Had to read this article for one of my classes I am taking online and I just thought it would be an awesome share that many of you can find useful.
"Social Life Of Paper"
Paper enables a certain kind of thinking. Picture, for instance, the top of your desk. Chances are that you have a keyboard and a computer screen off to one side, and a clear space roughly eighteen inches square in front of your chair. What covers the rest of the desktop is probably piles -- piles of papers, journals, magazines, binders, postcards, videotapes, and all the other artifacts of the knowledge economy. The piles look like a mess, but they aren't. When a group at Apple Computer studied piling behavior several years ago, they found that even the most disorderly piles usually make perfect sense to the piler, and that office workers could hold forth in great detail about the precise history and meaning of their piles. The pile closest to the cleared, eighteen-inch-square working area, for example, generally represents the most urgent business, and within that pile the most important document of all is likely to be at the top. Piles are living, breathing archives. Over time, they get broken down and resorted, sometimes chronologically and sometimes thematically and sometimes chronologically and thematically; clues about certain documents may be physically embedded in the file by, say, stacking a certain piece of paper at an angle or inserting dividers into the stack.
But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that "knowledge workers" use the physical space of the desktop to hold "ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use." The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven't yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head. Kidd writes that many of the people she talked to use the papers on their desks as contextual cues to "recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay" when they come in on a Monday morning, or after their work has been interrupted by a phone call. What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.
Sellen and Harper arrived at similar findings when they did some consulting work with a chocolate manufacturer. The people in the firm they were most interested in were the buyers -- the staff who handled the company's relationships with its venders, from cocoa and sugar manufacturers to advertisers. The buyers kept folders (containing contracts, correspondence, meeting notes, and so forth) on every supplier they had dealings with. The company wanted to move the information in those documents online, to save space and money, and make it easier for everyone in the firm to have access to it. That sounds like an eminently rational thing to do. But when Sellen and Harper looked at the folders they discovered that they contained all kinds of idiosyncratic material -- advertising paraphernalia, printouts of e-mails, presentation notes, and letters -- much of which had been annotated in the margins with thoughts and amendments and, they write, "perhaps most important, comments about problems and issues with a supplier's performance not intended for the supplier's eyes." The information in each folder was organized -- if it was organized at all -- according to the whims of the particular buyer. Whenever other people wanted to look at a document, they generally had to be walked through it by the buyer who "owned" it, because it simply wouldn't make sense otherwise. The much advertised advantage of digitizing documents -- that they could be made available to anyone, at any time -- was illusory: documents cannot speak for themselves. "All of this emphasized that most of what constituted a buyer's expertise resulted from involvement with the buyer's own suppliers through a long history of phone calls and meetings," Sellen and Harper write:
The correspondence, notes, and other documents such discussions would produce formed a significant part of the documents buyers kept. These materials therefore supported rather than constituted the expertise of the buyers. In other words, the knowledge existed not so much in the documents as in the heads of the people who owned them -- in their memories of what the documents were, in their knowledge of the history of that supplier relationship, and in the recollections that were prompted whenever they went through the files.
-The New Yorker