My so-called paperless life

One intrepid reporter attempts to rid his daily life of unnecessary paper. See how he fared--and how a well-intentioned experiment made his son cry.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
7 min read

I expected problems from my attempt to rid myself of the paper in my life. What I didn't expect was this complication from my wailing 4-year-old son, Levi:

"Daddy, why did you recycle all my pictures?"

Even though he raised that question in a half-asleep moment in the middle of the night last week, Levi's anxiety illustrated one big complication about the idea of going paperless.

In short, some physical objects have value that doesn't easily transfer to the bits of their electronic representation. There's a great divide between the physical and the virtual.

My son't drawing, 'A Truck Dreaming of Another Truck,' now exists only as a digital photo.
My son's drawing, 'A Truck Dreaming of Another Truck,' now exists only as a digital photo. Levi Konrad-Shankland

What led to this situation? Some people have gone paperless with evangelical fervor, but I'm just trying to pare down the amount of paper cluttering my life. Call it going paper-lite.

The formal effort began with an attempt to buy a new house. When we refinanced our mortgage in 2003, the lender insisted on actual physical documents from the actual bank--no printouts of statements downloaded from the bank's Web site, thank you very much. But in 2009, lenders were happy with e-mailed documents in electronic PDF form.

I'd been hoarding statements in an overstuffed, immovable filing cabinet in part because of the painful memory of paying a bank to reissue one missing statement. Freed from that constraint--and facing the imminent necessity to actually move that filing cabinet to a new home--meant the time had come to go digital.

I was surprised how far along I already was. For example, I started photographing my son's artwork long ago and sharing it through a Flickr group, figuring there was no way I could keep all the real versions I wanted. I give his works the "Levi art" tag for easier location later. These aren't high-end drum scans or anything--I just put the paper in good light and snap a photo.

Now I've also begun shucking old bank statements, scanning photos, and culling memorabilia. Here are five things I learned on the way.

1. Go for it

You can get started without going whole hog. Pick a corner of your life and expand from there at a pace that you're comfortable with.

Starting small lets you sort out your preferences and problems before you scrap your analog life. Obviously you should be careful with what you throw away--how many years back can the Internal Revenue Service audit your taxes?

With the most important documents, such as birth certificates, I just added digital versions and kept the original paper copies.

My banks and investment institutions have been needling me to go paperless already for years, so that's a good spot to start. I set up a subfolders on my computer for saving each institution's statements after download. If you're nervous, you can print out copies.

The technology for digitizing what can be digitized is maturing. Serious people get scanners with sheet-feed scanners for bulk digitization, but I decided to just go digital from now on. As the years go by, I'll gradually cull the older paper documents.

Another good place to start is photography. Your new photos are most likely digital, but your old photos are most likely hidden away.

Based on reviews and some recommendations from friends, I sent a giant batch of photos off to ScanCafe to be turned into JPEGs--they scan slides, negatives, and prints for 29 cents apiece, including basic correction for color and scratches, and you can reject up to half the shots without paying.

2. PDF is your friend

Adobe Systems did us all a favor when it invented Portable Document Format and did us another when it handed it over to the ISO for standardization so everything from Apple Preview to Google Docs can make use of them. I've had my complaints with the Adobe Reader software, but overall, PDF's ability to encapsulate graphics and text makes it ideal for the paperless era.

I never had much use for Adobe Acrobat software until wrestling with the oceans of paperwork involved with buying and selling homes. I couldn't go totally paperless, since physical documents had to be signed, but often I could photograph and crop the documents, use Acrobat to package them into PDFs, and e-mail them on their way.

It was cumbersome, but it beat buying a fax machine, and the documents were now stored electronically on my computer.

PDF is the preferred format for bank statements, too. Here, alas, is one of my biggest beefs: the monthly process of retrieving statements from the three banks, two mutual fund companies, and other financial institutions I deal with for 401k, 529, and IRA accounts.

They all send e-mail notifications of new statements, but all this downloading grunt work is a big hassle compared to the pre-paperless days when these statements would arrive in the mail with no effort on my behalf.

