Saturday, July 07, 2001

The Leading Edge of Low Tech

When it comes to the business world, I consider myself somewhat plugged in. Wired or wireless, I have all of the modern tools necessary with which to do battle in the concrete jungle. And what, might you ask, is the item that I would consider more indispensable than any other? Is it my cell phone, my pager, my laptop or desktop? Perhaps my PDA, or my answering machine? Maybe my cable modem, or my CD burner or my laser printer? Actually, the nod goes to none of those. Without a doubt, the award for the most dependable, most critical, most essential tool that keeps me organized would have to go to my stapler.

My stapler. We're talking about a technology that really hasn't changed since the early 1900's when the current open channel design was introduced. In reality, it's simplicity itself. A short piece of flexible wire. A plate to bend the ends back into itself. An applicator that is easily directed wherever it is needed. Mine has been with me for years, never once failing during a critical late night session of organizing bills, holding its own during a bout of expense account rectifying, distinguishing itself with its quiet efficiency in the heat of tax season. And that kind of performance is not unusual. Sure, individual staples may misfire, occasional jams may appear in the loading channel. But in fact, there has never actually been a reported case of a basic stapler breaking down under normal use in the Western Hemisphere since February of 1932.

But my affection for this classic comes at a price. For I must also come to terms with the fact that, at least in this particular arena, I am woefully behind the technology curve. My device is still manual. It isn't sheathed in any sleek, space age material, nor sports a neon colored finish. It uses neither batteries nor AC power to automate and speed up the task at hand. And the only way I find out that I am out of staples is when I pick it up to use it and hear a hollow "clunk" upon application.

That means I have stood by and watched from the sidelines at advancements like the Swingline Millennium Electric Stapler, with its low staple warning light and self-adjusting mechanism. That also includes noting with awe "The Grip," an upright manual stapler from the Hunt Corporation that "revolutionized" the industry when it was introduced in 1997. The folks at Hunt, which also makes the classic line of Boston staplers, had the genius to realize that 90% of the people who use staplers pick them up. So by changing the resting state from horizontal to vertical, they save you that extra step of turning it around. Over the forty years of your productive life, we're witnessing a design innovation that is capable of saving you as much as 3 minutes.

There are plenty of other examples where 21st century wizardry can make our lives more fulfilling in the office by updating what now have to be considered Stone Age implements. For instance, they are the MagneTacks from Levenger, a Florida-based firm that offers all kinds of space age updates to prosaic products. With these little puppies you can forget having to put endless holes with a pushpin in the sign up sheets for the office golf tournament. Instead, use the "shockingly strong" MagneTacks to post up to 10 sheets of 60-pound paper. There are even rumors that, used in combination, they are capable of securing small children to your refrigerator door.

Or how about the new 3M Pop-Up Tape Strip Dispenser, which dispenses precut pieces of scotch tape. This could the perfect gift those folks in Florida who obviously don't have the strength to punch a complete hole in their ballots, and so would be exhausted by the act of actually ripping off their own piece of tape.

Even better are the Ergorasers, also from Levenger. It took the company engineers two years to push eraser design to the limit to come up with these babies, which are shaped liked the head of a spoon. Only you can decide if having that kind of cutting edge technology in the palm of your hand is worth the $18.95 for three...and this for a product that by definition disappears after a few uses.

However, if you really want high tech, look not at your desk, but under your butt. For it is there that the perfect marriage of futuristic design, materials and controls all come together in the form of the Aeron chair from Herman Miller. Its Pellicle mesh seat and half a dozen knobs and levers do take some tweaking and getting used to, as does its $800 or so price tag. But the net result, at least to hear devotees tell it, is the best seat in the house since Captain Kirk commanded a starship, or Mel Brooks gave you his for "The Producers."

What does the future hold? Well, there's a buzz in the industry about a pencil sharpener that uses lasers to do the work and vaporize the shavings, as well as a pen that, accompanied by special paper, will be able to remember what you write and upload it to your computer or beam it to a friend. But other than some minor updating with colors and materials, there is no word on updates to the paperclip, the ruler and my trusty stapler. Sometimes, the best progress is to recognize that if it ain't broke, don't improve it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford prefers analog clocks to digital ones. With digital ones, there's no fudge factor to being late. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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