Myth of the paperless world debunked by researchers

May 18, 2001

Letters are here to stay and will not be replaced by email. The myth of the paperless world has been debunked by researchers at the University of Surrey, who found that the physical properties of letters play a key part in communication.

Domestic letters and bills embody a to-do item and are moved around the home to act as reminders in a way that is not possible with email. And in the office, email is viewed as casual communication, while serious matters are always recorded in a signed letter.

The study was led by Richard Harper, director of the Digital World Research Centre, who said the real issue was that email tools were designed to reflect behaviour patterns in the office, not at home.

"We were surprised that the bulk of letters in the home are opened and shared with everybody. That is quite different from emails, which are viewed as private," he said.

An unexpected finding of the research was how women manipulated mail flow to manage the household in ways their partners were unaware of. Women sorted letters and placed them in strategic places. Bills were put where male partners could see them such as by the television, but after several days women would remove and pay the bill themselves, said Professor Harper, who is co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office to be published in the autumn.

The research was sponsored by Royal Mail. The number of letters posted in the UK continues to rise.

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