It’s said that the paperless office is as much of a reality as the paperless bathroom. Nonetheless, in this era of electronics and electronic documents, there are still way too many important aspects of life that must be recorded on paper, often with actual physical signatures.
How often do you find yourself having to haul out the printer and scanner to print, manually sign, scan, and then email an important paper document? Or, even worse, fax it? How often do you find yourself filling out the exact same information on multiple forms, either from different businesses or even on different forms from the same business? How often do you need to be physically present in a particular location, at a particular time, simply so someone can ascertain that you did, indeed, physically sign a particular piece of paper in a particular place? And how often do you require this of your customers and business partners?
While there is legitimate concern about security, duplicating electronic signatures, identity theft, and so on, physical signatures can be forged as well. And there are certainly some legal requirements for paper-based processes. But isn’t the solution devising better security for electronic documents and signatures rather than forbidding them, and changing an archaic law rather than holding to it?
And once you — whether as a consumer or a businessperson — have filled out the paper form, then the organization itself needs to deal with it, as well as the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other paper forms it’s received that day. Perhaps it hires people to scan them in, rather than simply designing a form that can be filled out electronically to begin with.
How many of these documents have you had to fill out recently? How many of these paper-based documents does your business use?
Job applications. While it’s true that some positions do allow you to apply online, often they’re simply electronic versions of paper-based applications that require you to duplicate information from one application to another, sometimes within the same application, even if you’re already attaching a resume. It would make more sense to have a single file available so you only have to look up once who your manager was and exactly what month you left the job in 1993, and have all job applications able to intelligently extract the information required from it.
Mortgage applications. Not only are these forms long, arcane, and require a lot of duplicate information, they’re often legal-size documents that don’t easily fit into file drawers. In addition, they often require an absurd number of signatures, sometimes in the presence of a notary.
Contracts in general. These often require physical signatures, and are often non-electronic, or non-searchable electronic forms. If one were paranoid, one might even think they did this on purpose to make it more difficult to search for offending clauses.
Tax records. True, if you’re filling out your own taxes with tax preparation software, you likely end up with electronic searchable forms you can digitally sign. But far too many tax documents — often including W2s — need to be filled out or signed manually.
Credit applications. The vast majority of information on credit applications is identical between institutions, but the document can’t figure that out and repurpose any of the other credit applications you’ve filled out.
Medical records. There’s some promise about this with electronic health records, but still, on that initial visit, much of the information comes from multiple forms that you have to fill out manually — sometimes with the same information duplicated across different forms. Oh, the receptionist says apologetically, we can’t help that, it’s the form. Excuse me? Who’s running things here?
Legal documents. Served as executor for an estate lately? Get your printer, scanner, and pen ready. And that’s just one example.
Voter registration. While some states do support online voter registration, most do not, meaning that someone who wants to vote has to actually track down a form, fill it out and, in some cases, manually deliver it someplace for it to be recorded. It’s a lot of hoops for people — such as the disabled and the elderly — to jump through for something we *want* them to do.
Any number of local and state government forms. Whether it’s a business license that needs to be signed by multiple city departments or a car registration, chances are you need to fill out several of these a year.
While there are efforts like World Paperless Day, to a certain degree these miss the point, because they’re focused on things like not printing, using the unprinted sides for scratch paper, and so on. For the world truly to become paperless, the focus needs to be not on scanning and reducing the use of paper documents, but on creating actual born-digital versions of paper documents. These born-digital versions include information that can be more easily repurposed into other uses without time-consuming, error-prone copying or re-entering.
Instead of a paper world, or even digital copies of a paper world, let’s see what a digital world looks like.
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