In lawyers’ offices up and down our countries, someone right now is being handed a nice big bundle of paper documents furnished with a pink ribbon to tie it all.
Within it, important facts may be contained, narrations, backgrounds, all relevant for perhaps a month. Once the case in question is no longer “live,” it is sent to an archive room full of boxes. In about six years or so, many of those boxes will find their way to landfills (40% of landfills are paper), and some will be recycled.
In a forest somewhere right now, an area the size of a football pitch is cleared every minute. The trees are just about to begin their journey to the lawyer’s office and then the landfills.
Each tree will eventually become one box of paper, or at most two boxes. Within a year, our offices need many such boxes: 12.1 trillion sheets of paper a year.
“With all the paper we waste each year, we can build a 12 foot high wall of paper from New York to California,” a world facts website says.
The scale looks overwhelming, the damage far too grave, yet climate change is a controversial topic due to what can be considered a mistaken approach towards the subject.
The current lines debate what may happen in 10, 20 or 30 years, something we can not possibly know as a matter of fact. Individuals or entities affected by the needed changes, thus, can somewhat successfully sow doubt on the narration.
Yet another way to look at it is clean air, healthy living, a nice environment, lower pollution, and generally an enjoyable green and pleasant world.
Especially in the west, with our very high standards of living, we can afford such little pleasantries, especially when it comes to somewhat easy things like preserving trees.
As any school child knows, trees consume carbon and produce oxygen in return. The more trees, the less carbon in the atmosphere, the cleaner our air and the nicer our world.
As such, tackling the paper endemic might be the easiest way of making a real difference by reducing deforestation and so increasing the levels of carbon recycling by our green and pleasant things.
It was hoped in the 90s the new digital world would naturally lead to such reduction, but that has not occurred. Paper consumption has in fact increased and may double by 2030.
That’s because paper is everywhere. Even our fiat money is paper. Yet the biggest use of it is in the offices, in the courts, in the hospitals, in the civil service.
“When Estonia moved to paperless then we had no idea that this is unique because other governments are so far behind following technological advancement. We just did not understand why gov-s would not adapt to new technologies,” says Kersti Kaljulaid, the current President of Estonia.
We would argue it’s because no one likes change, especially if they are not just starting out and can easily adopt new things, rather than someone who has done things a certain way for years.
We see it even with the smallest things, like a new site redesign. Now we have to once more form our habits, become familiar with the site, and so operate again fairly automatically to free precious thinking resources for things that actually need it.
That discomfort lasts only temporarily, but in high stake “games,” like in court, there is arguably no such thing as temporary. Every minute matters.
Imagine thus a barrister with an iPad. First his or her colleagues are probably sneakingly snickering. Second, they are probably thinking hmm. Third, they are wondering how he will shuffle through the iPad papers.
By swiping left or right of course, as well as scrolling up or down perhaps more conveniently than on paper. But how does she go to page 54? By typing 54 obviously. But how does he hand over a document to the judge? Ah, completely forgot. We have not yet invented email.
Then, there’s the set-up. If you’re arguing a case you spread documents over the table so that you can easily pick it up and refer to it. In a cultural transformation, you’d spread your iPad, or better, the courts can be upgraded for a digital age so that the barrister’s front tables are already furnished with at least four computer touch screens which can connect to your iPad.
We used a barrister as an example because that is the profession that most heavily uses paper. If it works there, it works everywhere else.
Yet, as can be seen, a transition to digital requires some sort of acclimatizing and a push which where courts are concerned has to come from the government.
But unlike many other aspects related to climate change, it’s a feel good transition. Digital screens in a court looks modern, looks advanced. A barrister with an iPad is a bit uuuu, look at him or her. In other words it is cool, and it makes you feel cool, and if it is saving all those trees then it is cool squared.
We have however started near the end of the process. In a police station right now someone is being interviewed regarding some allegations. The interview is being tape recorded, but the policeman is taking notes. The young man or woman probably has a nice pen and is writing on a notepad.
