No-Paper Future

It's either that or data tapes.

Every time someone says we're becoming a paperless society, I get ten more forms to fill out.
Dr. Hobbes, Babylon 5

The future is full of data drives, backups, often made of Organic Technology or crystal, and holographic terminals. No paper though, even if we still have trees around. The danger of having no hard copies of information seems lost on folks. This vision of an entirely digital future hearkens back to the 70s and 80s, when the increasing popularity of the home computer and email led many to believe that soon paper would be made obsolete by the ability to transfer and access hundred-page documents instantly on portable computing devices. Ironically, as the years went on the growing use of fax machines and printers meant paper was in higher demand than ever before. However by the 2000s the growing trends was towards everything being digital, and the rise of e-books threatens to make a No Paper Future a reality (despite the no hard copies risks).

Another way to tell it's the future is to make money 'weird', if not get rid of it. This is a Justified Trope at this point, since now many some of us really do pay with cards for any sizable amount of money when possible (and preferable). For now it's still more practical to bring money for smaller transactions, to save the 20 or 30 seconds to sign a receipt or key PIN; yet even now, swipe-and-go smart cards that can be much faster than handling messy physical change are spreading.

This whole trope presumes the complete elimination of the Black Market or illegal transactions, as, obviously, drug dealers are not going to be interested in transactions that leave a paper data trail. Ditto for people arranging transactions to evade or avoid taxes or purchase something they'd rather not admit to; cash has no trail, electronic money does. But then the government decides how money is done, so who cares about the criminals? (Let's not dwell on the obvious answer to that question which is shown every time a newspaper presents news about political scandals involving large bribes...)


Examples:

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    Anime 
  • Ghost in the Shell has a near absence of all books and papers in physical form, to the point where libraries are only maintained as historical archives. When paper is seen, the text is often barcodes. In fact, the lack of physical hard copies of information becomes a plot point several times throughout the series. In a world where Everything Is Online, and skilled hackers lurk everywhere, how can you really be sure the records you're reading are the truth and not just a well-written fabrication?
  • Cowboy Bebop keeps the paper, but apparently mostly gets rid of paper money. Outside of a betting pool being run in the episode "Heavy Metal Queen", physical cash is never seen. Whenever the people pay, they use credit cards. One episode featured not only a set of criminals who had hacked their way into the paperless money system by planting a virus in the automated hyperspace gate toll system that robbed people blind as they passed, but also had an executive with the company annoyed that some of those defrauded sent in complaints on paper letters, something he considered "harassment, it's a waste of resources". Though they were on Mars...
  • The sufficiently future setting of Sky Girls has normal computers and papers...that has a scrolling function much like flexible, ultrathin tablet PCs.

    Comic Books 
  • The 30th century depicted in DC's Legion of Super Heroes is generally paperless. In the Beach Episode issue Legionnaires #77, when the Legion visits a resort planet, one character remarks on the "old-fashioned paper money" she's received for her winnings in a casino.

    Fan Works 
  • Usually played straight in the Bait and Switch-verse, with characters usually using PADDs. Hard-copy documents, such as Eleya's commission as a lieutenant commander and CO of the USS Kagoshima at the end of "The Universe Doesn't Cheat", are typically printed on "archival plastic", which is apparently nearly indestructible. However there's a brief moment in chapter two of Bait and Switch where an admiral crumples a report and chucks it over a railing, where it bounces off a Breen's helmet. Queried about that in the Star Trek Online Foundry mission for which the fic is a novelization, the author cited Rule of Funny: "You can't crumple a PADD."

