I’m currently rereading Jürgen Habermas‘s (1991) The Structural Transformation of the Public Space and thought about writing a post about that.  However, I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle German philosophy in this space … yet.

Instead, I want to talk about photocopiers.  This boingboing article by Mark Frauenfelder highlights how Xerox did not anticipate the power of the first Xerox photocopier.  For example, Frauenfelder points out that, “before the [Xerox] 914 machine, Americans made 20 million copies a year, but by 1966 Xerox had boosted the total to 14 billion.” That’s million versus billion folks! The photocopier radically altered how people shared materials.

Before the photocopier, scores of secretaries typed and retyped secretary pooldocuments. Sometimes, they could use carbon paper, but mostly, they rekeyed every letter. Every contract.  Every business letter. Every promotion form. Every document. Typed and retyped by women. They could use a mimeograph machine, but the were messy, sometimes more difficult to set up, and usually only used for many copies at a time.

However, the photocopier changed all that. Suddenly, one machine could quickly, easily, and neatly make a copy. Although, watching the scene in the movie 9 to 5 in which Jane Fonda’s character fights with the copy machine suggests that the machines were pretty complex. Could “any moron” operate that copier?

This change seems analogues to the invention of the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg probably had no idea how important his press would be to the dissemination of Martin Luther’s treatises and the Protestant Reformation. In fact, even Luther claimed he did not anticipate such a widespread reaction. In a letter to one of his friends, Luther writes about his Ninety-Five Theses that “my purpose was not to publish them, but first to consult a few of my neighbors about them, that thus I might either destroy them if condemned or edit them with the approbation of others. But now they are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation, I feel anxious about what they may bring forth.”

The technologies allowed for relatively fast dispersal of information. Luther’s quote suggests that the speed of copying prevented him from retracting or revising his Theses. The technology decreased the time between composition and publication – the time in which contemplation. revision, and redaction may occur. The Church couldn’t stop the spread.

Similarly, the leaders at Xerox feared their new machine would make it easier to spread dumb ideas: “’Have we really made a contribution by making it easier to reproduce junk and nonsense?’ as Sol Linowitz, CEO of Xerox International, fretted in Life magazine.”  To answer Linowtiz’s question, “Yes.”

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