MAY 2016 IN

Electronic Documents Are Shrinking Too

The use of paper is declining for the first time in history as paper documents become fewer and smaller. The common understanding of this trend is that paper documents are being replaced by electronic documents. In many cases, that’s accurate, but in some ways, electronic documents are also part of the trend away from documents. Electronic documents too are getting smaller and less numerous in many areas.

The use of paper has to shrink because of the high cost of paper, printing, transportation, and storage. These considerations don’t apply to electronic documents, but all the other costs of documents are still there when a document makes the leap to electronic form — and some costs are increased. Most obviously, electronic documents are harder to keep secure. The Panama Papers, a leak a month ago of millions of pages of documents related to offshore shell companies, was possible only because all the documents were in electronic form and in a single repository. Where a paper document might theoretically be noticed as having gone missing, there is no such clue when an electronic document has been copied.

Electronic documents are also more likely to mislead. Mostly this happens when the information in the document is out of date. It’s hard to know where a document has landed after it has been distributed, so it is rarely possible to recall a document. For the most part, all a document author can do is date every edition of a document and hope that readers check back for up-to-date information. To an extent this risk can be minimized by not including the most rapidly obsoleted data in some documents, but referring readers to online, up-to-date sources for that information.

In general, the demands on a document are smaller now because few documents in the digital era must serve in relative isolation. It is less important to copy information from one document to another if the reader can go to the original source for related information. We didn’t quite realize how often we were repeating information in multiple documents, I think, until we started to realize we didn’t have to do it anymore. Of course, whenever information has not been repeated in so many places, that reduces the burden of updating information that has become obsolete.

Some documents have disappeared altogether because it is sufficient to have the data in the database. The software company that in the 1990s issued a new 2-page printed employee directory every month so employees could call each other on the phone is not now producing an electronic version of that document. Instead, when needed, employees look up each other’s phone extensions directly in the database.

It is no great feat to generate documents automatically by the millions from a database, but to what end? The ultimate cost of a document is attention, and the cost of reading a document continues even if the writing can now be taken over by an automated process. It pays, then, to economize even on documents that are free to create, and accordingly, the trend is to create documents more reluctantly, to make them less comprehensive, and to retain them for a shorter time.

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