Reducing the ministries’ excessive use of paper

On: October 20, 2010
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About Lennard Torbijn


In the early nineteen-eighties, computers became widely adopted by the Dutch ministries. Then, for a decade or so, the computer mainly acted as a replacement of the typewriter. The computer was primarily used for word processing and doing calculations. However, when the promise arose that the Internet would become widely used, the ministries were the first to be connected to it. The smaller local networks of computers were abandoned and almost instantly all the ministries were connected to the great network that is the Internet.

Just like the offline computer replaced each employee’s typewriter, the mobile phone replaced the pager. Even at this moment, the employee’s mobile phone is being replaced by the smartphone. Also, the offline local desktop computer has been replaced by the connected and online desktop computer, that has in turn long since been replaced by the workstations and flatscreens. The offline handheld devices have disappeared completely. Every laptop, computer, mobile phone, or smartphone in use now by a ministry employee is online.

Ever since the ministry’s computers have been online, e-mailing is what the online and connected computers are primarily used for. Together with word processing, e-mailing continues to dominate the work one does on the computer. Forwarding reports, papers, accounts, or any other attachment for that matter, has become so easy since communication went digital. Despite the fact that virtually every document nowadays has been constructed through the use of computers, Dutch ministries still make excessive use of paper.

Why has the typewriter been replaced, but the paper hasn’t?

I think everyone agrees that reading long e-mails, reports, etc. from a 19 inch flatscreen LCD is not a pleasant way of reading. The only alternative to reading from a computer screen has seemed to be printing. The strange thing is, Dutch ministries have always been real quick with adapting new technologies: computers, pagers, smartphones etc. The logical substitute of paper, the e-reader, has not found its way into the ministries yet.

Apart from any environmental concern, paper takes a lot of space. Also, paper can only be used once, and only for limited purposes. Once printed on, the sheet of paper itself is not to be used again. Ofcourse, through recycling paper can be used again. But the actual sheet of paper itself is only to be used once. An e-reader, however, can present an unlimited amount of documents.

Ideally, the e-reader, just like the mobile phone, or the PDA, must be a part of every ministry employee’s inventory. An e-reader provides a reading experience radically different than the computer screen does. An e-reader takes much less space than the ever more accumulating stacks of paper do. The great disadvantage of the e-reader may be that it is still a standalone device. The PDA’s in use by the ministry are integrated in the network, whereas for instance the Kindle e-reader is an offline device that has to be provided content through an offline connection manually. The iPad is a step towards a device that is not only an e-reader, but can also handle e-mail etc. However, its restricted use (i.e. no USB-ports, no Java applications), is an iPad characteristic that on the one hand makes it a handy, user-friendly device, but on the other makes the iPad a device that is not so easilly integrated in networks other than those supported by Apple, or designed by Apple.

So, here I propose using e-readers in large organisations, like ministries, but only if they can be fully integrated in the network to which the computers, PDA’s, phones are also connected. The e-reader may not need any additional hassle, because then paper still proves to be more handy.

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