    Film 
  • Subtly parodied in Star Trek: Insurrection where we see Picard at a desk... piled high with PADDs.
  • Totally inverted in Brazil, in which the semi-futuristic dystopian society uses nothing but paper. The world is full of giant printing presses and those pneumatic tubes that are in drive-thru banks (That's not what "information retrieval" means, though; it's a euphemism for torture). Most of the plot is brought about by a fly flying into an automatic typewriter, causing it to type one letter wrong and therefore sentence the wrong man to death.
  • Star Wars, at least in the movies, as pointed out in Darths & Droids. There is absolutely no paper in the Star Wars universe; even flat-panel displays are a rarity, mostly reserved for space ship cockpits. Instead most of the communication and information-storage is done with holograms.
    • One deleted scene from The Empire Strikes Back shows that the Rebels used a warning on paper stuck on a door that leads to a room in which they had trapped a Wampa. As the main characters escape the base, Threepio rips off the paper so the Stormtroopers will barge in there unaware. The scene was cut because of this trope.
    • The Expanded Universe sometimes uses paper-like materials and writing utensils for using them, but it's something called "flimsiplast" or "flimsi". Unlike paper it's completely reusable, snaps back from being crumpled if it's smoothed out, and dissolves in water. There's also a similar reusable material called "durasheet", popular among students passing notes because not long after being written on, any messages fade.
    • The trope is played absolutely straight in the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel New Jedi Order: Refugee. Requesting access to a Chiss library to find a specific world, the characters are shown shelves of objects described in the most absolutely vague terms—shaped like a brick, etc. After puzzling over it for a moment, wondering if it's some kind of PADD or digital display, another character flips open the cover, showing the object to be a book. They are absolutely baffled—not at the concept of a book, but in storing information in a system that is so hard to search. Once informed of the benefits (a power outage will not cut off information access, just for example), they gradually adapt, though they still find it a mind-numbing task to search.
    • In Galaxy of Fear, finding a library stocked with paper books is treated as slightly absurd. The protagonists have only seen such things in museums.
    • In Star Wars: The Old Republic, there is a quest on Taris about ownership of a certain piece of land. One of the sides claims they have a deed for that land ancient enough to be in printed form.
  • In Back to the Future Part II, people interact with several objects using their thumbrint. We can see Biff paying the taxi fare by applying his thumb on some sort of portable paying machine. He gets a paper receipt. Interestingly, it appears that the receipt that Marty got for the Sports Almanac was made of plastic. On the other hand, future Marty got fired by fax machine. The store clerk who sells Marty the almanac implies that by 2015 books are no longer printed on paper. Since the almanac has sports scores up to the year 2000, this suggests printed books stopped being made between 2001 and 2015.
  • In Alien: Resurrection, the crew of the Betty is paid in untraceable cash, which the General notes was rather hard to obtain in this day and age.
  • Demolition Man had fun with this one. Characters use tablets and nobody writes anything down. Even toilet paper is considered obsolete and has been replaced with the three seashells. The only things that are still printed on paper are fines for swearing, which John initially uses in lieu of toilet paper.

