For me, a printer is firmly in the latter category. It’s the ultimate unglamorous office appliance, boxy and boring. But a few weeks ago, I noticed that everyone around me seemed to be effusing about their brand-new printer purchases.
“My god, life is so much easier with one,” my former Quartz colleague, journalist Rosie Spinks, declared on Twitter after pulling the trigger. On the podcast Gee Thanks Just Bought It, host Caroline Moss sang the praises of printer ownership as a way to minimize hassles. At a socially-distanced picnic, friends talked enthusiastically about how their printers had changed their lives. Birds chirped about printers when I walked down the street. When I looked at my loved ones, I didn’t see their faces anymore, just giant printing machines.
Bloomberg reported this summer that the loss of office access has indeed turned printers into hot Covid commodity. Deloitte predicted that sales of personal printers that do triple duty (scanning and emailing) will grow by 15% this year—”double the annual growth rate that had been predicted before the coronavirus outbreak.” Meanwhile, in an tree-friendly turn of events, office closures have led to a precipitous drop in printing overall—printing shrunk by 40% in the first half of 2020, according to research firm Gartner.
My theory is that I started hearing about printers more when people with the luxury of working remotely had already outfitted their homes with the high-priority basics: desks, computer monitors, noise-canceling headphones. Now everyone is getting around to printers—an object that, in a largely digital world, most people don’t need very often, but can be a pain to live without.
“Like most other millennials, I haven’t owned a printer since college because I would always just print things out at my place of work,” says Jessica Goodman, an editor at Cosmopolitan and the author of the young-adult novel They Wish They Were Us. (This approach is not without its downsides: “I always did the thing where I’d send it to the wrong printer, and some very pertinent Social Security information was on one of 17 floors,” recalls Moss.)
But now that many workers are exiled from the office, options for printing are far more limited. Covid concerns mean that lots of people are hesitant to pop over to a friend’s house to make use of their home office set-up. In cities, there may be internet cafes and printing shops nearby, but these have plenty of downsides, from haphazard hours to the indignity of forking over a dollar per page.
Goodman says that she reached her own breaking point while preparing to give a presentation over Zoom. On the morning of the presentation, a Sunday, she made her way to a printing shop so that she’d have her typed notes on hand, and realized it was closed. “That’s when I figured out I needed a printer,” she says. “This was not sustainable.”
Printer proponents overwhelmingly say that the main reason to buy a printer is to reduce unnecessary stress. “I realized a lot of life admin-type things, things I would procrastinate on or things that would stress me out, were things that involved a printer,” Spinks says of her own decision, noting that she’s been doing more freelancing lately and thus has more contracts to print.
If the choice is between forking over some money for a printer or saving the cash but subjecting yourself to a logistical quagmire every time you need to send a reimbursement form to an insurance company, the purchase seems well worth it. “Walk yourself through the process,” says Moss. “Do you really want to be sitting in a FedEx a mile away from your apartment, trying to log into your bank account, and that computer doesn’t know your password but your computer at home does, and you’re sitting there just trying to get into your bank? Is that worth it?”
Buying a printer may even be a way to avoid “errand paralysis.” The term was coined by Anne Helen Petersen in a viral BuzzFeed essay that has become the basis of her book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. It describes the very human tendency to endlessly put off “the mundane, the medium priority,” until the ever-mounting pile of tedious tasks begins to weigh on our souls. This problem may have become even more pronounced during the pandemic: Work, and life, have become increasingly stressful, leaving people with even less energy to deal with routine errands, which in turn involve added precautions and risk calculations.
There are a few pain points associated with printer ownership, one of which was summarized neatly on Twitter by New Yorker editor Jessica Winter: “The existential condition of pandemic worklife is when your briefly unattended 3-year-old kills a toner cartridge reproducing endless black squares on the new printer your employer won’t reimburse you for.”
In order to avoid getting sucked into the expensive ink cartridge cycle, Goodman recommends getting a laser printer: “When’s the last time you needed to print anything in color?” Her own model, a Pantum monochrome, cost $90.
People already feeling cramped in small apartments may also be reluctant to introduce a printer—at worst ugly, at best blah—into their home design. Moss says at one point, she just kept her printer under her bed. But she also notes that in the Covid era, with people cramming exercise bikes into their bedrooms, and small children merrily wreaking havoc in the midst of Zoom meetings, it’s time to stop fussing about aesthetics.
“The days about making your home look Pinterest-perfect have to be over,” she says. “Who’s coming over to see it? Your space has to work for you and only you, because you’re the only one spending a lot of time there.” As Anne Quito wrote for Quartz, we may need to give up on the idea that our physical spaces can be cleanly delineated between work and life, and start experimenting with new kinds of set-ups.
In these ways, buying a printer is about much more than making it easier to print out return shipping labels. It’s about learning to respect the value of our time, to care less about appearances, and more about being kind to our future selves.
“If I was trying to make a profound point about having a printer,” Spinks says—and she was, both because I had asked her to and because she is very thoughtful and deep—“as someone who tends toward minimalism, it made me more open to reexamining my reaction of ‘I don’t need that, I don’t need that’ about most things that are an investment. And so maybe it would make me more open in the future to, I don’t know, buying a real office chair. Maybe that’s the next thing.”