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Why Printers Still Fail, Despite Advances In Technology


Technology is marching on, bringing us smart speakers and smartphone updates and cars that drive themselves down the street. And yet it's the little challenges that bedevil.

The dreaded blinking orange light.


KELLY: All this paper and fiddling, and no joy.

OK, full disclosure - we did deliberately wheel out NPR's most notoriously lousy printer for this moment. Why we even keep it is a question for another day. But the question to which we now apply ourselves - why do paper jams persist? Joshua Rothman takes on that question in The New Yorker, and he joins me now. Welcome.

JOSHUA ROTHMAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: How on earth did you get interested into digging into something that bedevils us all but seems so mundane?

ROTHMAN: Well, pretty much exactly the way you just dramatized. I was printing something in my office, as one does, and the printer jammed. I had exactly that thought - why in the world is it still the case that we can send a man to the moon but we can't make a printer that doesn't jam?

KELLY: What answer - as you started to investigate, what did you find? Why are - why is this so hard a challenge to solve?

ROTHMAN: It has to do with sort of an elemental struggle between the natural and the mechanical.

KELLY: Let me stop you there. An elemental struggle?

ROTHMAN: Yeah. It really has to do with the fact that printing combines a natural thing, which is paper. It comes from trees. It's biological. And each sheet of paper is different. And on the other hand, there's the printer, which is made of metal and plastic. And every year, printers get faster. You know, as a result, the jam is a permanent part of our life. It just comes out of the fact that you can't have the combination of the biological and the mechanical and it goes perfectly forever.

KELLY: As you investigated this, you discovered that one key is something known as the paper path. Explain.

ROTHMAN: The paper path is what engineers call the route along which paper travels as it navigates the printer. And the main fact about the paper path is it is way more complicated than anybody imagines. It's twisty. It's high-speed. Paper gets superheated. We know how paper emerges from a printer and it's kind of toasty warm. That's because the paper path is so crazy. And it's almost something that paper has to survive.

KELLY: You also tease out a couple of real-life examples where a printer paper jam had serious consequences. Tell me one.

ROTHMAN: Well, one of the engineers that I talked to told me an amazing story, which basically involved - he was brought into a courthouse in Chicago where there were so many paper jams that attorneys were regularly filing their documents late. And it was resulting in prosecutions getting derailed because there was a really tight deadline. And by reducing the number of paper jams - basically he found out the courthouse was using substandard paper - he was able to increase the total number of cases of - that were prosecuted in this courthouse.

KELLY: Wow. I mean, that's incredible. So literally upgrading to slightly more expensive paper meant that the rate of prosecutions in this particular courthouse was - shot right up?

ROTHMAN: Yeah. It actually turns out that the quality of the paper really matters. And, you know, one thing that seems true about paper jams is they're just part of a larger set of technological problems that are just all about kind of greasing the wheels and keeping things going.

KELLY: Will it ever be possible to build a jamless printer?

ROTHMAN: You know, the conclusion that the engineers I talked to came to is that, no, you're never going to have a jamless printer, basically because you're never going to have a perfect machine. We're never going to perfect the world of objects that we've built.

KELLY: And always a role for our baseball bats tucked in the corner the office just in case to...

ROTHMAN: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Attack the printers when they fail.

ROTHMAN: Right. Right. Right. Totally.

KELLY: Joshua Rothman, thanks so much.

ROTHMAN: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Joshua Rothman. He is The New Yorker's archive editor. And his news story is "Why Paper Jams Persist."


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Paper jam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.