In an office somewhere a meeting is currently ongoing where a new contract is to be finalized. The two executives are asked to sign, the fancy pen making new lines.
The interview notes, or a copy of them, will be sent in paper form to a criminal law barrister. The contract will make its way to a civil law barrister.
One can of course take scanned copies of these and “enter” them into the iPad, but would it not be better if the interview notes were typed out?
Of course, you might say, but what policeman will do that. Typing it is just different. Not easily preferred. You can quickly write without noise while typing might be distracting. On an iPad you can silently type, but that’s a bit too fancy and takes some getting used to.
Plus you can’t easily change the paper, you have to strike out lines which leaves traces. You’ll therefore need to design a word system which incorporates hash-fingerprints with every autosave, with each autosave kept in an unchangeable form while the live document can be changed same as one can throw away the paper and start on a new one.
The same regarding the contract in as far as new processes are needed. The contract itself can obviously easily be in a digital form and may be more beneficial in that way as one can easily make edits in perhaps a shared screen. The signing of it in a digital form, however, is not easy.
That’s where the blockchain comes in, you might say, but not necessarily. There are other methods of digital signing, yet the blockchain can be an excuse to digitize and to turn these processes which now needlessly rely on paper into digital mainly or solely digital processes.
The blockchain won’t be used for all things and might not even be needed. A PDF, for example, can be fairly immutable. Yet blockchain tech has its uses which can not easily or conveniently be replicated by other technologies. Such uses can have many benefits, and one of them might be going paperless.
Tiny, in the great blockchain hype, but incremental improvements gradually add together into a complete transformation.
If we were not using 12 trillion pages a year, and if that was reduced or at the very least its march towards doubling in usage is halted, how many trees would that save?
And if you don’t care about trees, how much money would that save just in paper costs, to say little of the additional benefits of digitization.
Where contracts are concerned, that can include the automation of some parts. The International Swaps and Derivatives Association, for example, has recently presented a nice paper on smart contract standards to create digital templates in mainly commodities transactions, but the general approach can be expanded.
Then there are the more talked about uses such as record keeping and so on which can make digitization more secure.
To say nothing of the use of blockchain tech in carbon emission tracking and trading which is being pushed by Liverpool’s City Council.
As anything created by man or women, the solutions are not perfect, but in many cases they are more perfect than current solution.
In addition, no one can really deny the benefits of digitization, with saving the trees being just one perhaps more ancillary aspect of it.
While previously such digitization was not quite ready to the point of engulfing all aspects, including business/professional processes, it might now be ready.
That’s because blockchain tech can be seen as a second attempt of creating the 90s vision of a new world, which included a paperless society. With blockchain itself having many benefits, but perhaps the biggest benefit is cultural.
Blockchain has just made digital cool again. It has given coders an excuse, not least because plenty of them are probably invested in cryptos, to sneak in blockchain stuff into different aspects. It might be giving businesses an excuse to digitize. It might be giving governments an excuse to invest more smartly in our public services so that they can look advanced.
It may even, afterall, give a new generation an excuse to tackle climate change not as a political matter, but as a matter of progress, of advancement, of just doing things better, while feeling good and looking cool in the process.
For digital is the new frontier again and frontiers are exciting. Yet frontiers can fail, like in some ways the previous generation, but this generation now has the crypto incentive which ensures progress – where code is concerned – is no longer just a charitable matter.
They may well push for a paperless economy, at least to a great extent, with climate change perhaps being just a cover, while the real intent may well be the adoption of their technology. Yet the end result may well be just as good, just as noble, and just as beneficial to our societies as if it was driven by angels themselves.
For the profit motive is one system that to a great extent works where others tend to fail and open source code now is itself profit. That may well mean there is money to be made by saving the forests. So combining two powerful forces as a new generation marches on towards a golden age of progress.