Shall we begin with a history lesson?
No, of course not. How about a self-satisfied tirade pretending to be a history lesson instead? German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press around 1436. Printing had existed for centuries—Chinese woodblock prints, for instance, date back to the 9th century—but Gutenberg’s invention changed everything. It allowed for the mass production and consumption of books, newspapers became widespread, and the cost of printed material plummeted. It’s no exaggeration to say the printing press elevated us, both spiritually and intellectually.
Back then, everybody thought printers were the shit. Couldn’t get enough of them. So why is it that now, in 2022, using a PC printer is up there with massaging your dog’s anal glands on the list of jobs you’d do anything to avoid? It’d be simpler for me to plan an elaborate, sexy heist in which I break into the Gutenberg Museum with a team of Turkish acrobats and use a 600-year-old relic to hand-print my British Airways boarding pass than it is to just plug in my bastard laserjet.
Some would argue it's unhelpful to anthropomorphise an inanimate object. The same people also say that printers aren’t manifestly evil; they’re just cheaply made or poorly maintained. And that’s exactly what printers want us to think, while they wait out their days like fat spiders in the corners of our houses, accumulating dust and refusing to perform the literal single task they were designed for.
I’m not asking for expertly-baked sourdough, Printer; I don’t want you to mix me the perfect margarita; I don’t want advice on how to broach a difficult personal hygiene conversation with a beloved friend. I just want you to make the letters go on the paper. I’m not even brazen enough to request colours or pictures. Just words. Maybe a QR code if I’m feeling decadent.
But no. That’s too much trouble. ‘There isn’t enough toner’; ‘My paper is stuck’; ‘I just don’t feel like printing today.’ Science has proven that the chance of a printer working is inversely proportional to how urgent the task is.
Worst of all, printers clearly think we’re stupid. They assume we won’t notice if they refuse to connect to our computers. I can see my printer. Touch it. Punch it. I can triple check the ridiculous proprietary cables are connected properly. And yet, somehow, my PC apparently doesn’t know it’s there.
You’re not Millie Bobby Brown trying to avoid the paps while you grab a peri-peri wrap from Nandos, Printer. You’re meant to be easy to find. You should love printing things. This is your divine purpose. Whenever I log into my PC you should check to see if I have any important documents to send, like the passive-aggressive paperclip from Microsoft Office. It shouldn’t be like trying to make a cat play the trumpet.
And to engage with these monsters we have to use the most heinous of all things: the printer software. Even now, in an age of automatic updates, some printers come with sinister bloatware that can only have been designed by the sort of IT supervillain who makes Jurassic Park’s Dennis Nedry look employee of the month. If someone spent three years in a mountain retreat, meditating on how to make the most unintuitive software imaginable, they’d still struggle to make something half as terrible as the garbage printer manufacturers apparently crimp out by accident. In every respect, installing printer software on a gaming PC is like sticking a Shrek antenna topper on an Aston Martin.
The smothering awfulness of printers has led to a new and different problem in modern society: nobody has one anymore. 75% of printers are thrown away after five years. Most underpants last longer than that.
This means that if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of actually owning a printer, not only do you have to stare at it as it mocks you, but everyone you know will come to rely upon you. You’ll be inundated with emails asking if you can ‘just print this thing for me’. No. I can’t ‘just’ print anything. That’s like asking if I could ‘just’ retrieve the Holy Grail or ‘just’ map the entire human genome. Every side of A4 is a brain haemorrhage waiting to happen.
There’s another problem: the disappearance of home printers also means the only place you can make hard copies is at a copy centre—which nobody is ever doing—or at work. This is unfortunate because it means a) actually going into an office, b) trying to hide the fact you're printing 60 pages of calming Nic Cage colouring from your boss and, worst of all, c) having to argue with an abrasive IT man—probably called Gary—WHEN THE SODDING PRINTER INEVITABLY DOESN'T WORK. These Garys, as we’ll call them, are the appointed custodians of printer knowledge, jealously guarding their secrets like something from Warhammer 40,000.
It’s not the Emperor of Mankind’s blood, Gary. It’s toner. Make it work. Not just for me. For society, before it's too late.
Normally we’d expect this problem to improve over time. But printers never will. Browse Reddit and you’ll see posts going back to the noughties with the same despairing question: ‘It’s [insert year], why do printers still suck?’ The hard truth seems to be they’re getting worse. While teams of people at Dyson and Shark are busy inventing vacuum cleaners so advanced they can intimidate dirt into never existing, the printer R&D labs apparently gave up and went home around 1992. That, or they’re all working on a time machine so they can go back to 1436 and deal with Gutenberg before he shares his cursed work with an unsuspecting world.
Let's pray they one day succeed. In the meantime: Turkish acrobats, I'm hiring.