Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Xerox Xerox

On the advice of Bill Gates (GatesNotes | 6 Books I Recommended for TED 2015), I picked up this free-to-read chapter of John Brooks's Business Adventures, titled "Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox".

What a fantastic read.

In a story reminiscent of the dot-com boom that would come forty years later, Brooks describes the meteoric and explosive rise of xerography in the American officeplace, and the group of inventors who re-mortgaged their houses and crowded into a workshop whose roof leaked tar on hot days to create the first office copier that could print on normal, untreated paper.

Two sections stood out as particularly spectacular, though the piece is fascinating throughout. (Note that Brooks is writing in the sixties about businesses that were operating in the sixties, and that his depictions of what would today be stunning sexism and racism were entirely the norm contemporarily.)

Apart from malfunctions, the machine requires a
good deal of regular attention from its operator, who is almost invariably a woman. (The girls who operated the earliest typewriters were themselves called "typewriters," but fortunately nobody calls Xerox operators "xeroxes.") Its supply of copying paper and black electrostatic powder, called "toner," must be replenished regularly, while its most crucial part, the selenium drum, must be cleaned regularly with a special non-scratchy cotton, and waxed every so often.

I spent a couple of afternoons with one 914 [Xerox copier] and its operator, and observed what seemed to be the closest relationship between a woman and a piece of office equipment that I had ever seen. A girl who uses a typewriter or switchboard has no interest in the equipment, because it holds no mystery, while one who operates a computer is bored with it, because it is utterly incomprehensible.

But a 914 has distinct animal traits: it has to be fed and curried; it is intimidating but can be tamed; it is subject to unpredictable bursts of misbehavior; and, generally speaking, it responds in kind to its treatment. "I was frightened of it at first," the operator I watched told me. "The Xerox men say, 'If you're frightened of it, it won't work,' and that's pretty much right. It's a good scout; I'm fond of it now."

Compare this to the much-maligned modern-day office copier, which by analogy is...simply an abandoned and abused animal that no one ever bothers to take care of?

[Chairman of the Board of Directors, Joseph] Wilson went on slowly, "The whole matter of committing the company to taking stands on major public issues raises questions that make us examine ourselves all the time. It's a matter of balance. You can't just be bland, or you throw away your influence.

"But you can't take a stand on every major issue, either. We don’t think it's a corporation's job to take stands on national elections, for example -- fortunately, perhaps, since Sol Linowitz is a Democrat and I'm a Republican. Issues like university education, civil rights, and Negro employment clearly are our business. I'd hope that we would have the courage to stand up for a point of view that was unpopular if we thought it was appropriate to do so. So far, we haven't faced that situation -- we haven't found a conflict between what we consider our civic responsibility and good business. But the time may come. We may have to stand on the firing line yet.

"For example, we've tried, without much fanfare, to equip some Negro youths to take jobs beyond sweeping the floor and so on. The program required complete cooperation from our union, and we got it. But I've learned that, in subtle ways, the honeymoon is over. There's an undercurrent of opposition. Here's something started, then, that if it grows could confront us with a real business problem. If it becomes a few hundred objectors instead of a few dozen, things might even come to a strike, and in such a case I hope we and the union leadership would stand up and fight. But I don't really know. You can't honestly predict what you'd do in a case like that. I think I know what we'd do."

Getting up and walking to a window, Wilson said that, as he saw it, one of the company's major efforts now, and even more in the future, must be to keep the personal and human quality for which it has come to be known. "Already we see signs of losing it," he said. "We're trying to indoctrinate new people, but twenty thousand employees around the Western Hemisphere isn’t like a thousand in Rochester."

There's something of -- Leah Libresco would call it literal goodness or holy foolishness -- in the corporation that controls the patents on xerography deciding that national elections weren't its business, and that supporting the racial equality was. As Brooks writes,

Early in 1964, the company decided to spend four million dollars -- a year's advertising budget -- on underwriting a series of network-television programs dealing with the U.N., the programs to be unaccompanied by commercials or any other identification of Xerox apart from a statement at the beginning and end of each that Xerox had paid for it.

As it turns out, the decision was far from uncontroversial, and not just among shareholders:

That July and August -- some three months after the decision had been announced -- Xerox suddenly received an avalanche of letters opposing the project and urging the company to abandon it. Numbering almost fifteen thousand, the letters ranged in tone from sweet reasonableness to strident and emotional denunciation.

Many of them asserted that the U.N. was
an instrument for depriving Americans of their Constitutional rights, that its charter had been written in part by American Communists, and that it was constantly being used to further Communist objectives, and a few letters, from company presidents, bluntly threatened to remove the Xerox machines from their offices unless the series was cancelled.

...which is what led Wilson to quip "You can't just be bland, or you throw away your influence." Holy crap; "They may take our market share, but they'll never reduce us to blandness!" is...an impressive battle cry.

And perhaps the strangest thing about all of it is just how little hay they made out of their altruism. Maybe there's a bad selection effect at play here, where for obvious reasons, I'm only familiar with civic campaigns by companies that make a point of publicizing their campaigns, and therefore end up assuming that everyone who purports to be doing good is a publicity-grubbing show-off, but even so. It feels like those were different times. Or maybe Xerox just was different, full stop.

It's happier to think the latter; it means it might come back.

A pedestal from the Lorax, with the word "UNLESS".