Papers Please


As you know, I’ve been searching for an apartment lately. So far I haven’t had much luck, mostly due to my cats, which I might write about later. But with all the various trips to different agencies, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Romanian offices, something I haven’t done in a while.

I watch a lot of documentaries and somewhere buried on the internet is an excellent one from the early 1990s about the history of the personal computer. Without getting into too much detail, around 1979 or 1980 the now-sainted Steve Jobs paid a visit to a locked storage room in the basement of a Xerox research facility in Palo Alto, California. Down there, gathering dust on the shelves, was a computer that was shockingly advanced – it had a mouse, a color screen and a keyboard.

Steve Jobs bought that prototype from the Xerox people and ended up using it to make the first Macintosh computer. The rest, from there, is history. But I bring it up today because I’m old enough to remember when Xerox was busy promoting a different research idea – the “paperless” office.

Quite frankly, whether in London or Cluj or New York or anywhere else, all offices are swamped in paper. The invention of movable type and bulk printing in the 15th century was a technological marvel at the time but today’s reliance on pressed sheets of pulped wood fibers is positively archaic. It’s also environmentally suicidal and the creation of paper (especially the bleaching to make it white) has to be one of the most toxic processes of all time. Literally billions of trees get cut down every year, and all of that just so people can scribble notes that end up getting tossed and thrown away.

Certainly no office I’ve ever been in has been “paperless” but Romanian offices are literally swamped in paper. I’ve certainly seen this before my current apartment hunt but I forgot about it. There are papers piled to the rafters, on desks and in boxes and trays and stored on shelves in enormous binders. Yesterday I asked the agent at one office to let me look in this one binder called “Protectia Muncii”, legal papers concerning work safety regulations and the like, and there were a dozen other similar binders next to it – all of them stuffed with handwritten papers.

Some friends of mine (here in Romania) just recently sold a business and there are stacks of paper for that. Some different friends recently incorporated a business and again, stacks of paper. When I was down at the courthouse for the first hearing of the Lord of Cluj (Sorin Apostu), lawyers were coming out lugging enormous stacks of papers. Romania is drowning in a tidal wave of papers. Heck, even my cats have their own sets of papers, documenting everything from their vaccination records to their “citizenship” as European Union animals.

Yesterday I saw something which I’ve seen a million times – when information must be communicated, the Romanian person takes out their “agenda”, a leather-bound book which all business people must seemingly own, and write down the information on a page (of paper) with a pen. I don’t know anyone employed in the city who does not own some kind of “agenda” that is jam crammed full with handwritten notes and information. These same people always have an extremely expensive “smart” phone but yet we’re all still exchanging information via handwritten notes on paper.

As I said, this isn’t purely a Romanian thing. Years ago when I worked in a real office in America, they used a lot of handwritten papers as well. I seem to have some kind of instinctual hatred for excess paper though because I remember creating digital versions of all the forms we used on a regular basis. They could then be completed on a computer and stored securely (and transmitted easily, such as via email, when necessary) and then printed out if absolutely necessary. I’ve never seen this once in Romania – here the “carbon copy” still exists and is quite popular.

When I need to take down information from someone, such as their Facebook information or an address or a phone number or just about anything else, I just type it into my phone. I remember going to a bank so I could deposit money in an account and instead of writing out that absurdly long account number (it’s always RO plus 10 zeroes or something) I just handed the clerk my laptop. The other day I was looking for an envelope to carry some money in and I realized all the envelopes I own are from bills and I use them as “scratch paper” to write down the few things on paper that I need to have.

I don’t know if there’s money to be made in “digitizing” Romanian offices but I rather imagine there is. Far too much crap is written out by pen on paper. With things like iPads floating around everywhere, it would be far simpler to sign things like rental agency contracts digitally than have shelves and shelves full of papers. Every month I get bills for my utilities (gas, electric, etc) which I then have to cart down to either the bank or else the payment office of the utility and then pay. The paper then goes right into the trash. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just get an SMS with a code that I can show the bank teller?

I realize that under certain conditions that a physical paper with a signature is necessary for some legal procedures. I get that. But the sheer amount of copies and receipts and forms that I get on a weekly basis is overwhelming. By Romanian law, every time I buy so much as a pretzel (covrig) at a walk-up window they are required to give me a paper receipt. I get utility bills printed on paper and then a printed receipt when I pay it. I get untold sheaves of paper whenever I change money or do anything at the bank, where they literally photocopy my passport every single time I do something. I get handed business cards all the time printed on paper. I neither go to school here nor work in an office, and yet the amount of paper I handle on a weekly basis is staggering. I can only imagine what it’s like for someone working in a government office.

Who knows, perhaps I still believe in the old Xerox dream, where only a handful of the most valuable and important documents are still in the form of dead pieces of pulped wood. I love digital books and I love the fact that my own books are read every day by people in a digital form, bought and transmitted nearly instantaneously, taking up no physical space. Maybe I just want to clear out my drawer full of contracts, bank receipts and product warranties that I must keep “just in case”.

Perhaps I’m wrong, you know? Maybe that sea of blue ink (and in Romania, it’s always blue ink) and cryptic handwritten information that must be carried around by hand is serving as a bulwark against digital invasions of privacy and the panopticon style of modern fascism that’s so prevalent in more “developed” countries. Maybe it’s a good thing that someone looking for me (or for you!) has to actually take the time to dig through physical objects, all carefully filled out and filed and stored in enormous binders, stretching on for meter after meter on an infinity of shelves, properly stamped with the numbers written out in both numerals as well as words, in conformation to laws and regulations as amended to and passed by a superannuated body of slothful and corrupt politicians.