Screamers and groaners

Whatever happened to the "paperless office?"

Remember those predictions, how the computer would eliminate paper from our lives? Everything would be handled electronically. No need for millions of trees to surrender their lives so we can pulp them into clean white sheets that we clutter up with ink.

Those forecasts went into the same trash heap as the predictions that we'd all be flying around in hovercars and spending our weekends on Mars. We use more paper now than ever. Paper gives us a permanent record, something to file away, safe from the hazards of hard-drive crashes and unwise decisions to "delete."

(I've always thought the "delete" button should be labeled "oops." Same with the "escape" key. Heck, the way I type some days, they all could be labeled "oops.")

For those of us who work at home, the paper piles up until it threatens to bury everything in the household. We don't have secretaries or file clerks to take it away and stash it somewhere, never to be seen again. We do our own filing, if any, and it can be as haphazard as the rest of our disorganized lives.

The answer, I'm sure, is to embrace the technology and stop generating so much paper. Store everything in the computer, back up every file, keep a log of file names and document folders. But that's all too methodical for a guy who can barely organize a sock drawer.

Even if I wanted to reduce the paper flow from my life, my work wouldn't allow it. Book publishers still do everything on paper. Manuscripts are passed around publishing houses from editor to editor like batons in a slow-motion relay race. Here's how high-tech they get in the book industry: Each editor uses a different color ink to mark corrections, leaving a trail of who-did-what. Take that, Bill Gates.

I do the same thing at home. I print a manuscript, mark it up with a lot of changes, then transfer the changes to the computer copy. Then I print out a new version and start the process all over again. By the time I'm finished, I could stack manuscripts to the ceiling.

Generating all those documents means using the "print" command. That key should be labeled "commit to paper now, only to discover typographical errors once it's printed and then do it all over again." But I guess that wouldn't fit on the keyboard.

Back when we used typewriters, everyone was accustomed to penciled-in changes and flaky little blurs of correcting fluid. But now that computers are ubiquitous, we all expect perfect copy. And that means printing and fixing and reprinting and fixing some more, ad infinitum.

For years, I was stuck using a slow dot matrix printer. Each line of type required a moving head to needle the words onto the paper. Apparently it was a painful process because the printer made a high-pitched wail with every line. I called it "The Screamer." Printing out a 300-page manuscript would leave my ears ringing for days.

I now use a faster, quieter laser printer. It's wonderful until something goes wrong with it. Then I'm reminded once again how we work-at-home types are trapped alone with our problems. In a regular office, you call the technical types and they wheel the balky printer away and bring it back when it's repaired. At home, you're on your own.

Recently, I was rushing through a print job -- a 400-page manuscript that needed to be in New York yesterday -- when a gray stripe started appearing down the middle of each page. I discovered this problem, naturally, after 50 or so striped pages were already on their way to the wastebasket. I opened the printer and cleaned it out. I thumbed through the user's manual. I finally hurried to an office supplies store and bought a new toner cartridge, to the tune of $65.

All was well again. Except all my monkeying with the innards of the thing meant the paper no longer fed smoothly. A page would go halfway into the machine, then the printer would emit a groaning noise and everything would lock up. Then I would emit a groaning noise and start all over again.

So "The Screamer" has been replaced by "The Groaner." Typewriters, anyone?

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