I was talking to a man who came to town to speak. "What is your subject to be?" I asked. "Melorheostosis Leri," he answered. A pause. "A rare disease."
"How interesting," I said.
He looked at me over his glasses, and with a sinking heart, I heard the trap snap shut. "I'll send you a photocopy," he said.
And he did.
It ran 38 pages. It included his curriculum vitae; a bibliography of 200 references; a true copy of his application to the Bibby-Applegate Foundation for a grant; a reprint of his report, "New Light on Candlewax Disease"; and a photograph of him holding an X-ray film up to the light.
I appreciate the gift, but unfortunately there's no place to put it. People all over the world are sending me photocopies of interesting items. My filing cabinets are bursting, and Himalayan-size drifts of odd documents cover the floor of my office, making walking a problem.
The variety is unbelievable: a treatise in Swedish on assembly lines; an architect's specifications for a Baptist church of which I am not a communicant; a comic history of plumbing submitted by an acquaintance in Wisconsin; samizdat from Russia; and nuggets from that inexhaustible mother lode, "Proposals for the Revision of the Bylaws."
When the mailman brings in a fresh supply, I long for the old days when he left me nothing but junk mail and postcards from Narragansett Pier, R.I.
For awhile I read all my copies, moved by an understanding for the labor that went into all the pie charts, haunted by the thought of square miles of pulp forests that had been leveled on my behalf.
But there was no keeping up, and soon it dawned on me that these communications were not meant to be read. They were meant to be collected, touched, hefted as though they were wampum, slipped in and out of briefcases, and, perhaps, even copied once again and sent to a friend. "Sam," I would write on the margin, "I ran across this the other day and thought it might be of interest in the production department."
There are probably a hundred impulses that make people copy things, but in the end they all come down to one: the hypnotic satisfaction of feeding sheets of white paper into a machine and watching it spit them out covered with writing and pictures. It's fun, and there is little doubt that this pleasure accounts for one of industry's most paradoxical laws: As technology accelerates, production increases regardless of demand.
One example will do: In a small factory the duplicator turned out, year after year, about 750 copies per week. Old and temperamental – virtually a member of the family – it caught fire now and then, but ordinarily the employees sat around it drinking sodas while it ground out cost estimates and limericks.
Then, on a fateful day, a salesman drifted in from Instanto Inc. and declared the machine obsolete. "Look at that scratched paint," he barked. "Look at that crummy webbing." No one wants to stand in the way of progress, so the poor dear was junked and replaced with a Prolixalese-240, a gleaming replacement at twice the cost and fast, fast.
Even in a recession, with business in a state of collapse, it can turn out 1,200 copies a week. Boredom keeps it going.
A line in Thoreau's "Walden" made me think of Prolixalese: "So with a hundred 'modern improvements,' there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance." After turning these words over in my mind, I telephoned the salesman I'd bought our office's copier from and asked him to stop in.
"Walt," I said to him when he arrived, "I'm not happy with this apparatus."
"What's wrong?" he asked. "Is it too slow? You can't say I didn't warn you. If you'd only put in our..."
"No, Walt. Nothing like that," I said."The simple truth is, it's too fast."
He stared at me. "Too fast! You must be putting me on. Why, that's our first office model. All the others are in the Smithsonian – nobody else uses them, and you get the cheapest rate."
"I want something slower and cheaper."
"Cheaper? You get a copy in seven seconds for 11 cents."
"I know. Could you arrange for something that would turn out a copy in, say, four minutes for a nickel? That would be real economy."
"How do you figure that?"
"Easily," I said. "Except for a few things that can usually wait, most copiers are used on impulse. A great idea at the time.
"But if I had to wait four minutes for every copy, I'd be satisfied with fewer," I continued. "The idea of turning them out wholesale would seem idiotic. People could do so well without them. I wouldn't burden them. Think of the friends I'd make. Think of the benefits to mankind, the savings in paper, electricity, and litter."
He picked up his attaché case. "I'm sorry, but I can't help you, and remember – your contract has four months to go. "