Document dematerialization

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Here at DGA's annual Séminaire on "Traitement de la parole, du langage et des documents multimédias", I've learned a new phrase: Document dematerialization.

This is not a magic trick, nor a reference to flash paper, but rather a way to talk about digitization of documents. A quick web search suggests that this use of "dematerialization" in English is always European, and usually French, presumably as a translation of dématérialisation, which Wikipedia defines as

la transformation de supports d'informations matériels (souvent des documents papier) en des fichiers informatiques (pouvant entraîner la mise en oeuvre du fameux « bureau sans papier » dans une entreprise).

"the transformation of the material support of information (often paper documents) into computer files (often leading to implementation of the famous 'paperless office' in an enterprise)."

The English Wikipedia entry for dematerialization, in contrast, tells us that

In economics, dematerialization refers to the absolute or relative reduction in the quantity of materials required to serve economic functions in society. In common terms, dematerialization means doing more with less. This concept is similar to ephemeralization as proposed by Buckminster Fuller.

This definition was equally new to me, frankly — I thought that dematerialization was the process that turned people into ghosts…


  1. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 1:56 am

    No, no, dematerialization is what happens at the near end of the transporter beam. Do keep up!

    [(myl) Oh; OK.]

  2. fs said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 3:08 am

    Garrett's and my first instincts seem to agree… but if this trend develops, we shouldn't discount selection bias. Heh.

  3. Sili said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 3:23 am

    I thought this was about how the document you need is never to be found in the pile on your desk. (But all the ones you needed last week are.)

  4. Rubrick said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 4:09 am

    Weird… I sent that document to the office printer, but it never materialized.

    I like it.

  5. [links] Link salad wakes up and wanders, is not lost | said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    […] Document dematerialization — Ah, the perils of translation. Nuance is a funny thing, especially when you are blissfully unaware of it. […]

  6. John Cowan said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    Do people really suppose that documents are no longer material because they are represented by spots of magnetization on a magnetic substrate (or pits etched in plastic and read by a laser) instead of spots of ink on paper? Quel bizarre.

    "If Americans were really materialists, they wouldn't eat so much of that stuff they call 'white bread'." –unknown

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    I thought that dematerialization was the process that turned people into ghostsIt's referring to the effects on your assets of current economic policy.

  8. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    The sense 'stored electronically instead of paper' has been current in European and antipodean English for many years. Eg
    "The consultation paper notes that if the UK market were to dematerialise and Ireland did not or if the UK dematerialised ahead of Ireland …"

  9. Dw said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    In your translation of the French Wikipedia article, some might prefer "notorious" as a rendition of "fameux".

  10. Kim Winter said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    India's taken it one step further. Physical share certificates in India no longer exist – stocks are traded in electronic (dematerialised, usually shortened to demat) form. So if you want to invest in the stockmarket you have to open a demat account.

  11. Dan T. said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    Maybe the dematerialized documents are in the same place my socks always seem to wind up when I put them in the dryer.

    I can't remember the last time I actually held a stock certificate; all my investments for many years have been shown only as statement entries.

  12. Marc said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:38 am

    Perhaps, in French, digitisation already has some other meaning? Something to do with fingers?

    [(myl) The equivalent word is numérisation. My understanding is that digital in French refers to fingers, and using it as as the equivalent of English digital is an anglicism. Similarly for digitalisation. And as far as I know, digitisation just doesn't exist as a French word.

    I believe that these are the facts of usage, not just the dictates of the language police. (This is unlike the situation in many other cases, where borrowed English words are freely used despite attempts to establish a French alternative. Thus people seem to use email or mèl for "e-mail", rather than courriel.)

    But why are there two words numérisation and dématérialisation? I asked an expert in document dematerialization, and he explained that numérisation refers pretty strictly to the literal process of analog-to-digital conversion, so that a reference to numérisation des documents would conjure up images of scanning and such. I don't know whether this is cause, effect, or rationalization, however.]

    At first sight, I thought dematerialization would refer to a document's destruction, not its duplication and transformation.

    [(myl) Me too — though less "destruction" than a sort of spontaneous transformation to the spiritual realm. A sort of Twilight Zone premise: "All over Europe, documents are vanishing from locked filing cabinets; but their contents are haunting the dreams of terrified office workers".]

  13. Kim Winter said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 4:07 am

    Nah. Anyone who's ever worked in a "paperless office" knows how easy it is to rematerialise documents. It's called the Print button.

  14. Zubon said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    In the paperless office of the future, we still print copies of electronic documents and put them in binders.

  15. Richard Riddick said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 12:54 am

    Lucy Lippard is neither French nor European:

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