March 31, 2014
On the Inclusive Nature of Modern Paper
By Ron Seybold
A friend of mine recently took up working a temporary job. It’s that kind of economy in places, even in Texas of 2014, and this job is the third that he’s working at once. But it’s his only full-time job, and this one gets him into a commute before daybreak. For years, we met early Wednesday mornings for breakfast tacos, but now it’s coffee in the evenings for us. My friend is working for a certain government agency that every one of us Americans has a relationship with, one that he doesn’t want me to mention by name. All he wants me to say here, with a wink, is “This is their busiest season.” And here in Austin, the agency has temp jobs available for a few months.
Every minute of those temp jobs is based on the durable value of paper.
Of all documents that wage earners, retirees and businesses must transmit here in the American springtime, one out of every four are sent via paper. The government would rather not see this continue to be true. But some people are still true to their paper. We’ve been true to paper here at the Newswire, too — now for 150 printed issues.
There are other ways to communicate and learn about what we all do, what we spend and how we budget, the stories that we tell in reports to an agency or to each other about our earnings, our revenues, and our estimates for the future. But in the end, the most fundamental trust — as well as the means to include everybody in telling these stories — relies on paper.
And oh my, even well into the 21st Century, does my friend ever have stories about his early mornings with paper.
He talks of cardboard letter trays and plastic mail tubs, bins and crates and metal racks, all jammed with envelopes. A workday, he says, lived among the sizes that I’ve come to know in my own career of paper: the No. 10 envelope, the 9x12, by now the Tyvek, and even greeting card envelopes. All opened while using talc-lined latex gloves. He talks of staplers rated to punch together 80 pages at a time, the motorized and manual letter openers, plus hand-wielded staple pullers to rearrange the forms just so. My pal rattles off their four-digit numbers like they were MPE commands, instructions he has memorized like some newbie 3000 operator — back in the days when there were such things as operators.
He says the forms stream in around the clock, like what sounds to me like so many HP 3000 jobs, scanned with the oldest of school-skills, eyeballed by dozens of temps in a room that sounds bigger than any datacenter a 3000 ever occupied. He tells me that when he walks into that room with its hung ceiling tiles, the floors thump while he crosses them. Sounds like classic datacenter design to me, with raised flooring and ceilings for cables.
But then he says this governmental room has less than a dozen keyboards across more than 150 desks. It’s manual work, and he adds with a grin, “The greatest part of it is that anything that people did in the 1970s with records is still being done today, by us.”
That must sound familiar to a 3000 developer, veteran, vendor or manager reading this. See, they all know that paper’s got backward compatibility as well as security that no nouveau computer system can ever match. Where do all those forms go? Well, keyed into acres and acres of hard drives, their data tapped in once they’re extracted from envelopes. But the forms themselves live in warehouses. “For heaven knows how long,” says my breakfast pal.
“Heaven knows how long” could be words to swear by in our 3000 world. People attempt to estimate when they can migrate, and then begin. The process can take a matter of months or the better part of a decade. But the equivalent of those paper documents, the redoubtable 3000, churns onward just like those 1-in-every-4 government forms that fill my pal’s paper mornings.
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