Paper Trail

Joel Holmberg & Guthrie Lonergan

Our story begins with a computer user evaluating his recent history. He devised a business model based on illegally returning used printer ink to giant retail chains (1. buy ink from store; 2. swap out the new, unused ink cartridges for used-up “duds”; 3. carefully reseal them in the packaging; 4. return them for a full refund).

He started doing this just for himself, simply looking to cut down on studio expenses. He surmised that technology owed it to him. Why did printer ink need to cost more than human blood?

He imagined that after purchasing the reshelved ink, a well-meaning consumer might just throw their hands up and buy a new printer, blinded by the euphoria of new technology—“But I,” pleading with the flashing LEDs,“I just bought new ink!”

Word about his scam spread online, through the different forums in which he actively participated. It seemed to turn into a small business overnight, and soon he found himself getting caught up in the network of customers—regularly sending him empty ink cartridges that he would convert into new inks and mail back.

It didn’t take long before he ran out of local stores to return the inks. For fear of oversaturating any one particular region, he had to keep moving, migrating with the unsoiled stock so that he could stay ahead of his returns.

What follows is the download description for a Web browser plug-in that he developed in the wake of his printer ink scam:

More about this add-on

Everyday Use Case

As they stared blankly in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness.

The Wind in The Willows

I forgot where I was. My malevolence towards labor had only transformed me into an unintentional service provider. I remembered now why I was printing so much stuff in the first place. I remembered thinking that I was a computer artist, thinking I was the Lewis Baltz of screenshots. I used to visualize myself within his photographs of mainframe computers. I was documenting the man-altered landscape that had grown from inside of the networks. I was chronicling the transformation of the Web, from the bygone utopian ideals of the Whole Earth Catalog to a topography dotted with increasingly conventional, albeit transcendent, social roles. Somewhere along the line developers became demigods, bestowing creativity and self-expression upon the user.

First there was 1 node, then 4, then 9, 11, 13, and more and more nodes covered the globe until they began to form a single giant Cloud. Even if it were possible, in those early days you’d never “follow” anyone through the Cloud for danger of being led into a dark warehouse full of techno-elite. Now Admin craves basic user activity, developing ever more convoluted services for us to use together. The subject of my artistic inquiry was circumstantial to what was online, so I was all for a more accessible Web. I tried my best to participate while keeping a critical distance.

Many users stopped making things when we realized that we could just click instead. Some of us discovered the key command, which was even easier than the click. Here we had pinpointed the actions of the smallest possible effort with the biggest possible impact—a potentially global audience. We visualized the total elimination of human effort by casually using complex creative technologies. With a computer, a user could make something fantastic-looking without any effort at all. Actually, making something look yucky took more effort than making it look fantastic (more clicks).

Features were bestowed on us like gifts from Admin, but I learned to never underestimate my limitations as a user, as features tended to vanish, links expired and permissions became increasingly tiered. I held fast to a rust-belt canon of digital video effects: the Ken Burns effect, the Star Wars Text Crawl effect, and default reverb. I started ranking different styles of CAPTCHAs and recording the automatic reload times for major news websites— every 30 minutes, every 5 minutes. The offline world congealed into memes: moth drinking tears of bird, python eating alligator and exploding, eagle breaking through truck windshield and surviving.

My ink cartridge exchanges represented a morsel of what I felt the contemporary user experience entitled me. They were a temporary solution to the buggy promise of seamless information flow. Obviously, there was never an intention for this work-around to become actual work. I wanted the kludge, not the algorithm—I fix issues around the apartment using an empty paper towel roll and tape!

But how much effort should I put into things, really? People talk about “work mode” like they are witness to some spontaneous character transformation, like Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde or Clark Kent/Superman. I can’t really relate to this state of exertion. Work mode seems absurd when so little occurs between keyboard and chair. I guess my “work mode” is modeled after Melville’s Bartleby—I’d simply “prefer not to” preoccupy myself with tasks that will inevitably become obsolete. I mime Bartleby’s calm deterioration into an entirely passive employee, his preferring to stare out of the office window at a brick wall rather than execute his soon-to-be-anachronistic job duties of copying documents by hand. Like him, I stare at my screen waiting for other people to inevitably produce things that I have little motivation to produce myself.

I first started using the computer so I wouldn’t need to explain myself. I’m too self-conscious to be caught in a frenzy of spontaneous self-expression. I always wanted to play an instrument but was just too concerned about people hearing me. Yet when I use a computer, even my most intimate creative act is indistinguishable from any other unremarkable computer usage. I am sitting, looking, making tiny movements. The indigenous Okinawans developed Karate in a similar way. During a time of foreign occupation, they trained in the open, cloaking their fighting methods as stylized dance.

Taking comfort in discreet production has made me feel like two people. While I knew that this technology was partitioning my consciousness, I didn’t anticipate losing sight of my personal history. The abundance of referential currency pushes my most intimate memories further into oblivion. I relate more to David After Dentist than I do my own childhood—memes are replacing my memories. I’m overwhelmed with the fear that if I look too far back into my own past, I’ll miss out on the increasingly temporal present, so my presence is compulsively updated.

Developer Comments

I made a browser plug-in because I was constantly forgetting where I had originated. It shows you how you arrive at certain pages, visualizing the web of links through which you arrived. I named it Paper Trail.

Joel Holmberg, Woman Eating Grapes, 2010

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