    Literature 
  • In many end times novels based on Christian eschtalogy (especially Darbyist varieties), like Left Behind, it is always a given that the economy is being moved in this direction, so as to make the implementation of The Mark Of The Beast easier, due to a line in The Bible about one needing to have a mark on the head or right hand present to buy or sell, thus obviating the need for paper money.
  • Most of the paperlessness of J. D. Robb's In Death novels, set in the late 2050s and early 2060s, is fairly reasonable: paper is available but is not commonly used, having been replaced by the convenience of electronic media, and some characters still prefer paper books to electronic readers. However, paper money and coinage have been entirely replaced by credit... and since this includes small "credit chips" that apparently have the exact function and appearance of metal coins, one wonders why Robb bothered.
    • In addition, the chips are one single denomination, rather than the vast amount of denominations used by US cash.
  • In the Animorphs books, Ax, an alien, is amazed that humans invented computers after books, which he finds much easier to use. He's also surprised that the telephone was invented before the chat room.
  • In the Uplift series, all aliens, and even humans, use the Great Library and compatible software instead of paper. In Infinity's Shore Gillian Baskin, the commander of the Streaker learns of the native Jijoan method of storing information on paper, and Gillian spends a few moments pondering the espionage opportunities.
    • The Jijoans, a loose alliance of six species who abdicated technology, including some humans, didn't have any means of storing information before the human settlers arrived and introduced paper. Because the other five races had all been given Galactic level technology when Uplifted and knew nothing of any tech between stone age and Galactic.
    • The forward to Contacting Aliens, in-universe a guide for Terragen Intelligence Agents, states that it is written in an old-fashioned paper book specifically because Galactics wouldn't recognize it as a form of data representation. Ironically it's now available as an e-book.
  • In The Handmaid's Tale, Twenty Minutes into the Future, paper still exists but paper money disappeared before the dystopia came into existence. It actually made things a lot easier when it was suddenly decided that women could not own property or have a job.
  • In the Quadrail Series by Timothy Zahn, set in the late 21st century, paper money appears to have vanished - the stated means of exchange consist of credit transfers or the "cash stick", which appears to be a USB drive-type object that you can upload to and download from virtual sums of money. Books have been replaced with multimedia devices known as "readers." The readers even avert Everything Is Online since rather than downloading content wirelessly it must be loaded onto some kind of data card or chip.
  • Subverted in Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (Pamiętnik znaleziony w wannie): the preface talks about how Earth history from roughly the late 20th-early 22nd century was all but lost by the destruction of all paper-based records ("papyralysis") due to something (it's unclear whether it's a microorganism or not) brought back from a Uranus mission— which also contributed to the downfall of world civilization of that era.
  • The Doppleganger Gambit, a 1979 proto-Cyber Punk Police Procedural by Lee Killough, centers around someone finding a member of the underclass who resembled him, and hiring him to wear a fake thumbprint and spend a day with his credit card, making public, traceable transactions, to cover up a murder. The Un-Person's payment wasn't in cash: it was getting to keep the items he purchased.
  • Referenced in a Discworld novel: Ridcully is Archchancellor and supposedly an administrator, and "has always wanted a paperless office," but the Disc is just getting its Industrial Age underway and so paper is, of course, widely used. Ridcully gets rid of papers he doesn't feel like dealing with by locking them in a cabinet and throwing them out the window at night.
    • When he is briefly promoted to captain Fred Colon achieves a paperless City Watch by burning all the paperwork and refusing to accept any further forms or memos.
  • In Return from the Stars paper books have been phased out; instead they are recorded on tiny crystals and can be read when the crystal is inserted into what resembles a modern-day e-book reader (note that the novel has been written in 1961). Paper books are only found in antique shops and mostly include children's literature.
  • Discussed a little, but averted, in Star Trek: Vanguard, when Pennington reads a newspaper:
    "Print is dead."
    "Sure it is. They've been saying that for more than two centuries. Yet here it is in my hand, defying all predictions of its demise".
  • In Memento Nora by Angie Smibert, which takes place Twenty Minutes into the Future (it is never stated when the book takes place, but 9/11 is considered the not so distant past), people use TFC points, earned when one goes to the Therapeutic Forgetting Center to have their memories erased. Only poor people use paper money.
  • Zig-Zagged in Honor Harrington. Quite a bit of information is passed back and forth digitally, including financial transactions. At the same time, characters will occasionally carry hard copies of important information for various reasons. Money is occasionally seen being transported on small digital media devices not entirely unlike flash memory cards, typically attached to a printed document from the bank vouching for the veracity and contents of the chip. It is also made clear that the digital nature of paperwork has not significantly reduced the volume of paperwork. The earlier books went into some detail on the grim duty of reading the daily dispatches, in the form of a long series of digital documents that had to be acknowledged individually after being read. One officer decides to cheer up his commanding officer by putting a dispatch with particularly good news at the bottom of the stack so that she would end the chore on a high note.
  • Enforced in universe in The Fear Index as Hoffmann's company moto includes "In the Future companies won't use paper!" So he insists that no paper be allowed on the property or they'll be fined. However he collects rare first edition books.
  • Mentioned in Charles Stross's Accelerando, where the protagonist of the first part sees someone's home library and muses on the almost shocking retro-novelty of data stored in "kilograms per megabyte" instead of the reverse, because he's such a dedicated futurist and wanderer who has no room to store much information in something as inefficient as a book.
  • Terry Brooks notes how bad this can be in the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy. The library they're looking for is entirely paperless, and thus they have no way to remove the information.

