Show Some Love for Copy-Paste

“Copy paste culture” is ruining student research, “copy and paste programming” is the bane of serious programmers. The Ctrl (or cmd) + c / + v key combination definitely has a bad rep. Yet, if we counted the number of times we type it daily, I am sure we would be surprised by the result. In this article, I want to take a closer look at this ubiquitous command, its history, its future and anything in between.

Physical x Digital

I am currently working on a product called ClipDrop, that was born from a rather simple experiment last spring. I wanted to see if I could Copy-Paste an image from my physical environment right into my computer, and it looks like a lot of people had that dream too.

Note to self: Control — Z (undo) would also be a great one to duplicate to the physical world but that might be for later/another start-up idea. Hit me up if you find a way to do that.

Copy pasting, or more precisely, “cut and paste”, does in fact originate from the material environment of print editing. Printers (as in, a person engaged in printing, not a Xerox machine) would simply use scissors to cut paragraphs out of a page and into another. Stationery stores even sold “editing scissors”, precisely designed for this job, as they had blades long enough to cut an 8½"-wide page.

Meet the inventor of copy-paste

We are so used to copy pasting being object-oriented — that is, we first select the text (or image) we want to copy and then execute the command — that it is difficult to imagine than when it first appeared in computing history, copy-paste was (much like everything else) mode-oriented. A user would enter a mode (editing, cutting, deleting etc) and then perform actions into that mode, before switching to another mode. This system was error-prone for non technical employees, who could for example forget which mode they were in and delete instead of copying, but most computer scientists thought it was the most robust option out there.

Not Larry Tesler. An engineer at the legendary Xerox Corporation Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), he was in favor of modeless programming, and tested out his ideas on the secretaries at the Center and any non-computer scientist he could grab in the lobby for a quick run of the text-editing program he was working on. Beginning in 1974, he and colleagues developed several text editors that used cut/copy-and-paste commands to move/copy text.

He is said to have come up with the term copy-paste, as well as a mind-boggling array of visionary concepts: browser, user-friendly, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWIG). Whether this is “completely” true or a result of the dense web of interactions at Xerox Alto is up for debate. Tesler was a pivotal figure in computer science, and he deserves more credit than “inventor of copy paste”. He passed away in 2020, and you can have a look at this (older) article for an overview of his career and ideas.

Tesler then went on to work for Apple, the company that popularized computer-based cut/copy-and-paste paradigm through the Lisa (1983) and Macintosh (1984) operating systems. It looks like the keyboard shortcut was implemented at Apple, with the letters chosen because they were located close to each other and the cmd button. Microsoft adopted the key combination for Windows, and it truly became a standard.

Copy-paste now needs to adapt to new environments: what does it mean to transfer information on mobile, in VR, in AR? Tesler’s law (yup, same Larry Tesler), also known as the law of conservation of complexity, posits that every application has an inherent amount of complexity that cannot be removed or hidden, but that needs to be dealt with on the engineering or user side. Judging by how hard it can still be to copy-paste on mobile between different apps, it looks like we actually need a new paradigm for tactile screens, but we haven’t come up with it yet.

Copy-pasting is a prime example of human-computer-interaction (HCI). But do you know this interaction truly goes both ways, and that your text selection on a website can be tracked and used to analyze anything from text simplification to search engine optimization?

Deeper than we think

When you boil it down, a lot of what we do in life is copy pasting: moving information from one context to the other. It’s obvious on a computer, where we copy paste everything from cat videos to lines of code. Even in your daily life, are you not copy pasting when you are conveying information to someone else, or going grocery shopping using a list? Conversely, automation of copy-pasting is something programmers also strive to achieve as it is considered a low value operation (and anyone who has ever spent a few hours copy pasting data on Excel or any other system will agree).

But what if copy-pasting could be more creative than it looks? What if, precisely by changing contexts, it could give new meanings? Proto-surrealist poet Lautréamont defined beauty as “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” That sounds like a job for copy-paste. Duchamp’s famous ready-made, such as 1917’s “Fountain”, is a form of copy-pasting: by putting an industrial, trivial object such as a porcelain urinal in a museum setting, he turns it into a work of art.

I’ll leave you with a few copy-paste — inspired songs found on YouTube. I have to admit I didn’t come across anything amazing, but just seeing they hail from Korea, Germany, Mexico, or Israël (and that they use the English term even if the songs are not in English) shows copy-paste truly is a global phenomenon.

AI+UX — CEO at ClipDrop

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