The Mysteries of Office Printing

by on October 2, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, Lorenzo Wood posted a great example of one of the reasons why I find the use of office printers fascinating. I am amazed, amused, informed and utterly baffled by this in pretty much equal measure, all the time. A trip to the printer is almost as good as a trip to the kitchen or (if I were a smoker) a fag in the car park.

In almost every office I’ve ever worked, the printers and the areas around them are generally populated by flora of three main types:

1. Flotsam: Mistakes, near-blank pages, and other noise. This can be a source of interest if only because it shows the enduring poor usability of printer drivers, and how printer-unfriendly many things can be. I would say that over the years, flotsam has been getting steadily worse.

2. Jetsam: Parts of documents that have been discarded, usually due to their low value (email T&Cs, footers, interstitial pages, etc. Also fax transmission reports if the fax doubles a printer). These can be interesting because they often display the title or some other indication of the content of the document they belonged to.

3. Information: The really good stuff. This is a bit like hitting the “random article” link on Wikipedia. Emails are often the most interesting, but I regularly encounter reports from parts of the business I never knew existed; improving essays; highly (and on at least on occasion, extremely) revealing financial information; invoices, POs, CVs, legal documents, expenses claims and other things relating to the people you work with, their lives, hopes and dreams.

An invaluable addition to any office bush telegraph is therefore the printers. I try to take some time every day (usually around about 4-5pm) to peruse the flora that lurks there. Most if not all of it is still there by the end of the day, and if it’s juicy enough, I’ll take it back my desk for a read.

Another aspect of all this is the deeply mysterious issue of why people print things from their machines and not bother to pick them up? Indeed, by what mental process do people decided to print out at all? Emails are the classic example. Seldom have I seen an email printed out that obviously contained some information that might be of use to somebody not about to access Outlook (such as a map, postal address or instructions to buy something from a shop). Does the action of printing out therefore somehow satisfy a psychological need to cement the importance of the content? If you print one email, why not print them all?

I have also often wondered if the majority of printer flora is in fact the product of only a small minority of people, or does everyone do it from time to time? In any given office population, are there otherwise normal individuals infected by the need to print items from their machines for little real reason? I have imagined many scenarios: they are sent a PowerPoint deck and immediately print it without thinking. Then they open it and realise it’s rubbish so they don’t bother to pick it off the printer. They do not understand how to set their default printer in Windows, so habitually send the first copy of what they are printing to a printer on a different floor before realising their mistake. They associate printing with working and being busy. They refuse to read any more than 10 lines of text from a screen… None of these ring true to me, yet the flora piles up. Sometimes to the extent that by the end of the week, a medium sized printer can be almost drowned in abandoned paper.

I have no answers, and no real understanding, but I care not as long as I can get my daily entertainment from it. One thing I would say though is that in my current office, we have a default setting called “secure print.” This is a feature that saves the job in the printer’s memory until the person who invoked the operation enters a PIN on the printer’s console, whereupon the document will be printed. This isĀ  a wonderfully simple remedy for at least the demographic who print without thinking. The queue expires at the end of the day, and in doing so probably saves a small section of woodland every year. For those who print responsibly, it also removes the frustration of having to run to the printer to retrieve a document before it gets mixed up in the print flora, or removed and read by people like me. Yet even with secure print, the flora is only marginally reduced – perhaps it’s not the default on all machines? Who knows. Printing will always be a mystery to me.

Comments

(I should really delete off-topic comments on sight, but as I get so few comments anyway…)

That’s not the only black hole. My pop works for the Foreign Office’s records department, where he releases declassified material from the archives, and handles freedom of information requests. He says that HMG’s digital communications from about 1995-2000 were, due to plain old screw-up, not archived and are now probably lost forever.

Luckily for the present government, this stuff is currently well inside the 30-year rule, but when the public want to know about the content of emails sent around in Whitehall and elsewhere relating to certain affairs of state between those dates, then they’re going to have to be content with printed materials only.

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