Beki Grinter

Photocopier: Physical, Digital, Organizational and a Craft too!

In academia, computer science, discipline, empirical on June 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm

A couple of days ago I finally learnt the username/password combination and the network name for the third floor mopier (scanner, photocopier, printer). Perhaps its because I worked at Xerox for some years, but it always frustrates me when there’s a device I can’t print or photocopy on. This one took me some time to figure out how to operate for a variety of reasons.

I stood next to it several times. Nothing about its physical self revealed its digital self to me. Sometimes you can get a printer to print out its network configuration. But this machine did not allow you to touch any buttons without being logged in first. And so standing there next to it in the physical world changed nothing about my ability to print to it in the digital world. I was having the reverse experience of the one in which your computer “discovers” a printer but you can’t discover it in the physical world (vague embarrassment recalled as I spent some time printing to a machine which I thought was just outside my office (it said Gutenberg on the front of the machine that I read as the network name of the machine, but that’s actually the name of a machine located in a different building on campus. Luckily I printed out an email, so the person receiving the print out was able to email me to let me know that I was mistaken about the name of that machine).

The key to discovering its online name was to find out what username/password combination worked. Who should I ask? The printer’s physical existence is in a space that I don’t understand organizationally. Does it belong to the School of Interactive Computing? Does it belong to the School of Language, Media and Culture? Does it belong to IMTC? Not clear to me because the physical location (which for many other parts of the third floor I can easily read and interpret) was ambiguous. I wondered who to ask.

Quite by chance someone tells me what the username/password combination is, and I log on to the photocopier. I have some photocopying to do. I first learnt to photocopy in graduate school. Need several chapters of a book? No Google search facility back then (WAIS and Gopher if I recall correctly) that would likely yield a probably illegal copy of what you were looking for. No, it was off to the library and then over to the photocopy room. It was a time when people would say that part of learning to be a graduate student was learning how to photocopy, smiling, but acknowledging a truth about the importance of being able to master that skill.

The Department of Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine had a dedicated staff member in the photocopy room. He took care of the several machines that were in the room (no doubt did other things, but this was the primary place I encountered him). ICS had a system of user names and passwords associated with individuals and caps. So the book chapter copying was always a dilemma of balancing the desire to have the reference material against the annual cap. That was until I got the username and password combination for a project that was very rich. DARPA funding meant that the project’s cap was infinite. Now, all that stood between me and the book was the ability to photocopy it. I taught myself a variety of useful skills, to efficiently double-sided, two pages on each side, shrink to fit, copying. I prefer short edge binding over long edge. After a while I was able to size up a book and pretty much get the exact amount of shrinkage right first time.

Having mastered the art of photocopying, ICS provided further opportunities. For a while I was spiral binding most of my photocopies using the machine that cuts rectangular holes down one side of the photocopy stack and the other machine that inserts the spiral binding. I put front and back covers on some of my efforts. I still have one of those to this day, the photocopied proceedings of the first conference on Software Engineering held in Garmisch. And then there was the experiment with the glued binding. There were binders that had glue on the inside of the spine and a machine that would heat it up, you would then stick the paper to be bound in, let the glue run over them and then take the entire thing out of the machine. The trick with this machine was in heating but not overheating the glue. And I have to admit the machine made me nervous, I worried about the potential for fire. I’m actually not sure whether that was a valid concern, but I worried about it and consequently I decided to return to spiral binding even though glue bound photocopies made for a flush on shelf filing.

Of course, I couldn’t experiment while the staff member was there. I was not using my correct code. Perhaps I was photocopying more than I should. I had no idea whether graduate students were “allowed” to use these other machines. So most of these skills were developed in the small hours of the night. Walking home with my latest creation afterwards, I primarily feared the roving packs of raccoons that wandered around campus being generally annoyed by the presence of humans out during the time in which they occupied campus. Sometimes I hid from them as to not invoke their ire. After all I had something to read in hand.

I’m scanning a book chapter on the third floor mopier. I’m going to send it to myself so that I can read it on my iPad. I like reading academic papers and books on my iPad. I decide to add my email address to the list of frequently used emails so that I don’t have to type it all in each time I do this. I look through the list of emails already there, and now I’m even more curious about the organizational history of the machine. There are various addresses in there. Some are graduate students who have since graduated. I’m surprised to read that this machine has been in existence on the third floor even, for longer than I think. But there are some addresses for people who’ve never worked proximate to this machine while it’s been in this location. I wonder why they are there. I wonder whether the machine lived somewhere else in a former life, proximate to those users.  Ive never really thought about reading an organizational history from a photocopier, but I see at least two departmental identities as well as some longevity of history represented in the collections of emails that make up the frequent users of the machine.

The TSRB 3rd floor photocopier is now something I can print too. But it’s given me far more than that, an opportunity to reflect on how this machine lives in the physical and digital worlds, a recollection back to my learning how to photocopy, and about the institutional elements of the machine.


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