Copying and Comprehension

The act of copying, whether from the printer or the browser, is now a pedestrian task. We forget how such a phenomena was less than obvious years ago. That is why looking at its history is so fruitful.

Here is a notable anecdote from Hillel Schwartz's The Culture of the Copy:

The speed, volume, and sheer habit of copying photochemically, as prevalent in Nazi Berlin an Conservative London as in New Deal Washington, encouraged the illusion that to copy was to comprehend. Did the American researcher who returned with 80,000 microfilmed documents after a summer's descent upon Europe around 1935 ever read those documents, or had duplicative edacity become self-deception? Medieval monks had gained at least a familiarity with scripture when copying texts at 4700-5500 characters a day. Office copyists in 1917, held to a standard of two typewritten lines (100 characters) per minute, reproduced perhaps 48,000 characters each day and scarcely remembered what passed before their eyes.

Copying as comprehension – when copying by hand, the notion seems valid. But once a wider buffer entered between the copier and the copied, memory blurs. It is startling to read about this happening with photocopiers.

Now imagine what is comprehended when blindly manipulating symbols on a screen. Ctrl + Alt + C takes such little thought that sometimes we copy more than what we wanted. We archive articles to read later with the click of a button. But how often does it feel like archiving articles to forget to read?

I wonder whether the gulf between copying and comprehension is salvageable. Do we resort to copying by hand? In today's world that seems quixotic. Perhaps we hybridize our copying methods – some by hand, some by typing, some by Ctrl + Alt + C, some by highlighting?

This appears to occupy a reasonable outlook – optimistic enough to believe that copying and comprehension is salvageable but pessimistic enough to disagree on one “killer app” solving the problem.