Nao passes along a fascinating New Yorker book review discussing two books about the "paperless office." The conclusion seems to be that paper is a remarkably good way to perform various tasks that would be much less intuitive on a computer.

On the one hand, this draws to the fore several nagging concerns I've had about the viability of "electronic paper" and other attempts at replacing paper. Paper does provide a unique and very useful set of affordances—I had already seen that spacial placement of notes/annotations is a lot easier on paper than on a computer, and this article points out several other ways in which paper makes jobs easier.

On the other hand, I think that most of those affordances can be adapted to electronic form more easily than most people realize. I don't know whether Susan and Chris ever print out the submissions we receive, but I don't (except when I was mailing our published stories to Year's Best anthologies, but now Susan does that); from my point of view, SH is a completely paperless operation. Submissions via email, everything stored in searchable mailbox files and a database, editing inline in text files, correspondence via email. A traditional editor would probably be horrified at the inability to mark up a document, and it's true that something is lost there; I have to type a little extra to provide context. Instead of using the efficient deletion mark, I have to type "Deleted 'zoogle' here; unnecessary." On the other hand, I type a lot faster than I write by hand, and explicit comments make clearer why I'm making a particular edit, which make it easier for an author to decide whether to accept that edit or not. And when I'm editing on paper (and I've done a lot of that recently, for work), I write these long-winded comments by hand (slow) and they sprawl all over the page, running into each other and having to be separated by lines drawn all over. Pro technical editors I've worked with handle this by saying "see comment" and typing up the comments in a separate document; but if the edit is done on the computer in the first place, you can put the comment right there.

And there are two technologies that I don't use that would make that job much easier. One is that MS Word will track insertions and deletions, displaying insertions in a different color and deletions as crossed-out text. This is way cool, and if Word weren't such a pain in so many other ways, that feature alone would almost make it worth switching to. (FrameMaker can do a document-comparison, sort of like what "diff" does for text files; I use that feature all the time. I also use BBEdit's similar line-comparison feature all the time while doing magazine editing.)

The other technology is PDF. If you have Adobe Acrobat (not just Acrobat Reader), you can attach electronic sticky notes to a document, represented by a little quarter-inch icon. This doesn't disrupt the flow or layout of the document, and you can be as long-winded as you want. There are disadvantages to this technology too, but I think it's a pretty big step in the right direction.

My real point is not about specific technologies, so much as it is about the fact that the affordances provided by paper can often be mimicked and sometimes even improved on computers. We're not there yet, and we may not be for some time. But if you're forced into circumstances where paper isn't an option (as we are with the magazine, given how widely separated the fiction editors are in space), sometimes the advantages of electronic forms become clearer. Computers aren't a panacea, of course, just a tool. But I think that it's easy to forget that if a software tool lacks a particular attribute, the tool can often be improved to provide that attribute.

You don't even want to know what I think of Nicholson Baker's famous paean to the card catalog.

Join the Conversation