Many years ago, Hewlett-Packard produced a promotional video on the future of computing that even then featured an astonishing gaffe. As the narrator talked about everything computers would be able to do in the 21st century, the person onscreen took out a paper agenda and updated his schedule. Really? No.
But now, as we’re actually living in the years that the video purported to envision, I’ve discovered that I’ve made similarly clunky assumptions. Several years ago, wanting to make my home office a marvel of efficiency, I bought in a friend who did both design and fine woodworking to create my dream workspace.
I took a room that had probably been designed as a child’s bedroom – it had a closet, after all – but was better suited for a playroom or a den. Don’t tell the Internal Revenue Service, but I had him create shelves for my collection of toy cars: 1:18, 1:25, and 1:43 scale replicas of the hulking, finned behemoths our parents drove in elementary school. My great-nephews think my office is a toy store.
But here’s where I went wrong: I asked him to design in plenty of space for files. Under two sides of the desk: drawers, some with racks for hanging files, some design to hold office equipment. I had him do the same in the closet: create huge file drawers. Just a smidgen into the 21st century, it is already anachronistic, every bit as much as that video.
After all, who uses paper anymore? Not me. While I still have magazines from the late 20th and early 21st century, most of my work now is online. I preserve it as PDF files, not as hard copies. And like an automobile manufacturing supply chain that extends out in circular rings, I find the office-supply drawers full of paper-related implements: paper clips, scissors, staplers, staple removers, butterfly clips, file folders, file folder labels, and more. Remember Liquid Paper? It was used with something called a typewriter. I still have some. Oh, and Post-Its. Granted, you can affix them to a computer monitor as a handy reminder, but we used to use them a lot more in the old days.
Ditto reference books. I can’t remember the last time I actually thumbed through a dictionary. Language dictionaries? Google Translate has made those obsolete. Thank goodness the thesaurus within Microsoft Word sucks, or I’d never need that reference book either.
Add to that paper cutters, scanners, and printers, not to mention pristine white paper that I bought in bulk at Costco in a different decade. If I print at all these days, it’s on the back of already used paper that finds its way into the house from a variety of sources – my father-in-law’s den or the photocopiers where my wife works. I doubt I’ll need to buy paper again before I retire. I find myself sitting with my laptop, tablet, and smartphone among an astonishing number of antediluvian remnants from a civilization that is no more and isn’t coming back. Yet it’s all still too common for anthropologists to care about, so it has no value.
Every so often, I go through the drawers, looking for articles I know I won’t need anymore, whether written by me or not. I recently threw out six copies of a humorous story from my freshman year in college. It was funny, but not that funny. Multiply that by other stuff that I never needed again, or articles I was able to find online and save digitally, and I was able to cull an awful lot of stuff.
Not long after, my woodworker friend was over with another acquaintance, and I was showing off my friend’s work. “Look at these great drawers,” I said. The woodworker deadpanned, “If they’re so great, why are they empty?”
I haven’t figured out a really good answer to that question. I’m still kind of embarrassed that I didn’t realize – even though I write about the world of tomorrow every day – that I sometimes have trouble seeing past the end of my own desk.