It can be argued that the advent of the computer age and electronic documents is second in importance only to Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the 1450s. Once computers were firmly entrenched in the world's offices in the early 1980s, it didn't take long for business people to start wondering whether electronic documents could become the primary means of communication. Futurists were quick to dream about the day when books would be presented strictly online as electronic documents, available to all and at much lower prices. Others saw electronic documents putting paper companies and many printers out of business.
While the reality of the electronic document revolution has panned out differently than the futurists predicted, the computer has brought extraordinary changes to communication. For example, the broad acceptance of electronic documents in everyday and business life has prompted the development of style guides and resources for citing electronic documents as references. Another sign of the impact of electronic documents is the arrival of the CIA's electronic reading room which citizens can visit online to read about items of national interest. Likewise, physicians are more and more frequently getting away from thick patient files and instead relying on electronic charts. This move to electronic documents reduces the chances of losing vital information and also dramatically cuts down the chance of prescription errors.
One challenge with electronic documents that has emerged in recent years is the discovery of the difference in pixels in an online document vs. a printed document. Companies like Microsoft are exploring ways to alter the pixel density of electronic documents to make them more eye friendly. As this science unfolds, society will be positioned to take another step toward a more paperless society.
Today, electronic documents are increasingly becoming the norm for handling personal business. More and more people each year do their banking and bill paying via electronic documents. It saves time, effort and postage. Plus, many contend that it is actually more secure than mailing a check from your mailbox and risking it being stolen.
Government itself feels strong pressure to move toward a more paperless society. The 1998 Government Paperwork Elimination Act demanded that government agencies refrain from using paper to create, modify or store official records within just four short years. This act, in and of itself, forced the government to begin accepting electronic payments and signatures. The age of electronic documents achieved a new milestone!
Today what is classified as an electronic document has expanded to include a wide range of items such as emails, photographs, letters, depositions, x-rays, claims, medical records, video clips and even voice mail. Today, organizations use Document Management Systems to organize and manage these electronic documents. With the addition of each item, the move toward a paperless society again takes a step forward.
All this being said, most experts believe that we will never become a fully paperless society. There will always be those who want to print out a document and hold it in their hands. However, as people become more comfortable with the convenience of electronic commerce, finance and communication, more and more of our lives will be handled through electronic documents and our society will, as a result, become increasingly paperless.