As Thin as a Sheet of Paper

There was a few posts going around a couple of months ago, describing the "magic yellow dots" many printers superimpose over a printed document as sort of a digital fingerprint for the printer.

Many people got upset, feeling Big Brother was tracking them through this technology. I thought this was a little silly, because from most printed mechanisms someone can easily do forensics to determine what sort of machine was used to print it, whether it be through the ink, substrate, type, or a thousand other things. The yellow dots is actually meant to prevent counterfeiting, and there are other technologies even more active to prevent that. For example, many photocopiers with a data link will phone the US Treasury if you try to scan a bill. Really.

But the larger problem is the public conception of paper as an inert technology--that is, a piece of a paper is a blank slate not only in terms of literal printing, but metaphysically. It is somehow split off from the world of science and physiology, in which items have physical properties linking them to the rest of the world. It is therefore "impossible" to forensically track a piece of paper unless there are "Big Brother dots" embedded on it. Your thoughts have a purity of anonymity before Xerox ensnares you with their printer panopticon. But this is a ridiculous world-view, not accepting paper for what it is: a technology. One might as well assume an email to be completely anonymous because it "is electronic and therefore doesn't exist". Typically, the lack of materiality of an e-thing gave it an elusive and ethereal sense in popular metaphysics, but now this purity is reaching back to materials themselves, now supposed to be completely pure.

It could also have something to do with the ubiquity of print--getting ink on paper cheaply and in good quality requires skilled technique. But the way printed material is thrown around (and thrown away) it seems as if it grows on the tree already in a post-card, ad circular, or junk mail piece. If it so common, it couldn't be high tech, could it?

Well, in case you were still confused, and though paper (just regular, plain old paper) wasn't a technology, here are some highlights on the forefront of paper technology from Xerox R&D:

FX’ ePaper technology uses a different technology from the “standard” electrophotoretic displays. They are Photo-Addressable and should enable color - which means it could, at least in theory, be imaged on “standard” imaging devices, and not require the circuitry which make many current e-Readers so cumbersome. Although it requires electric power during the writing process, that image then remains available and the sheet of paper can be used over 10,000 times.

Security Paper is traditional paper with embedded amorphous magnetic wires around 40 microns in diameter, which work as standard paper for printing in any office device. However, special sensors can detect these coils with low-intensity oscillating magnetic fields up to 1m, thus making it possible to create “detectors” for these secure documents - either at the exit of secure buildings (similar to retail shops) or on scanners / copiers, to prevent the unauthorized duplication of such documents.

Finally, paper fingerprinting uses the pattern of the wood pulp fibers contained in standard paper sheets to store and retrieve a unique fingerprint for each paper document. This fingerprint can be used later on to detect any counterfeit or unauthorized copies, or to trace a document back to its origin.

Especially dig that security paper.

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