    Live Action TV 
  • The season two premiere of Star Trek: Enterprise sees Daniels (and Archer) find themselves in a screwed-up version of Earth's 31st century. Daniels' greatest shock is reserved for the discovery that the (abandoned) library has physical books; in his version of the time period, it's all on computer. (Never mind that if it had been on computer, they wouldn't have gotten the information they needed, as the power was out.)
  • Averted in the 2007 Battlestar Galactica, which has paper printouts (from a dot matrix printer, no less) aboard the ship. This is to be expected, as the Galactica is a relatively primitive old workhorse, not one of the sleek new state-of-the-art line ships like Pegasus. It's also a security measure that makes it harder for the Cylons to hack their systems and steal their intel. As a token gesture to futureness or alienness, all sheets are octagonal. (The "cut corners" are a reference to the original Battlestar Galactica.)
    • Adama also has a large collection of printed books - close examination reveals that many of them are actually copies of the Reader's Digest Condensed Books series that used to be popular in the 1970s.
    • In the spinoff Caprica, ordinary paper is commonplace but people also frequently use devices called e-sheets. These super-thin PDA like devices feature touchscreens, can be folded like paper sheets, used to take notes, leave messages and send e-mails and are apparently quite cheap. Their absence in BSG could be explained by the backlash against computer technology (especially in the military) that took place after the first Cylon War.
  • Avoided by Babylon 5, where paper's still around in the 2200s. See the quote at the top. Cash also exists; while it's not clear whether the Earth Alliance credit has cash denominations (on one hand, they're never seen, and on the other, shady dealings do occur in terms of credits), the Centauri Ducat consists at least of coins, and is thus preferred for shady transactions. Quite a bit of the show's Call Backs and Foreshadowing come in the form of headlines on newspapers characters are reading.
    • One episode shows where all the newspapers people read on the station come from. Kiosks print off newspapers tailored to the readers' interests on-demand, and the previous day's newspaper is fed into the same machine for recycling.
  • Played with in Firefly; in one scene in the pilot, the gangster Badger holds up a sheet of paper...to reveal that its actually an active computerized display of scrolling text. Of course, paper money itself is still used, and actual paper documents are used repeatedly, but the paper itself has become much more versatile.
  • Subverted in the Doctor Who episode "Silence in the Library". The Library is largest one in the entire universe, comprising the surface of an entire planet, with it's core containing digital backups of every text stored within and having an artificial moon in orbit serving as debugging software to keep the computer systems running smoothly. It's explained that the reason it's filled with good old-fashioned paper books is the result of a recurring fad, since although the technology keeps improving, such as e-books and "fiction mists", nothing can replace "the smell of books" in the consciousness of the human race. The builders even deforested and pulped an entire world to create enough paper for the books... which in hindsight, turned out to be a horrible mistake.
  • The Alternate Universe in Fringe is this way to the point that a ballpoint pen becomes the most exotic thing about a crime scene. It eventually leads the Fringe Division to a hospital where patients can't reliably use computers and therefore given pens and paper.
  • In an episode of Journeyman, the protagonist ends up accidentally leaving his digital camera in the 70s, where it's found and reverse-engineered to jump-start another computer revolution. He goes back to his work at the newspaper. His boss hands him a sheet of paper that has a video playing on it. The protagonist's reaction is "what am I supposed to do with this?" Also, all computers have holographic screens. He likes this more advanced world but still ends up hitting the Reset Button because the same computer revolution resulted in his son never being born (he was about to do his wife, when he got a call about a malfunction of the new systems), replaced with a daughter.
  • Star Trek:
    • Interestingly averted in the original Star Trek: The Original Series pilot "The Cage", in which data readouts are printed out on paper.
    • In Star Trek: The Next Generation, e-books rule the day, except for Picard's prized printed edition of Shakespeare, which takes pride of place in his office.
      • Other characters are seen enjoying printed books on occasion with the implication that collecting printed books is a sort of hobby like antiquing. Some of the expanded universe novels indicated that books are commonly replicated just because people like them.
      • They seem to think that it's futuristic to avoid paper and have data on handheld pads. Yet no one thought of simply filing the information and let people call it up - like we do today, rather than hand deliver a pad for every trivial piece of information.
    • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode The Muse Jake Sisko is encouraged by an alien entity to write on paper (something which he said he'd never done). The alien also gives him what appears to be a nib pen which she said was used by another famous writer. It's odd that, in the 24th century, a teenager would even know how to write with a nib pen considering, even in the 21st century, very few people would know how to write with one.
    • Star Trek: Voyager: Averted in an episode where Chaoktay falls in love with an alien whose hat is that they don't leave lasting memories (they have a biochemistry that makes memories fade and a computer virus which erases computer records). Chakotay writes out his experiences on paper so it won't be erased.
  • In the Stargate SG-1 episode "2010", which is set Twenty Minutes into the Future (at the time of airing) after Earth has made an alliance with an advanced alien race, cash and cards have apparently been replaced with fingerprint scanners.

