When computer scientists set about creating the paperless office, they seriously underestimated the strength of the technology they were trying to replace.
Despite being invented before the wheel, a piece of paper is a surprisingly sophisticated device for storing paralinguistic information, weighs practically nothing and can be folded to fit your pocket.
Despite being an analogue device it has a very high resolution, supports thousands of typefaces and understands every language known to man. It can present both black-and-white and colour illustrations, and its high contrast makes it very easy to read. It also has an extraordinary long battery life if the Dead Sea scrolls are anything to go by.
It does have a poor resist-ance to some environmental forces, like fire and water, but will retain its content in the face of an electromagnetic disturbance.
Its layout can be used to store meta-data, as the way the text is broken shows complexity and its thickness g ives insight into the content's depth. Hypertext features like the table of contents, notes and indexes are supported, making them ideal for non-linear reading.
And in its largest form, "the book", it even smells nice.
Its major drawbacks are lack of a text search facility and, unless used in conjunct ion with a lead-based inscribing tool and a rubber, it remains a write-once medium. However, it does have many secondary uses, like carrying chips and lining the bottom of birdcages.
Its authentication system, the signature, although still legally binding, is weak. However, paper is a very robust technology, except in the environmental circumstances mentioned earlier. It cannot be as easily stolen as its electronic counterpart or infected with a virus, and alterations require the expert skills of a forger.
Paper doesn't need constant backing up by IT and their constant intervention in accessing, locating and storing it. Should it be lost or defaced, a replacement can be generated from its original electronic source.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle facing advocates of the paperless office is our cultural and political dependence on it to transmit non-linguistic information.
Piles of paper, or the lack of them, on our desk indicates our workload or our level of organisation, if neatly stacked or filed in impressively labelled folders. Also, being seen repeatedly walking to and from the printer should never be underestimated as a valuable way of looking busy.
That is why the paperless office will remain a myth. We like paper: it's easy to use, portable and doesn't need an IT department.
Despite being invented to reduce paper, office computer technology has been diverted by its users to create more of it. We may now be storing and transmitting the majority of our documents electronically, but all IT has effectively done is move the location of print-ing from the sender's office to that of the recipient.