"A trivial problem reveals the limits of technology" had caught my eye, but not enough of my attention to get me to read more at the time I received the email. In my boredom I finally opened the article and was immediately drawn into the action filled drama that is the world of copiers, xerography, and tribology (don't worry, those words will mean more to you when you read the article, and you should).
The article read like the script for an action movie. Full of obstacles to conquer, fascinating sci-fi-esque technology, characters I felt invested in, and a lasting struggle. The article opens with the initial conflict that draws us into the story. Xerox engineers are faced with a problem: a paper jam had occurred in Asia while a client had been trying to print a book. With overwhelming enthusiasm I started reading quotes aloud to Esther.
"The paper they had fed into the press was unusually thin and light, of the sort found in a phone book or a Bible. This had not gone well. Midway through the printing process, the paper was supposed to cross a gap; flung from the top of a rotating belt, it needed to soar through space until it could be sucked upward by a vacuum pump onto another belt, which was positioned upside down. Unfortunately, the press was in a hot and humid place, and the paper, normally lissome, had become listless. At the apex of its trajectory, at the moment when it was supposed to connect with the conveyor belt, its back corners drooped. They dragged on the platform below, and, like a trapeze flier missing a catch, the paper sank downward. "
How, I asked Esther, was an article on copiers written with such literary mastery? We came to the conclusion the New Yorker had handed out a handful of topics to write on. The author, Joshua Rothman, had drawn the short straw and ended up with copy machines. Instead of being disappointed by his banal assignment he decided, "Oh yeah? Well I'm going to write the best article ever written about copy machines!" And he did.
After our opening scene where we meet the engineers who are facing the problem of the lissome paper, Rothman takes us back in time, through the history that has led us to the modern copy machine. It all starts back in 1440 when Guttenberg invented the printing press. Though some advancements are made in the centuries between, the paper jam doesn't emerge in the replication process until the 1960s. This is because it takes up until this time to introduce multiple sheet printing. In 1938 a huge advancement in copying take place. In this year Xerography is invented, which is the process of using static electricity quickly and precisely to manipulate electrostatically sensitive powdered ink, a.k.a. toner. (That's right, you wondered what the hell toner was and why your copier keeps telling you it need it? Well, there you go.) With the invention of Xerography, copiers are faster and able to process sheet after sheet of paper, but it is the convenience of this rapid process that has led to the global frustration of the paper jam. Though every year technology improves in exponential jumps, for some baffling reason paper jams never seem to disappear.
"There are many loose ends in high-tech life. Like unbreachable blister packs or awkward sticky tape, paper jams suggest that imperfection will persist, despite our best efforts. They’re also a quintessential modern problem—a trivial consequence of an otherwise efficient technology that’s been made monumentally annoying by the scale on which that technology has been adopted. Every year, printers get faster, smarter, and cheaper. All the same, jams endure."
The problem lies in the fact that though the modern copy machine is an incredibly precise machine, the paper used is still natural, coming from the pulp produced from trees.
"'Paper isn’t manufactured—it’s processed,' Warner said, as we ambled among the copiers in a vast Xerox showroom with Ruiz and a few other engineers. 'It comes from living things—trees—which are unique, just like people are unique.' In Spain, paper is made from eucalyptus; in Kentucky, from Southern pine; in the Northwest, from Douglas fir. To transform these trees into copy paper, you must first turn them into wood chips, which are then mashed into pulp. The pulp is bleached, and run through screens and chemical processes that remove biological gunk until only water and wood fibre remain. In building-size paper mills, the fibre is sprayed onto rollers turning thirty-five miles per hour, which press it into fat cylinders of paper forty reams wide. It doesn’t take much to reverse this process. When paper gets too wet, it liquefies; when it gets too dry, it crumbles to dust."
It is these natural fibers that put unseen variables into the equation. Engineers have to focus not only on the machines they are fixing and creating, but they also must visit paper mills worldwide in order to make advancements in paper technology. But just like anything coming from the natural world, it seems impossible to completely weed out the discrepancies.
Rothman leads us through this unseen world. Copiers play a monumental though subtle role in our lives (just wait till you get to the part about Chicago crime rates) and the problem of the paper jam is a metaphor for the "elemental battle between the natural and the mechanical." Technology inexorably continues to advance, but it seems that perhaps there will always be hangups, that natural taking its unexplainable and random revenge on the mechanical. In true literary fashion, Rothman takes us on this long journey only to drop us back off at the beginning, with the engineers staring at computer diagrams of the paper jam in Asia. Rothman asks a handful of the Xerox employees if they think the problem of the paper jam will ever be eradicated. Most seem skeptical. They turn their minds back to the task at hand, as long as paper jams persist they will have problems to solve--their elemental battle continues.
Read the full article from the New Yorker here.