Someone Please Get Rid of Paper

Printing has never been a large part of my life with computers. I remember when I was Novell and we needed to print something in color, there was puzzling amount of communication regarding how to get it done that usually ended up in asking a mac user to print it. Sometimes eating your own dog food is painful.

Recently at work I’ve had to turn in some hard copy materials. The first step was to try and scan them. No dice there. Our printer / scanner wasn’t scanning (with OS X no less!), so I had to find another way. My next option was sending a fax. Yet another troublesome practice that forces me to go to Kinkos and spend money on a silly expense. Did I mention that these hard copy materials are partially an expense report? One might suggest that I simply “expense” the fax. The irony here is that I’d have to send another fax with the fax receipt, but hold for a second. That would be another fax!!! A truly vicious and far from worth it cycle.

I hope that someday we won’t need so much paper. I’m totally fine dealing with real deal hard copy for things like contracts or other documents that are valuable outside of the digital realm. But for things like receipts and expense reports it just seems silly. Credit card companies should let you pick a set of charges and sent a link to a certified statement. They would be vouching that the expenses are real and the SSL cert makes it verified. Expense reports could be a thing of the past if there was a good way to verify and agree on digital documents.

There has always been the idea of the digital signature floating around. It never seems to catch on though. It might be a chicken/egg kind of problem where there aren’t enough users to validate a service, yet no one wants to jump a service that is not really trusted. Some might argue the government should step in but they shouldn’t. Paper will continue to stick around until we can find a way to put our mark on digital documents that we can all agree on.

I think the real reason there hasn’t been a digital signature success story is no one knows how to do it the right way. If I knew what the right way was, rest assured I wouldn’t be blogging about it right now. No, I would be looking for funding and start my search for the perfect island to buy. My guess is that the real answer is going to be a simple fiat system built around existing web services. Something like a seal that folks like PayPal, eBay, Amazon and the credit industry agree on for no other reason than to set the standard. On a technical level, there won’t be much past some libraries that do whatever conversation with web entities. OAuth is probably good example of transferring trust from one entity to another.

My hope is that we do start looking for ways to phase out our use of paper. Eliminating it is not a good idea because bits are too easy to flip. But if we can migrate some everyday requirements to something that digital it would be helpful. It is pretty shameful that we still use so much paper and that it is made from trees. I had a teacher as a kid mention that part of the reason marijuana is illegal is because the logging industry sees a major threat in paper produced via marijuana plants. This argument seems fishy since we have hemp, but in either case if there is a renewable process to get paper, it seems like a good idea to go ahead and use it instead of using trees.

No matter what happens with our digital signatures and paper usage, I’ll most likely hear I should be a doctor thanks to messiness of my signature (digital or otherwise).