Friday, July 17, 2009

Sorting Out A Paper World

Location: Moving Offices

No, that is not my office. But it's not staged, either. Those pictures are usually easy to find on an image search, because the mess does not have the accretion of, say, rock-strata.

In Second Life, you simply right-click an object you own, choose "take" or "delete," and any offensive or annoying clutter vanishes.

Would that it were so in the world of bricks, mortar, and...filing cabinets. This week, I've been sorting their contents, largely old materials from the early 90s. Soon I'm moving to a new building and a change of departments, from English--a realm of paper if ever there were one--to Rhetoric and Communication Studies.

I live a largely paperless life, these days, though I'm still bookish (20 small cartons) and enjoy volumes on paper. What I hate is office paperwork that could be put on-screen (nine small cartons). I'm a relentless back-up fetishist and the piles of campus mail and journals on my desk are not too bad, by academic standards. My hard drive is well organized, though not ruthlessly so. I do know a few hold-outs in their 50s or older who still print out most e-mail, but they'll be mercifully off the scene in a few years.

Yet at one time, not so long ago, all of us over 40 lived that way. Sorting out my old office and our tutoring spaces, where the two file cabinets have been banished, reminded me. These things called personal computers were not networked, and word processing was high technology. We kept copies of important memos and our annual reports.

Before that, I suppose there were photocopier or even mimeograph geeks.

In any case, about one-third of my life at the university working full-time, 17 years and counting, was without the Internet as the primary means of sending and storing documents.

At one time, I kept dozens of articles from academic and popular journals in little folders, ready to photocopy for my classes and peers. Now, I open a PDF that may or may not be printed. Back then, I did not use Adobe InDesign to make little brochures; I printed little graphics out and used scissors and paste to make promotional materials.

I don't miss ditto machines and their purple goop (to quote from Wikipedia's entry on duplicating machines, "aniline purple, a cheap, durable pigment that provided good contrast"). In grad school, cheap was preferred for folks making $700 a month, so Indiana University had a room full of ditto machines and, for big jobs, mimeograph machines that printed in black. I ran reams and reams of paper using ditto "spirit masters," a name I just love. When state budget-cuts threatened our ditto room, the grad students in English promised to do a work slow-down by writing all handouts, slowly and carefully, on blackboards (telling our students why and reminding them to notify their parents).

IU changed its policies quickly. Don't mess with our ditto privileges!

While that brings a warm memory, I don't miss reams of binders and dozens of cabinets full of files. What I do miss is a sense of time passing; this fading world of yellowing paper vanished in little more than a decade.

Makes one wonder what's ahead.

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