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Remember Printing Stuff Out?

Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

At the beginning of 2012, Apple ended a long-standing program in its stores that, in retrospect, foresaw (or maybe caused) a cultural shift: They stopped offering rebates on printers. Up until then, customers purchasing a new Apple computer were eligible to receive a $100 rebate on any printer purchased simultaneously with a computer. In essence, Apple was giving away a free printer with every purchase.

Deals similar to this were pervasive throughout the early days of modern sedentary computing. If you were going to get a new computer, obviously you had to get a new printer. People were always printing stuff out! Book reports, spreadsheets, a particularly funny pic from a chain email to pin to one’s corkboard. For decades, printing was how you transferred information from your computer to the real world, and the real world was still more important than what was on your computer screen.

But things change, and habits change, and lifestyles change, and the printer I got in 2009 along with my new MacBook has disappeared. In 2009, I set it up quickly after I set up my computer in my dorm room. Hey, if I was going to be writing papers, I was obviously going to be printing them as well. Maybe I’d print out all of my readings, too! (This isn’t important, but the printer was right by the door; one morning, my roommate got accepted into an a cappella group, and they sprayed him with champagne when he opened the door. And for the next four years, I would find small flecks of crusty champagne all over my damn printer.)

It was even, in retrospect, an enjoyable process. There was a small ritual to hitting the print icon; making sure your settings were correct; hitting “Print”; walking over to the printer; remembering that hitting “Print” only opened another menu; walking back to the computer to click “OK”; waiting for the printer to connect; quickly realizing you forgot to print double-sided copies; canceling the print job; spending eight minutes Googling “Windows XP print double-sided,” fixing the settings and hitting Ctrl + P again; realizing that you forgot to put your name and date at the top of the assignment; reprinting just the first page; realizing that your edits shifted the text on every page, so you have to reprint the entire assignment; noticing that you forgot to add page numbers, so you have to reprint it one more time; and fearing that your parents would yell at you for wasting so much of their precious ink. Remember how fun that was? God, I miss it.

By the end of college, that printer mostly sat dormant. Occasionally, I’d take advantage of its built-in flatbed scanner, but I’d stopped printing out readings and concert tickets. I used the school’s printers for when I actually needed a hard copy, because in my mind, the few bucks I spent on printing each semester was still cheaper than the cost of buying a new ink cartridge.

Last I knew, it was sitting in its battered original packaging in my parent’s garage — maybe it was sold. I sure as hell wasn’t bringing it with me to New York, where almost everyone pays too much to rent too little space. It wasn’t a bad printer; I just wasn’t using it anymore. Now, whenever I need anything printed out — mostly financial documents and Amazon return labels — I’ll print them out at work, or at the library. My phone now doubles as a document scanner.

I am not alone in this regard. As more and more activities are conducted digitally, and now that those digital files can be transported and displayed on mobile devices, printing habits have shifted.

An informal, unscientific survey showed a pervasive lack of pride in printer ownership. Some admitted that they used theirs once a week, another respondent said that he used his “once a month probably. I hate it.”

A popular response from printer owners was that they technically only owned one because it was combined with a flatbed scanner. One admitted that “mine is pretty much left over from my senior year of college, and I probably wouldn’t replace if it it broke.”

“I have free printing on campus but still got a shitty one from Costco, can’t think of a single friend that has one,” another reported.

Over the past few years, I’ve adopted a habit of relying on employers or the library to function as an ad hoc Kinko’s, on the rare occasion I need a hard copy. Via a Twitter direct message, a survey respondent, requesting anonymity, admitted that “right before i left [redacted employer] i printed out three copies of my book manuscript lol. it was like 1000 pages.” She lamented not having also taken some additional reams of paper from the supply room.

(According to New York Magazine office manager Joann Manigo, “there is not an official policy of using office printers for personal use, but the powers that be would like to think everyone is using office equipment for work-related use. It does cost the company a pretty penny for each sheet that is run through the printers or copiers.” So I’m safe.)

The thing about printers is that they are the opposite of sexy. There is a reason Apple stopped putting out printers (using engines licensed from other manufacturers) around the time Steve Jobs returned to the company. The archetypical printer is boxy, beige, and, when in operation, noisy. Computing devices and accessories today try to use few moving parts — solid-state drives, capacitive buttons — but printers require them by necessity. You can’t solve a paper jam by unplugging a machine and plugging it back in.

Stephanie Dismore, vice-president and general manager for the Americas at HP, was quick to maintain that “people are still printing.” The big issue is that those darned millennials are shaking things up in a big way. Home-office printers and supply sales, according to HP’s data, have mostly remained consistent over the years, but the experience is changing to revolve around mobile. “Work spaces are changing, people are using devices to do their work, whether they’re at home, on site, or remotely,” she said.

A big part of HP’s recent push has been to develop products that enable people to print things directly from their mobile devices, as opposed to transferring something to your PC, and then using that to connect to the printer — but the Wi-Fi’s acting up, so you have to drag your laptop over to the printer and connect it via USB, assuming you haven’t misplaced the cord somewhere. One of HP’s hot sellers this holiday season was the Sprocket, a handheld photo printer that connects directly to smartphones. “Photos are an opportunity … where it comes down to the experience we create.” If the printing process becomes more frictionless, HP believes, people will print more.

And, of course, millennials love gadgets that project their identity. HP’s best-selling color printers in the U.S. are the Deskjet 3755 in electric blue and Deskjet 3632 in sporty purple.

Maybe printing just needs to change with the times! But anecdotal personal experience speaks to a future in which more business is conducted digitally, and hard copies become a rarity. Print subscriptions in media are falling, ticketing — from concerts to airlines — is going digital, and you can add your John Hancock to most objects with a scan or a track pad. Hard copies will always serve some purpose, but will it ever be necessary to personally own one of those big, beige suckers again? I remain skeptical.

Remember Printing Stuff Out?