Maybe you’ve noticed a decrease volume of your personal mail from the United States Postal Service (USPS) postal service. I certainly have. In fact, it’s been confirmed by USPS stats, including that First Class paper volumes have dropped 30 percent since 2007 and are predicted to drop another 40 percent in the next seven years. This decrease is illustrative of a more widespread trend that we’re gradually seeing important transactions migrating to an electronic space of some kind, thus paper transactions are increasingly going away.
Even paper money is quickly fading as you receive your paycheck via direct deposit or pay for goods and services electronically with your credit card, smart phone or PayPal. Money, the most of traditional of paper documents, is gradually going away and becoming less important.
Electronic signatures and electronic records were legalized in virtually every situation by President Clinton in 2001 with the enactment of the Digital Signature in Global and National Commerce Act. Leaving aside a small handful of documents as exceptions (e.g., wills, house repossessions, etc.), virtually every electronic record is acceptable in electronic format with very few barriers or requirements of any kind. Based on what I just wrote, you might believe that paper records are effectively dead.
But you’d be wrong.
Paper is alive and well. Paper will be around for some time. Why?
There are many reasons why paper does need to stay around that have anything to do with technological efficiency. Paper has an ongoing attraction. Notwithstanding the efficiency of electronic technologies, paper is a very appealing medium for many reasons. No matter how electronic your mindset may be, in one way or another there’s something on the list below that will appeal to you.
It’s a misconception that people hold onto paper and a wet signature (one made with a pen) because it’s a legal document and has some sort of special legal status. People perceive that paper and ink have special legal status over electronic documents, but they really don’t have the legal significance that people think they have. In reality, that isn’t so. A wet signature is an old 12th century technology intended to reduce fraud and forgery. Is a wet signature any more secure that its electronic counterpart? No, they are actually less secure because a signature can easily be forged. A wet signature is really an illusion of security that people retain because it’s an appealing illusion. Anything you intend to be your signature is your signature, including any sort of electronic mark or code.
People like paper – it’s familiar, it’s traditional and it has the appearance of being official and permanent. For example, a diploma on someone’s wall. If their building burns down they haven’t lost the official record because the official record is at the registrar’s office . Also, at graduation ceremonies, you wouldn’t hand the graduates a flash drive as they walk across the stage rather, you’ hand them a paper diploma. They are essentially bling and nothing more, but these characteristics are powerful psychologically. Paper documents are so powerful because they are tangible and people don’t let go of easily.
Paper is convenient stuff – no technology required, no internet connection needed, no charger required, its available anyplace, and only minimal skill and training is required. Also important is that a paper document is universally accepted. It’s rare for someone to refuse a paper document and demand an electronic document.
The bottom line is that, even though electronic technologies are secure, trustworthy, accurate and reliable, people are people and not necessarily entirely rational and efficient about these things. Even when electronic equivalents are available (and the reasons to utilize electronic far outweigh paper) people have a preference because paper is tangible, familiar, simple, and old-fashioned often feels better. That’s gradually changing over time as younger generations come up and are not only more comfortable with electronic records, but demanding the transformation.