Where is the paperless office?

June 23, 2000

A survey of internet use has coined a new phrase - 'former user'. Steve Woolgar writes.

The current rate of straightforward rapid expansion of use of the internet may not continue. This is one message emerging from recent research.

The Pounds 3 million Virtual Society? research programme - set up to discover whether new technologies are leading to real changes in the way we communicate and do business - is coming to a close. Its latest findings, presented this week at a conference in London, reveal that although there is an overall growth in use of the internet, the rise conceals some significant counter trends.

In particular, researchers found they needed to deploy the category "former user" with notably large numbers of teenagers stopping using the net. Of course, these youngsters may come back, perhaps with third-generation mobiles. But the drop-offs should make us pause for thought.

The researchers also discovered that new technologies tend to supplement rather than replace existing organisations. The much-vaunted "paperless office" is an iconic casualty in this regard: email and the internet do not replace existing modes of communication but work as an "add-on" alongside older technologies such as fax and phone.

In fact, not only do new technologies supplement existing activities, they can actually stimulate more real world activity: the more virtual the more real. Classic examples here are the findings that teleworkers end up travelling more than their non-computer connected counterparts; that internet versions of virtual museums tend to generate more visitors to actual museums; that the online publication of academic articles has led to an increase in subscriptions; and that electronic communications have stimulated greater worldwide travel.

Finally, the researchers found that the social context remains paramount in the successful implementation of new technologies. It is evident, for example, that the new access points, cybercafes and telecottages and the like, the potential gateways to the virtual society for the otherwise socially excluded, are most successful where they build on existing social arrangements. Kiosks in city centres tend not to work as well as internet clubs insinuated into the routine activities of the local Women's Institute.

Undertaking serious research into how the new technologies are used is just one half of a major intellectual challenge. The other half is to convey both the results and the necessary attitude to those in government, policy, business and industry who are responsible for key decisions.

The UK government has embraced the idea of taking full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new technologies, while keeping a careful eye on problems of social exclusion. Prime minister Tony Blair recently promised that everyone would have access to the internet within the next five years. But there is as yet little clear sense of what "access" will mean or of how we make the transition from mere "access" to meaningful use.

It might be timely to ponder some of the findings of our research - to try to establish a tone of "positive scepticism" in place of the current extremes of gung-ho enthusiasm, on the one hand, and doom and gloom Luddism on the other.

Steve Woolgar is professor of sociology at Brunel University and director of the Virtual Society? programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

* "Delivering the Virtual Promise?", a one-day conference, took place on Monday at the QEII Centre in London. Visit www.virtualsociety.org.uk.

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