     Newspaper Comics  
  • Dilbert had a strip dedicated to mildly deconstructing the "paperless office." Cue panels showing engineers with notes written up and down their arms and an ultimate panel where the topic of the meeting is "the bathroom problem."
  • "Bizarro" had a Sunday strip several years ago, entitled something like "Three More Signs of a Paperless Economy." The kicker? The third panel shows a bathroom stall with a monitor showing an image of a roll of toilet paper!

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Shadowrun, paper has mostly been replaced with credits in the form of the everpresent Matrix and commlinks. However, physical cash is still used occasionally, as are certified credsticks, which are like flashdrives that contain a certain amount of money.
    • It's actually somewhat bad in one sense. 'Print is all but dead' it says, when describing why language skill ratings for reading and writing are half that for talking—say, your English skill of 4 for talking in it drops to 2 for writing and reading it. But it still seems a lot of the data of the world is in the form of text ... which differs from print mainly due to all the electrons involved in the display. Plus, this is supposed to apply to specialized dialects, and one cited is legal-speak. So they're suggesting the field of LAW has cut down on writing?
  • Zig-Zagged in Warhammer 40,000, a galaxy with plenty of Schizo Tech. While dataslates are fairly prevalent, paper records, including books and scrolls are also quite common. Case in point: the Administratum, the monolithic bureaucracy managing the Imperium of Man, has entire planets devoted to keeping archives of files, staffed with countless scribes, servitors, and mono-task servo skulls constantly writing down everything on scrolls, and libraries (forbidden, of course; knowledge begets heresy) filled with rows upon rows of dusty ancient tomes, scrolls, and datatomes. And this takes place in the 41st millennium. Some planets are almost at civil war just over the little space that is left to put paper!
  • The Cyberpunk 3.0 RPG used this as the reason for the change in the setting from that in Cyberpunk 2020. All the world's records were held online, and a Computer Virus scrambled all the data. It got to the point where the game is set in the year "303x", because all the calendars were scrambled too.
  • On most civilized planets in Traveller transactions tend to be electronic. And physical Imperial Credit banknotes on the worlds that use them are made of plastic too.
  • One d20 Modern setting option, CyberRave (basically Shadowrun), has the Wealth score now covered entirely by digital currency, as the near-future economy has gone entirely paperless to discourage the Black Market and illegal trades exactly as described above. Except players also have a "Grey Wealth" score that represents access to physical objects and old currency still accepted as a medium for exchange in the underground economy - stuff like precious metals, disposable consumer electronics, and so on. This is Truth in Television, as goods like prepaid cell phone time cards, gift cards, and even laundry detergent are already used to launder money or trade straight across in barter for illegal goods, and there's no reason to expect these practices to disappear.

