Time Essay: What Hath XEROX Wrought?

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The urge to reproduce is producing some alarming results. A new impersonality has crept into human discourse, as Xeroxk copies are used more and more in place of personal communication —letters, party invitations (with the now obligatory road map), even Christmas cards. Americans seem to be losing the faculties of compression, digestion and economy in their written communication. After all, why bother to summarize when you can simply attach a photocopy of the original?

Copiers are churning out boxcars of raw, unsummarized information, but is anybody out there reading it? In a study, one Boston company wrote, "Did you really read this?" on all Xerox copies produced at the firm, and requested that they be returned with an answer. More than half came back marked "no." Even the people who make copies no longer find it necessary always to read them first. Watergate Defendant Kenneth Parkinson successfully argued that he had hot read a particular incriminating document; he had merely Xeroxed it. The photocopier has made many Americans too lazy to copy documents by hand, to use carbon paper, to express something in their own words, to read —perhaps too lazy to think.

Even the Xerox machine's contributions to investigative journalism are ambiguous. The copier may have helped disgruntled leakers illuminate a few dark Government and corporate secrets, but it has also spurred bureaucrats to even greater taciturnity. After all, what malefactor in his right mind would put anything incriminating—or even refreshingly outspoken—on paper nowadays? In addition, the copier's ability to turn confidential communications into bestsellers has encouraged memo drafters everywhere to strive for blandness. Says Professor Anthony Athos of the Harvard Business School: "When the writer knows that through the magic of Xerox many people will see what he has written, then it loses the sharp cutting edge and gains what I call administrative opacity. What we have is a proliferation of blah, blah, blah."

Xerox machines have probably become too ubiquitous for Americans to kick the habit entirely, but there are some measures that could discourage excess. Copier manufacturers could end their current race to build ever faster and more convenient machines, which only encourage overuse. Heavy institutional users of copiers could also replace their hares with tortoises; slower machines are generally cheaper to operate any way. To conserve paper — and trees — manufacturers could provide more recycled paper for their machines. And, of course, a little personal self-control would help; copying a marginally impor tant document does not diminish its superfluity one bit. And who really enjoys receiving Xeroxed Christmas greetings?

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