(Cross-posted from Collaborativationalism. Yes, I started a new blog. I wasn’t posting enough at one, so it was clearly time for a second.)

The story starts, I think, with the typewriter. Invented much earlier, the typewriter made its real appearance in the 19th Century. The machine had one purpose, to enable people to type up documents. Straightforward enough. The mechanical typewriter went through iterations of mechanical development before the appearance of the electric typewriter, courtesy of IBM the Blickensderfer Manufacturing Company.

Then in the whiz-bang 1970’s the now defunct Wang Laboratories introduced what was really the first word processor. Think electronic typewriter with memory. These evolved through the years - I remember one in my dad’s office at one point - but were eventually displaced by the PC. The PC could load a word processing application and connect to a printer and emulate what the single purpose word processor could do, plus a whole lot more.

So we get the PC with the software word processor with which we can create and edit and print documents (oh yes, I remember using Word Perfect on DOS when Word Perfect was an independent company!). As email began to percolate into the workplace it became a way to exchange word processor documents between coworkers; no more printing and exchanging documents and memos before the final draft.

But the problem is that this stream of innovations is entirely concerned with documents. The report that was moved from the typewriter to the hardware word processor to the software word processor was moved about as a document. Each advance was designed to do better what the previous iteration did. But the document doesn’t matter. As paper it’s a physical means to an abstract end, the advance of ideas, the exchange of information.

This is surely no big deal, but it highlights the problem that we all - that everyone - faces with new technology. We get hung up on the means and all too often the metaphor (file folders, really?) and lose sight of the purpose. That idea doesn’t need to be communicated in a document. It can be written up in a blog or a wiki. That message can be sent via email or IM or microblog. We get stuck on the last iteration of our attempt to solve the problem, and forget about the actual problem we were trying to solve in the first place.

Don’t believe me?

Do you have a large storage space at the back of your car? (or worse yet, inoperable protective coverings nailed next to your windows?)