Still Seeking a Truly Digital Life
Dematerialization: The word has always had connotations of science fiction for me.
When I hear it, I picture the transporter room in the television series Star Trek or the Invisible Man in the novel by H.G. Wells. (Well, I try to picture him ...)
But dematerialization is also how the French refer to the use of technology to do away with paperwork in their everyday lives. That's an idea that might equally belong to the realms of science fiction -- or "litt
Little Progress Toward Paperless
Whatever you call it, the computers I've had on my desk over the past 20 years have done little to deliver on the promise of turning my workspace into a paperless office, and despite the enthusiastic efforts of different sectors of French society, it looks as though dematerialization has had little effect here, either.
In April 2001, the Ministry of Economics and Finance was keen to dematerialize tax forms. Yet the large number of Parisians that I met frantically stuffing their tax returns into the tax office mailbox as the midnight deadline approached suggests that the ministry might have been more popular if it had done away with taxes instead. Suspicion of new technology -- and the risk of an audit -- meant that adoption was slow: Just 17,000 of France's 19 million tax-paying households filed online in 2001, and 100,000 filed the following year. As one of the late-night filers, a graphic designer, told me back then: "If my return goes missing, there's no way to keep a copy for myself to prove what I sent."
That pack-rat instinct is what prompted French company Xamance to launch the Xambox, a gadget it exhibited at the Cebit trade show this month. A cunning combination of hardware and software, the Xambox appealed to me with its promise that I would be able to keep track of paperwork, yet never have to file anything again.
While I had high hopes that the Xambox would beam documents up to some dematerialized filing system in the sky, the reality is more mundane. As documents are scanned, they drop into a numbered box that you then stick in a cupboard. Not so much dematerialized as out of sight, out of mind.
With a combination of optical character recognition and a huge database, the Xambox should be able to show you a scan of whatever document you search for, its makers say. By occasionally dropping a bar-coded divider into the stream of documents to scan, you give the database enough clues to tell you exactly where to find the original document too, should you need it: Box number five, third document after the seventh divider, it might tell you, as you look for the papers to justify last year's tax filing.
Books of the Future?
This week Paris played host to another demonstration of dematerialization, at the intersection of science fiction and finance.
The Salon du Livre, an annual book fair, included for the first time an exhibit entitled "Tomorrow's reading." Amazon's Kindle was there, in a glass case, as was a prototype bi-stable LCD (liquid crystal display), a form of e-paper developed by French manufacturer Nemoptic.
The manufacturers of the iRex and Cybook e-readers also had stands. Their devices were technologically impressive: lightweight, with crisp, readable displays and interfaces that were, for the most part, well thought out.
Cybook had cheekily loaded its demo models with a novella entitled "I, Robot" by online rights campaigner, academic -- and author -- Cory Doctorow. I say cheekily, because although Doctorow distributes much of his work under a Creative Commons license, he has no faith in e-readers, as he explained in a column in the March issue of Locus , a magazine for science fiction fans.
Apart from their presence on the demonstration devices at the show, e-book publishers kept a low profile.
Even daily newspaper Les Echos had real newspapers, piles and piles of them, on its stand, but couldn't show me samples of the e-reader or the e-paper edition that it launched at the show last year.
Publishers at the show said that e-books will cost about the same as paper books. That wouldn't be so bad (the authors and publishers still have to eat), but on top of that they want me to pay for the "e-printing," and the e-readers exhibited cost from
With prices like that, I think I can afford to put off dematerializing my reading habits until tomorrow.