So why don't they just send me PDFs by e-mail? The PDF standard includes encryption, and Adobe digital signature technology that can assure a document hasn't been tampered with.

"We're very keen on the idea of banks, institutions, and utilities moving back to a more active delivery of a statement," said John Harris, Adobe's product manager, electronic signatures and security alliances. "The technologies are there and have been there for some time."

When I asked two of my institutions, E*Trade Financial and Vanguard Group, why they couldn't just e-mail me my statements, both said it's because of security. Vanguard is aware of PDF encryption technologies, "but we can't be sure that our shareholders will be able to support working with it on their computers," and the company also has to worry about shared access to a single e-mail account, Vanguard spokeswoman Linda Wolohan said.

E*Trade and Vanguard also keep back records--all of them in the case of E*Trade, and back through 2006 for Vanguard. I still like the idea of having my own copies, though.

3. Physical stuff has a downside, too

Freeing yourself from paper is liberating, even if you're not moving.

Getting rid of reams of documents gave me a feeling of lightness and inspired me to get rid of a lot more--that second-rate spatula, books I'll never reread, those margarita glasses we never used. Do first-world denizens need to have so much stuff?

Moving many heavy boxes of books just lent more impetus to my recent Amazon Kindle-initiated e-book revelation. We won't get rid of all our books, but 95 percent sounds about right.

Of course stuff can be useful. But because the value of paper documents often is just information, digital versions can be just as good. I reduced four drawers in a filing cabinet to one, and if all goes according to plan, I'll eventually be rid of one ugly piece of furniture altogether.

Many folks have already moved their music collections to digital form. When was the last time you needed those CDs? The CD sound fidelity is higher than what you'll get with MP3--but only if you actually listen to the CD.

And of course going paperless has obvious tree-preservation benefits.

4. Back up your data

You've heard it before, and now you're going to hear it again: keep your data safe. The farther down the paperless road you go, the more important that advice gets.

There are a variety of methods, and I recommend more than one. I start with periodic backups on a USB hard drive. For a smaller number of very important documents, burning CDs or DVDs is a good idea; periodically exchanging yours with your friends' gives some protection against disasters such as theft, fire, and flood.

The wave of the future are online services such as Mozy, Backblaze and Carbonite. If you have hundreds of gigabytes of photo files, as I do, expect to saturate your home Internet connection for a very long time.

Finally, there are specific online services that are useful for making some kinds of data much more easily accessible. You can store a JPEG of your passport at Flickr, handy if it's stolen while you're traveling, or a PDF of your tax forms at Google Docs.

But there's always some risk that your account will be breached or that some technical error at the hosting site will lead to inadvertent overshare, so think carefully about the risks as well as the rewards.

5. Save what truly has value

It took me two whole days to cull reams of documents from my filing cabinet, but it was well worth the effort. The hardest decisions were for documents that weren't obviously essential or disposable, and of course most fell into that intermediate category.

I concluded that I probably needed 1 percent of my documents 99 percent of the time and 99 percent of them 1 percent of the time. With physical documents, it's hard to speculate about which of the nearly useless documents might in fact become useful or even essential some day.

With digital documents, the penalty for being a packrat is much lower. Of course, finding that necessary document amid the e-clutter could be difficult. But I'm hopeful that in the long run desktop search will make it easier to locate what I need even if I don't invest a lot of effort in file organization or tagging.

But here's where things get complicated. I love history, I've accumulated plenty of items that, although mundane at the time of their creation, accumulated some historic or sentimental value. The guest book entries (Thomas A. Edison!) at Hermit Creek Camp in the Grand Canyon where my great-grandfather worked, for example, or my grandfather's Depression-era daily expense log.

The big question for me is how close electronic documents will come to holding the same value as their physical counterparts.

My animal brain can latch onto something better when it's accompanied by the texture of paper or the smell of crayon. Someday, perhaps, art museums will feature large electronic displays of paintings, but there's something extra with the original touched by the artist's paintbrush than with a mere copy, no matter high the fidelity.

For the really special stuff, I'm therefore keeping the physical incarnations. So, Levi, rest easy.