CRF Blog

How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked — and Played

by Bill Hayes

In How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked — and Played, Smithsonian magazine argues that 3-D printing will likely change our lives, especially in light of how much photocopiers changed us.

In essence, the photocopier was not merely a vehicle for copying. It became a mechanism for sub-rosa publishing — a way of seizing the means of production, circulating ideas that would previously have been difficult to get past censors and editors. “Xerography is bringing a reign of terror into the world of publishing, because it means that every reader can become both author and publisher,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1966.

This had powerful political effects. Secrets were harder to keep, documents easier to leak. Daniel Ellsberg used a copier to reproduce the Pentagon Papers (even having his children help make the replicas at a friend’s office). Fearful of the copier’s power, the Soviet Union tightly controlled access to the machines. In the United States, activists for ACT-UP — the group that fought to have AIDS taken more seriously by doctors and politicians — had a powerful impact in part because they had access to copiers. Many worked at media giants like Condé Nast and NBC, and after doing their work would run off thousands of copies of fliers and posters they’d use to plaster New York City for AIDS-awareness campaigns.

“They’d go in to do the paste-up for all these magazines, and then they would make thousands of posters and fliers that were so integral to what ACT-UP was doing,” notes Kate Eichhorn, an assistant professor at the New School who is writing a book about copiers. “These huge corporations were underwriting this radical activism.” This same force catalyzed the world of alternative culture: Fans of TV shows, sci-fi or movies began to produce zines, small publications devoted to their enthusiasms. The Riot Grrrl movement of young feminist musicians in the ’90s, appalled by mainstream media’s treatment of women, essentially created their own mediasphere partly via photocopiers. “Beyond its function as an ‘office tool,’ the copier has, for many people, become a means of self-expression,” said the authors of Copyart, a 1978 guide to DIY creativity. [more]