Don't Blink

Who’s Printing Stuff Anymore, and Why?

I DON’T know about the rest of you but I have been around long enough to wonder what, exactly, people are still printing in 2015 and why.

About twenty years ago when some of us had just started working in official places that had stuff like identity cards, reception desks and people that actually calculated your pay and sent it off to bank accounts instead of handing it to you through glass windows, printing was almost as rare as it is today.

In my workplace at that time, actually, we used typewriters for our regular work. The clerical staff in the back offices, therefore, could not by any stretch of imagination be expected to have anything more modern for their mundane use. As a freelancer in the trade I brought along some surprising advantages, including an electric typewriter the likes of which the office I was joining had never seen before.

Everything I typed came out in a font more fancy and modern than the stuff that the ordinary typewriters churned out, and the distinction was exciting for about a year – and then computers started showing up.

The novelty and excitement of using the computer was quickly pared down by the cost of the printer cartridge and paper. We started off using those dot matrix (or were they line?) printers with continuous paper that had holes down the edges that you had to align just right in order to print successfully.

At a certain hour of the day when stories were being furiously produced for handing in to the editor, the sound of the printer was deafening – and was louder than the sound of the angry fingers punching at the typewriter keys. The other sound that always stood out was that of frustrated users swearing at the printer, the computers, and the person in charge of making the things work.

Yes – there was an employee whose job it was to align those papers carefully into the points on the printer where they were supposed to go, on top of making sure our DOS 5.1 was operational and that we could input the relevant commands.

And that employee was normally found, in the evenings, standing at the printer amid piles of wasted rolls of paper and surrounded by confounded and confounding members of staff trying to get their jobs done.

Over these twenty years past, I have observed the machines themselves and their functionality changing consistently, but there are always piles of wasted paper at the bottom of the machines, at the feet of frustrated, swearing employees who are pressing buttons, punching and kicking their printing equipment.

And not just because of the print function; it didn’t take long for the printer to conjoin the photocopy and scan function, and for the office IT guys to make business cases for the procurement of 4-in-1 machines that covered all these functionalities.

Those additional functionalities accounted for a major portion of the swearing and cursing that took place around the office printer-photocopier-scanner-fax, with the shredder by the side.

Remember, first, the comical story about the office intern eager to impress who found the CEO standing at the shredder bamboozled about how to make it work, then offering to do it on the big man’s behalf while introducing himself markedly and then, on successfully shredding the documents, hearing the CEO say, “How will we know that it’s arrived on the other end intact? These documents are crucial for the future of the company and are being discussed in New York tomorrow….”

Then after you’ve stopped laughing, think back to your own experiences trying to print out a massive report before some ridiculous office deadline that is rolling straight into a crucial life deadline, then getting to the print station to find a colleague in the middle of photocopying some university coursework is trying to sort out the dreaded “Paper Jam”.

And how these things always seemed to happen when the IT guys in charge were either out of office or sorting out a similar printer problem in the office of the MD or CEO, who was probably printing out your firing letter…? <–No, not really; that was the HR lady who also had her own printer, because of the confidentiality involved.

Which was another thing about these arrangements; some people based their seniority on the possession of their own personal printers while others affirmed their humility by being relegated to that central, networked printer-photocopier.

I recall going over to an expatriate and demanding that he allow me to print something off “his” machine and getting into quite an argument over it because he felt I was overstepping some magical bounds. He lost, of course, because the logic was clear – it was an office machine and I was doing office work so…besides, my argument actually mentioned, how was it possible that the company had provided a colour printer for him to use to print off photos of his children?

While all this was happening, I was also setting up my own personal offices and I had a keen eye on this high-angst-creating cost centre. It didn’t take me long to chop down stationery costs with drama, and to this day two of the printers at one of my offices are personal ones I bought many years ago but kept running while on loan to the office.

When I bought them I had a clear understanding of the cost of cartridges and toner, and even as I type this I know the supply won’t be running out on the market soon – as I have seen with other printers.

Plus, I long ago embarked on a strict company-wide habit of doing almost everything by email. Proposals to clients? Use .pdf. Even if they demanded for printouts, I would sometimes call them and explain the logic of using soft copy versions instead, especially since everyone had reliable email these days.

Even in the offices, I got them to understand that we did not need to make hard copy versions of everything if we only filed our documents, which are created on computer anyway, appropriately on our servers. The introduction of cloud computing made that a zillion times easier!

Then through tight-fisted procurement practices, I made paper a scarce commodity by simply not buying any, because I knew quite well how much of it was being sent off to universities bearing coursework, or going to employee homes as reproduced pamphlets or cooking recipes!

I have not been 100% successful, though, and still have two printer-photocopiers operating in one of these company offices, though at a much slower rate than ten years ago. The only control measure we have adopted is to place it in the office of the Directors, which makes it hard for people to photocopy university coursework or print out cooking instructions.

Still, I always wonder every time I hear the wheels turning: WHAT are they still printing in this day and age of cloud computing and reliably hosted email services?


Simon Kaheru

Lead Analyst at Media Analyst and Chairman of the ICT Association of Uganda (ICTAU). Simon writes about "technology for work and play" and his column for PC Tech is called "Don't Blink".
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