Time Essay: What Hath XEROX Wrought?

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Imagine for a moment that some inventive and omnipotent god offered the nation a device that would greatly advance the spread of information. In return, the deity required that the President resign, that stacks of sensitive Government and corporate secrets be made public, and that the country be buried in a sea of paper. There would probably be few takers.

Yet that bargain is in effect the unintended heritage of the Xerox machine. Since its perfection less than two decades ago, the green-eyed deus ex machina has helped alter the course of history and changed forever the daily rhythms of white-collar life. The photocopier has, its detractors say, fostered waste, encouraged sloth, stifled creativity and punched holes in the copyright laws. Bureaucrats complain that the machine now makes confidential exchanges all but impossible; foes of official secrecy complain that fear of Xerox-abetted leaks has made bureaucrats more secretive than ever. Whatever the complaint, in view of the social, economic and moral consequences of the office copying machine, the time has plainly come to ask: What hath Xerox wrought?

Xerox, it must be noted at the outset, is a trademark of the Xerox Corp. of Stamford, Conn. The word comes from the Greek xeros, meaning "dry." It refers to the dry, electrostatic copying process (a quantum improvement over earlier wet photographic methods) finally developed in 1938 in a one-room laboratory behind a beauty parlor in Astoria, Queens, by a penurious patent attorney named Chester F. Carlson. Xerox Corp. had revenues of $4.05 billion last year, and today accounts for more than half of all photocopier sales and leases in the U.S. (The chief producers of copying machines after Xerox are IBM and 3M.)

The same numerical strength that has made Xerox a household word has also fed an epidemic of Xeromania. There are 2.3 million copying machines in the U.S., and last year they emitted an estimated 78 billion copies—enough to paper Long Island from shore to shore and, if laid end to end, to girdle the globe 546 times at its widest point. Those numbers are double the figures of five years ago, and are expected to more than double again in five years. Hardly any school or library is without at least one machine, and the Xerox seems to have replaced the water cooler as an office social center. The isolated Havasupai Indians on the floor of the Grand Canyon turn out their tribal newsletter on two Xerox 660s. Gosplan, the state planning committee of the U.S.S.R., reproduces many of its official documents on Xerox machines. As a result of the galloping ubiquity of office copiers, hardly anyone nowadays passes up an opportunity to use one. "It's a machine that generates its own demand, like cocktail nuts," says Boston University Sociologist Mark G. Field. "It is used because it is available."

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