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Paper, continued

Wednesday, 10 December, 2014

“Why should I want to have a lot of copies of this and that lying around? Nothing but clutter in the office, a temptation to prying eyes, and a waste of good paper.” — John Brooks, Business Adventures

John Brooks (1920 — 1993) was a longtime contributor to the New Yorker magazine, where he worked as a staff writer, specializing in financial topics. His Business Adventures was published in 1969 and perhaps the books’s most relevant piece from today’s perspective is his account of life at Xerox. In the early 1960s, the company introduced a proprietary process that let copies be made on plain paper and with great speed. It had almost $60 million in revenue in 1961 and this figure jumped to more than $500 million by 1965, by which time Americans were creating 14 billion copies a year.

Brooks describes the “mania” for copying as “a feeling that nothing can be of importance unless it is copied, or is a copy itself.” Xerography changed the nature of text distribution more than anything since the time of Gutenberg and stoked up hopes and fears akin to those experienced in the early days of the World Wide Web. When Brooks visited Xerox HQ in Rochester, New York, he found the that the company’s biggest concern, however, was figuring out how to support the United Nations — an admirable ideal, in many ways, but not that relevant to its core business.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center were developing several key elements of personal computing, including the desktop metaphor GUI and the mouse. These radical ideas were frowned upon by the board of directors on the East Coast, obsessed with their charitable giving, so they ordered the Xerox engineers to share the innovations with Apple. The rest is history.

It’s no surprise that Bill Gates, the entrepreneur and philanthropist, finds Brooks so instructive today.


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