The paperless professor’s crusade to save trees and time
December 2, 2009 |  by Michael Anft
Illustration: Robert Neubecker

Illustration: Robert Neubecker

If you’re reading these words on paper, George Dimopoulos, Bus ’08, would like to have a word with you. How about we step into his office? Oh, it can’t be this one—there’s not much more lining the walls and shelves here than a few stray plants in pots. And yet: Here is Dimopoulos, sitting in a corner in the back—behind an unadorned desk that holds nothing more than three connected video monitors, a keyboard, and a phone—and smiling like the cat that just figured out how to use a can opener. There’s not a scrap of paper to be scribbled on, or even a book to crack open.

Once you get over the shock of viewing a space that is as empty as it is (apparently) functional—a charge Dimopoulos obviously loves to give—and ask him what is going on, he’ll tell you: Going paperless and living through electronic gadgets is better for the environment, frees you from carrying around and storing real documents, and allows you to work from wherever you want. And, er, it gives you lots more space. Then, Dimopoulos, an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, might sheepishly open a drawer and hand you a copy of Paperless Joy, the book he self-published last year and which is made of (horrors!) pure pulp.

“I’m an organizer and a bit of a minimalist,” explains Dimopoulos, 43, in an accent that betrays his Swedish background. “Going paperless really suits my lifestyle and the way I like to think.”

He’s made eliminating piles of documents and books a priority since Johns Hopkins hired him in 2003 to study the inner working of mosquitoes. (His lab searches for clues to the transmission of malaria.) While moving to Baltimore from London, where he taught and did research at Imperial College, Dimopoulos was surrounded by file cabinets full of academic and personal papers. “I had to go through this mountain of stuff,” he says. “I don’t like to throw things away. When documents are electronic, it doesn’t matter whether you keep things because they don’t pile up and take up real space.” To prove his point, he’s amassed and electronically cataloged tens of thousands of messages he’s received over the years. “I haven’t thrown out any emails since the early 1990s,” he says.

Dimopoulos’ transition from scraps of paper to bits of electronic matter began much earlier, when he was studying in Germany. He bought his first personal digital assistant, or PDA, in 1996, realizing that he could keep an almost unlimited amount of calendar and Rolodex information without cluttering up his desk. Later, he bought a scanner that converts information on paper into electronic documents. He bought more monitors, learning how to connect three of them into one computer with a continuous screen on which he could read one document, write another, and leave one open for email and housekeeping stuff. He bought a laptop and an “electronic tablet” on which to take notes, effectively thumbing his nose at the tradition of the pad and paper. And in 2005, he bought an “e-reader,” a device that downloads books and allows the owner to retrieve a ton of reading material. (The Kindle is the most prominent of the new generation of e-readers.)

“People think it’s expensive to do this, but it’s really not,” he says. “The scanners, video cards, and a Kindle each cost about $300 to $350.” A good computer with lots of memory, a laptop, a PDA, and the devices to connect them all into one safe electronic system that can be accessed anywhere there is wireless capability will cost more than that. But in the long run, they’ll prove cheaper and less constraining collectively than endless cabinets full of files, Dimopoulos claims.

He got the idea for sharing his “joy” of a life without paper in book form while he was pursuing an MBA at the Carey Business School three years ago. (He received his degree in 2008.) While taking part in a group presentation in a course on integrating information technology for business use, he was encouraged by the class’s response to the anti-paper polemic he delivered, as well as their fascination with his daily use of an electronic tablet. The book outlines his basic points: Working without paper will kickstart creativity by allowing people to work whenever and wherever they want. “Stimulating energy- and creativity-replenishing activities are, in many cases, impossible to perform in the typical office environment,” he writes. Plugging into the portable electronic world can make a worker “location independent.” In the long run, it can save companies money on office space because workers will be more productive and happy toiling elsewhere. Going paperless will make connections with other people quicker and more consistent. And it will cut down on all the waste created by printing things that clutter office space and clog landfills.

To which Richard H. R. Harper, co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press, 2001), says: Bosh. A principal researcher at Microsoft in the United Kingdom, Harper envisions piles of ditched Blackberrys and PCs leaching the toxic metals they are made with into the groundwater of slums in faraway South Asia, and elsewhere. “Paper is much more environmental than the other things we use—it’s made from recyclable trees,” Harper says. “The materials we use to make these new technologies are not renewable and cause a lot of other problems.”

What’s more, when offices installed computer systems and printers a decade or more ago, their use of paper increased by 40 percent. That number has likely gone up, Harper adds. “There are instances in an office when the use of paper is preferable and that’s not likely to change. The mind grasps the physical geography of an argument much better while reading a long paper than reading the short bits on a computer screen,” he says.

None of which Dimopoulos disputes. The office world hasn’t caught up with the need to reduce its paper waste, he says. Besides, he doesn’t want to abolish paper. Instead, he wants to “achieve a balance between the world of new communication technology and paper.” (In fact, if you look at his office hard enough, you’ll find a printer.)

Still, he has tried to light a paperless fire under his colleagues by asking that memos and minutes of department meetings be recorded and communicated electronically only. He also helped convert the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology Department’s admissions process to a paperless one. “I think most of us admire his ‘paperlessness,’ but have only been able to make small inroads into getting there ourselves,” says Diane Griffin, the department chair. “Nevertheless, he shows that it can be done.”

Elsewhere, progress has been a slog. The book has sold only about 500 copies. But Dimopoulos is happy viewing his crusade as a long march. One colleague on the third floor of the School of Public Health building has made the paperless switch, he notes. And while some there view him as a bit of an eccentric because of his vacuous office space, he has his admirers.

“My group has been very productive,” he says. “That tends to quiet any thoughts that this idea doesn’t work.”