. The coupon’s bar code is small enough to fit on the screen of any mobile phone, said Walid Johnson, director of research and development.

Samplesaint erases the coupons from the cellphone after they are scanned at the supermarket, an action that reduces coupon fraud, he said. “Once coupons are used, they can’t be forwarded or sent on to anyone else,” he said. “We remove them from the phone.”
This is going to inexorably drive the adoption of smartphones by the population. And that, along with move to transferring much of one's information to the Cloud will increasingly obviate the need for offices -- or even reporting to an office. The office is a modern, bureaucratic invention that provided the infrastructure and information resources for information workers to carry on their duties. With mobile devices and practically all required information available in the cloud, a traditional office merely provides the space and furniture for a worker to sit and do their work, in close proximity to colleagues. It is part of folklore, however, that an office is perhaps the worst sort of place to conduct work -- it dehumanizes and sucks the soul out of the individual. Without the need for traditional spaces and furniture it is possible now to dream up entirely different designs for offices that do not evoke the sickly images of dark, dank spaces filled with musty old stacks of files and rickety furniture, the entire ambience seething with gloom, dread and apathy.

It is time now to start think of creating contexts and opportunities for conducting work (while remaining human), rather than seeking office space. An organization's identity used to be -- and to a large extent, largely is -- intimately entwined with the edifices that house its offices. The office has been a means for individuals to feel a sense of their own power as they supervise a number of subordinates and a way to flaunt their sense of importance. It is a space to engage in politics, to send subtle and overt signals based on the location and form of offices and also to keep close tabs on employees to ensure that they accomplish their assigned work -- the assumption being that work is equivalent to visible presence. This, in many ways, is equivalent to class attendance and regurgition of information in exams being surrogates for actual learning.

It is among the great tragedies of our age that Learning and Work have been so thoroughly debased as to be represented by unworthy surrogates mostly founded on physical presence and subservience rather than on measures driven by initiative and accomplishment.

Perhaps the new, increasingly powerful technologies will enable us to drastically transform education and work and return to human beings their essential humanity.

I started this post by exploring the implications of doing things through ubiquitous mobile devices that once required the use of paper. I see now that these technologies, although they keep us connected --and hence, in some sense, shackled -- can also lead to our liberation from some of the most oppressive structures and processes that industrial era bureaucracies and organizations have inflicted on society; that which brings us closer, may also, paradoxically, free us all.