Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Legacy of Carbon Copy

Everyday, I am being haunted by emails.

At work, I get emails from colleagues and associates. Off work, I get emails from friends and relatives. Businesses send me emails with the hope that I send them money. Spammers send me emails for reasons best known to themselves. Why is my life reduced to chasing down unread emails??

My mailbox has just screamed at me: "You have 129 unread mails". Oh! Never mind, that can wait. After all, if all else fails, I can always push the "DELETE ALL" button.

Nay! Just kidding. It is no use grumbling about my exploding mailbox. I have got to do something about it. Meanwhile, let's have a lighter moment amidst the heavy shelling from all the email bombs. . .

I was writing an email a few days ago and a colleague reminded me, "Don't forget to cc me", she said.

I paused for a moment at that familiar modern verb "cc" and I asked in jest, "Do you know what 'cc' stands for?"

"Sure I do", she said, sounding a little offended. "It stands for 'carbon copy' and everyone knows that."

"Why carbon copy?", I pressed on.

"Oh, because it allows you to differentiate between the person(s) you are addressing the email to and the other people whom you want to keep within the communication loop."

"Err, you've got a point there." I noted and asked again "So, why the expression 'carbon copy'?"

She appeared a little impatient talking to a moron and replied in a slightly raised voice, "CC means Carbon Copy". She continued, "you use it in emails when you want to send the message to secondary recipients." She waited, probably anticipating another moronic question for her.

When she heard nothing, she continued. "In case it is your next question, BCC is for 'Blind Carbon Copy' and it is used when you want the message to reach someone but without letting all other email recipients know about it."

"I know all that." my voice gave me away telling her that I was not impressed with her explanation. "My question is, why do we use the expression CARBON COPY?"

She did not answer me. All I get at the end of that fruitless conversation was, "Well, anyway, don't forget to cc to me." With that, she walked away.

While 'carbon copy' or 'cc' is used widely in modern emails, it actually originated from days long before computers became part of our life.

In the early days, paper documents were either hand-written or type-written. In order to produce one or more similar copies during the creation of the paper document, a carbon paper could be used.

This 'duplicating' technique is very simple. A sheet of carbon paper would sandwich between two sheets of paper and when pressure is applied by a writing instrument or typewriter impact, the pigment on the carbon paper would transfer the words or images from the top sheet to the bottom sheet.

More copies could be made simultaneously by stacking several sheets with carbon paper between each pair of additional paper. However, there is a limit to that. Beyond four or five copies, the pressure from the top sheet will not be sufficient to cause any imprint on the bottom most sheet.

It was indeed very painful to make duplicates before the printers and photocopiers became popular.

Last week, I was making some payment and the cashier prepared my receipt manually with the use of a receipt booklet. She wrote my payment particulars on the top copy and with the use of a sheet of carbon paper, she created a duplicate copy for her record.

Her copy had slightly blurred blue imprints on it and I thought I saw some missing particulars. That is the problem when carbon paper is over-used. While I was checking on the correctness of the content, I could not help feeling the time rolling back a few decades. At that moment, I tried to recall how life was like without printers and photocopiers.

While carbon paper is rarely used today, the expression 'carbon copy' which is commonly represented by 'cc' continued to be used. Besides emails, it is also being used in conventional letter writing. We would include a list of names at the end of a letter and add 'cc' before the name list. This would mean that the named people would also receive a similar copy of the letter.

The abbreviation 'cc' is now a common sight in email applications. Many of us know very well how to use the 'cc' features in modern emails but few really know where the expression 'cc' came from. Thanks to emails, the legacy of 'carbon copy' is perpetuated.

The modern 'cc' feature is many times more powerful than the traditional carbon paper. At a push of a button, we can 'cc' to a long list of people. How evil !

For most of the business emails I receive, I am usually just one of the numerous secondary recipients. When one of us has something such as "OK" to say, we tell everyone by hitting the "Reply All" button. This can go on...totally counter-productive.

I wrote "FYI is For Your Indigestion" in April this year and in which I described how emails have become my main time sucker. This problem is unlikely to go away any time soon. I would just have to manage it together with other 'vices' in the modern world.

The next time you use the 'cc' feature, be considerate.

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1 comment:

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