Jewish World Review August 31, 2001 / 9 Elul, 5761

Ian Shoales

Ian Shoales
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Consumer Reports

I COPY, THEREFORE I AM -- I'VE been reading a book by Hillel Schwarz, called THE CULTURE OF THE COPY , and it's got me to thinking-- a process that always leads to trouble.

There was a time when a written word was rare and valuable. Great care went into its drafting. Much ornamentation surrounded it. Painstaking effort went into the manufacture of paper and the procurement of dyes. Written words were treasured and kept in safe, dry places, often protected by angels or demons, and zealous monks or cult members.

Copies, when copies were made, had to be exact. A scribe had to match the paper, the dyes, the calligraphy-- the whole shebang. He therefore read carefully everything he copied by hand, and had a reverence for the word (which was usually, of course, also Holy Writ). If the scribe should happen to sneeze while copying a line, he'd have to scrap the whole thing and start over.

They didn't have white-out. They didn't have delete keys. They didn't have erasers. Their cubicles were lit by fire, not halogen lamps. Their furniture did not offer back support. They did not have chiropractors. An HMO? Forget about it. Their styluses were not disposable. Their office buildings were not climate-controlled.

Eventually, as literacy spread, the demand for written words grew. Scribes began to forego the fancy doodads surrounding the words, and go straight for the gist. They'd transcribe a text on the fly, barely paying attention to what they were copying. The world's first misspellings occurred. Empires were lost.

Then the printing press changed everything.

Well then again, when it came to copying, it didn't. The documents to be copied changed, that's all. Instead of Holy Writ, copiers turned their pens to edicts, bills of sale, and top-secret treaties between heads of state. In short: copiers grew to be the keepers of evidence.

Strangely, when women entered the workspace beyond the roles of shopgirls, actresses, dancers, or seamstresses, they came in as copiers. "...American women copied documents at home as piecework; when they...entered the office workforce, they entered as copy clerks,...transcribers..., as stenographers, as 'typewriters,' -woman and machine called by the same name."

Yes, this was the copying revolution.

Typewriters! Mimeograph machines! Carbon paper! Wire recorders! Even as warehouses sprang up to house the crisp clean copies of office documents, grim young communists cranked out manifestos and bomb-making instructions on their mimeo machines.

Then came Chester Carlson, who developed electrostatic photocopying, later called xerography (from the Greek: "dry writing"). It took him twenty years to sell the process to what became Xerox. He believed in ghosts, extra sensory perception, and he subsidized American Zen Buddhism. He also funded studies of auras, out-of-body, and near-death experiences. Schwarz concludes that Carlson believed that "xerography could reflect a higher-order transcription, its metamorphosis of light into charge into image into record akin to the metempsychosis of spirit from one body to the next."

A bit of a nut, you say? Well, the copy has certainly moved from physical reality to virtual reality. Does stenography exist any more? When we make a copy of an e-mail, you can't even call it a copy, really. When we cc somebody, it's no longer a carbon, or a copy-- it's the same exact message, existing everywhere and nowhere. Creepy!

Oh sure, we print our vast design documents and send them to managers, co-workers, clients, and legal departments. But are they read? Or do they sit in a filing cabinet, evidence that work has indeed been done? Do producers read movie scripts, or do they read a copy of the one-page treatment a professional script reader has given him? Do lawmakers read laws, or summaries prepared by their staff? Do lawyers read depositions, or copies of deposition summaries?

A copy is just the ghost of a reminder of a word's actuality. Actual words mean less every day. Guilt free students download term papers from the Internet, and wonder why teachers get upset when they find them out. What's the problem? Isn't plagiarism the equivalent of research? When you copy something, don't you automatically "know" it as well? The old monks did, of course, but that was a long time ago.

Remember CB lingo? "I copy that" meant, "I understand what you're saying." "To copy," in fact, now means the same thing as "to read." If you have a copy, you don't need to read it. It's always there if you need it.

If you have a copy, you're protected. Surrounded by mountains of unread paper, we nestle snug in our virtual valleys, touched only by the flames of rumor: the Good Times Virus, What Really Felled TWA Flight 800, What Really Happened At Roswell, What Movie Stars Are Really Gay.... Rumors are pale echoes of facts, Xeroxes of Xeroxes of Xeroxes. The very act of hearing and spreading the rumor gives the rumor a life of its own. It doesn't have to be true, just copied and sent to friends. That's life enough, isn't it?

So: THE CULTURE OF THE COPY -- pretty good book. I plan to finish it one of these days, then pass it on to friends. A copy anyway.

JWR contributor Ian Shoales is the author of, among others, Not Wet Yet: An Anthology of Commentary. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Ian Shoales