    Video Games 
  • Mass Effect states that both paper money and electronic money exist, but electronic money is generally preferred, due to aforementioned illegal activity that's done with paper money.
    • In the sequel, most information is carried around on datapads similar to Star Trek, but sheets of paper, books and binders are visible in many places if you look closely.
    • In Mass Effect 2, there are paper books in Kasumi's room, which she rather embarrassed about. Not because this is considered old fashioned, but because they're cheap romance novels.
    • Although their own No-Paper Future happened 50,000 years in the past, the Protheans fully embraced this trope, storing both their memories and information on crystals, Organic Technology or even water which they accessed with their empathic abilities. Javik even dislikes datapads for how "primitive" the technology is compared to what he's used to.
  • Xenosaga does have paper, though it's rare and stuff like books are antiquities.
  • In Deus Ex, paper money has been supplanted by a global electronic currency, credits, which is mostly seen on physical chits. Otherwise, paper hasn't gone anywhere - there are a lot of newspapers and books in the game world, though notepads have gone the way of dinosaurs, entirely replaced with datapads.
  • In Secret of Evermore, the Omnitopia biome uses "credits" as its currency instead of paper money, though the whole game technically doesn't use paper money since Talons, Jewels and Gold are not paper either.

    Webcomics 

    Western Animation 
  • Batman Beyond features a future mostly devoid of paperwork and money, with "cred cards" as the standard form of currency. The spinoff series, The Zeta Project, has the titular robot equipped with a card that can generate unlimited money, which often becomes a plot point.
    • There is, however, quite a bit of cash seen in the episode "Payback".
    • Most episodes handle the "cred cards" and "cred sticks" exactly as if they were cash, however, with thugs gloating over big bags of "creds", and larger quantities of physical "creds" being treating as a greater quantity of value. Issues of traceability, of crime victims canceling their cards, and so forth never seem to arise. It's possible that there's a brisk business in pre-paid debit cards, because, frankly, you don't have to be a criminal to have transactions you'd rather not have recorded.
    • A Villain of the Week used a newspaper's printing room as a hide-out. Terry said the place was empty because nobody reads newspapers anymore.
  • One Robot Chicken skit had Clark Kent out of a job as the Daily Planet became an app and had slashed the staff.

    Real Life 
  • This article on why the world should eliminate paper money in favor of a cashless society.
    • The US makes much heavier use of electronic currency payment via debit cards in stores than places like Japan and Hong Kong. The big exception is the "Octopus" card, a prepaid debit card that can be used in everything from the mass transit system (for which it was created) to restaurants and soda machines.
    • Australia and Romania have already eliminated paper money... in favor of plastic banknotes. Canada also plans to do so starting in late 2011.
      • It was never actually made of paper anyway: money is made of cloth - paper just tears too easily.
    • Hong Kong did this, but only with the $10 note (That white part is actually a clear plastic window on the real thing). It's less popular than the $10 coin, because most machines won't take it.
    • Israel has been using 20 NIS notes made of plastic for several years now. The change to all-plastic bills is rumoured to occur in 2012, though it's been delayed repeatedly several times so far.
    • Mexico likewise has had plastic bills with little transparent windows to show off the fact that it's plastic for a while now. Paper ones are presumably still legal tender, but they're being phased out by banks and other government-friendly institutions.
  • Sweden actually considers the bold move of ditching paper money.
  • During the 2008 housing recession, many news papers went out of business, with most cities only having one or two active newspapers lines, and many paper companies still have trouble as many people didn't resubscribe when the economy improved. The Batman Beyond example above may prove to be correct.
  • In the late 1980's and early 90's there was a humorous poster in many offices. It showed a man in his office with computers and the caption was "The future will never be entirely paperless." If you look past the man you can see the bathroom with the toilet paper clearly visible.