walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Paper, and the Getting Rid of It

For the first thirty-some-odd years of my life, I lived in Seattle. I didn't leave for college. I didn't leave for a job. I did, however, leave to be with R., we then went to Seattle for a year and a half and finally settled down in New England. During the course of the initial move east, I thought I would be Clever and reduce the amount of stuff I had to cart along with me in the move and any subsequent moves (should that cross county decision turn out to have been rash, which many of my friends thought might be). I made an effort to get paper turned off on all my accounts and the world was quite lovely and portable and paper-free, for about a year, perhaps as long as two.

However, I switched cell phones and carriers after I moved out here. I opened some credit accounts and closed others. I opened a new checking account -- all the kinds of things that happen over time and especially when you move to a different region. And all those accounts I didn't really work hard to go paper-free with. As old, paper-free accounts went away or started generating paper again because of an e-mail bounce or similar, I wound up drowning in paper again.

I made some half-hearted attempts to go paperless, but with what I now realize are _dozens_ of userids and passwords to remember, they weren't successful. I had to (a) recognize my memory limitations and (b) perceive those limitations as a problem to be addressed with technology to go looking for a solution and implement. Which I have. As I dredge through the last few accounts (like a joint bank account that I never, ever, ever actually access), I have this image in my head of what arrives in the mail over the course of the month and I then stash in the filing system. And I see that stuff no longer arriving in the mail and thus no longer getting stashed in the filing system.

So then I get curious. Should I worry about that? Well, quite a lot of this stuff is readily accessible online if I want to look at it. Some of the statements I access online even when I have the paper copy because I don't feel like going up to the third floor; that's a solid indication that it's time for that piece of paper to go away. Looking around on some of the more legal-y or money-y type accounts suggests that they're keeping as much or more available as I would if I actually purged my files the way I ought to. There's a slight trust issue -- but it's pretty slight. I think everyone I do business with keeps better records than I do.

I googled around for one of those lists of what to keep and for how long, and I have to say that there is some Nutty out there. I've been purging the files over the last few days, but I hit some things that aren't Just Mine -- the insurance policies on the cars and the house, for example, and I thought I should check in with R. about whether he feels a need to keep expired policies. He didn't, so I shredded everything but the current one and, IIRC, the previous year (possibly two years -- I don't really remember; the decisions were being made very quickly).

But some of those lists seemed to think you should keep expired policy paperwork around. Finding a rationale for that theory was more work, but turned up the idea that if you discovered something in year N that had occurred in year N - X, the coverage would be from year N - X, not year N. No specific examples were given and about all I could come up with was something weird like someone fell down, scraped their leg and then a few months later presented you with a gargantuan medical bill because it developed MRSA and they had to have it amputated. Didn't seem like something I was going to worry about, also, we tend to keep the same policy for long periods of time anyway; transitions are pretty rare.

People who write books about getting organized tend to think you should keep a LOT of records for a very long time. There was a time when I might have agreed with them. I used to find bogus charges on bank statements and credit cards -- not often, but it did happen. I don't even check carefully enough any more to catch the kinds of small things that used to happen. Some of the errors I used to catch were in my favor, but whatever I found I used to pursue in an effort to correct -- it was probably mostly a wash in the end.

I feel like there has been this odd effect of getting-rid-of-paper. The first stages of office automation just made more paper pile up, and in some ways created new opportunities to make errors, while cutting down on some of the worst of the paper-driven errors. But I also feel like we've gotten better at cutting down on more of the paper-driven errors AND the new opportunities to make errors (a teller can still miskey a deposit, tho, so the world is not Perfect). Because there is, overall, a reduction in errors, the humans who have to find and fix those errors the hard way are keeping up. Sort of like when violent crime goes down, you can start going after bike thieves again; when you're overwhelmed with rape and murder, bike thievery seems very low priority.

I'm not sure how visible any of this is -- that is, it may be so many trees that the forest is invisible to everyone. I do know that there's a lot of forest/tree problems associated with understanding other virtualization processes. Here's the latest one that I keep seeing, courtesy Nate at The Digital Reader:


That's a German study, but there have been people making a related argument here in the US: people who buy ebooks don't stop buying paper books, and they buy way more paper books than people who exclusively buy paperbooks, thus, buying ebooks doesn't cut down on your paper book habit.

It's complete bullshit, of course. There's a temporary effect for the first 6-18 months after you adopt (not buy, not receive as a gift, but decide to start using) an ereader, where what you buy on/for the device isn't "real": you stuff if full of free books, either classics, or giveaways of the first book in a series, or you buy cheap indies or whatever. Meanwhile, any author you have a foot or two on the shelf already of you continue to buy hardcover. It was really bad if you bought a kindle in 2007-8, because there were so many series authors who weren't available in e-form at all, or there was an incredible delay. And then, if the ereader "takes", just like if adopting digital music "takes", there comes a point where you have to decide: how am I going to reconcile the existing collection with this new option which has become Real and Appealing. And you can go a couple different ways with it. You can re-buy your collection in the new format -- you can try, anyway. But with ebooks, what you'll discover is that backlist books are often terrible in eform, with tons of OCR errors and bad formatting and missing sentences and whatever. Anyone who needs this stuff to be consistent is just going to be Unhappy and it might lead to them giving up on the ereader.

The other way is to adopt ebooks going forward, but keep the collection around. It's possible this is a permanently stable solution; I don't really know. I do know I'll be buying paperbooks for a while yet, for the backlist problem, especially with nonfiction. I will say this: I've become very, very, very willing to get rid of books that I haven't reread in a while, and which I know are available in eform. My thinking is, in the unlikely event I want to reread it, I'll just buy an e-edition.

I am noticing the same thing happening with the files. There are people out there who have digitized all their old paperwork so everything is consistent and electronic. There are people out there who are sticking with paper because that is what works for them (you would be _amazed_ at how many stores in my town still use carbon receipts, handwritten. The only electronic part of the sale is charging the credit card.). But when I switch over, what I notice is that I decide I really don't care that much about most of the old files, and I only keep around the ones that really matter.

Which turns out not to be all that much.
Tags: daily activities, decluttering

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