Copy and paste
Copy and paste is probably the most impactful productivity tool in the modern workplace.
This simple, elegant solution has prevented millions of hours of retyping, reduced errors and made writing and data entry on computers far more efficient. But not just efficient, actually usable. Imagine if it didn’t exist. Imagine if every time you wanted to move a piece of text from one application to another you had to retype it. Imagine how much more time you’d have spent throughout your life tapping away on a keyboard.
Copy and paste has been part of human/computer interaction for almost forty years. It was invented in 1973 by Larry Tesler along with Tim Mott. You probably haven’t heard of Tesler but he was one of the silicon valley mavericks of the seventies. A contemporary of Steve Jobs, a free-spirited anti-war counter culturist, a humble computer scientist who changed the world.
The key to Larry’s thinking behind copy and paste is the idea of modeless interaction. Modeless systems always have the same result from the same user input. That means, whether you copy and paste in a Google document, an Excel spreadsheet, or an Internet browser, you can expect it to always work in the same way. The simplicity, predictability and reliability of how people interact with computers owe a lot to this idea. It set the tone for every interaction we have with any computerised device, from laptops to phones, to supermarket checkouts and parking payment machines. We expect them all to interact with us in simple, predictable, reliable ways.
Not having to start from scratch every time, as a designer creating those interactions and as a user learning how to use a piece of technology, establishes strong foundations. It means always being able to build on what went before because what went before can be easily taken into a new context. Copy and paste is just one of those ratchet mechanisms It enables progress to occur, work to become more efficient, ideas to build and grow. It enabled far more than just copying and pasting.
Nowadays, copy and paste has almost become an insult, a suggestion that something lacks originality. And yet, Larry’s original thinking gave us a lot to copy, and good reasons for pasting.