Shredding for our future: a history of man’s struggle to create and destroy

Papyrus, bill of sale for a donkey.

Papyrus, bill of sale for a donkey.

They say that man is the animal that creates. I say that man is the animal that can create and will destroy. And sometimes a creation’s purpose could be destruction. This is the case with shredding machines.

The year was 2.560 B.C. when man in his desperate search for means of expression created papyrus. Before that his irresistible urge to express himself manifested mostly on cave walls or clay tablets or other difficult to impossible to shred mediums. Papyrus changed all of that. [1]

With the invention of papyrus, man felt for the first time in history the need to rip into pieces something that he created to imprint certain information. Why? Because for the first time in history, man could do it; Papyrus made possible such action.

This first papyrus shred to pieces could be of a painting or a poem gone horribly wrong. Or of symbols that articulated emotions or desires for the future. It could be a list of financial assets or a text of religious significance. The owner of the papyrus could have destroyed it. Or maybe it was a thief. Or it might even be a jealous wife or a loyal servant. We don’t know why or who did it but we can be certain that someone took the decision to destroy. There could be a reason for doing it or there could be no specific reason at all but it was done by someone.

And after the first man, there were many more that followed a similar course of action because they could do it. The Chinese discovered paper [2], and as centuries passed, humans kept finding new reasons to destroy.

Early wooden printing press, 1568

Early wooden printing press, 1568

Gutenberg [3] discovered the printing machine and the mass paper media was born. Reading was not anymore a privilege of the aristocracy.

In 1806 a man called Henry Fourdinier created the Fourdinier machine. These were steam-driven papermaking machines that could make paper with fibres from wood pulp. Great quantities of paper could be made in great speed. [4]

By the 20th century paper was an everyday commodity, part of every human activity. Common people used it, companies used it, and government agencies used it too.

And then, in 1909, almost 6.000 years after the invention of papyrus, 103 years after the creation of the Fourdinier machine, a man from the United Stated of America called Abbot Augustus Low had a simple but glorious idea. In a world dominated by paper, he had a simple idea. He thought: “What if I created a machine that shreds paper?” And thus, he filed a patent for what he called a “waste – paper receptable”. The first shredding machine came into existence. A creation meant to destroy. It could change the course of history. It did!

Papermaking machine

Papermaking machine

According to him, his invention related “to the provision of improved means for disposing of waste paper and is designed more particularly for use in offices and other places where not only the collection and storage of waste paper is desirable, but also its cancellation or mutilation in such manner as to render it unavailable or unintelligible for re-use or for information”.

The invention consisted “of a receptacle having a cutting or cancelling device interposed between it and a receiving hopper, whereby the papers are disintegrated and rendered useless as such before they enter the body of the receptacle, in which latter the fragments are stored temporarily in a suitable bag to be removed from time to time for the disposition of the waste”.

Waste Paper Receptacle, 1909

Waste Paper Receptacle, 1909

Augustus didn’t just invent the device but knew of the advantages it could hold for banks and other organizations “where the practical destruction of correspondence, memoranda, liquidated bonds, accounts, books, and the like is a desideratum […] since the particles of paper are useless for identification, information, or fraudulent purposes of any character” [5]

However, not many sh(a)red his enthusiasm. And as it is often the case with all those we come to admire as genius, it took society quite a long time to understand the necessity of such a device. [6]

In reality, there was no demand for a paper shredder; no market. And how could there be such a demand when most of the people didn’t feel the need to shred their documents using a device. And while it was probable that US intelligence agencies might have understood its importance the simple fact is that the concept of identity theft or data protection was not very common; not common enough for the “common people”. [7]

Now, all this has changed. In the 21st century, “information destruction” is a multi-billion business and shredding machines are at the centre of it.

Shredding machines have evolved and are becoming more and more sophisticated. They will destroy from paper to DVDs and CDS or hard drives. Anything that can hold data of any kind can be destroyed and recycled. [8]

Shredding Machine

Shredding Machine

Everyone is using them. From small offices to big corporations, from government agencies, to schools and hospitals; in some countries it has become a requirement of the law to shred specific documents using shredding machines. [9]

Companies make shredding machines and sell them. Other companies are going mobile, arriving at an organization’s premises with trucks equipped with machines that chew and spit piles of paper. They destroy data that are not meant to be seen by the general public, data that should not fall in the wrong hands. Doctors, spies, everyone uses them.

From the papyrus to the computer and the world of internet, creation goes hand in hand with destruction. In reality, evolution was also the evolution of the means of destruction; they seem somehow interrelated, as if they complement each other. It is human somehow. This is how we evolve; this is how we express ourselves more effectively. We create paper to destroy it; we share information to delete it; we decide what to keep; we shred for our future. We evolve.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ts%27ai_Lun
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Fourdrinier
  5. http://www.google.com/patents/US929960?dq=ininventor:%22ABBOT+AUGUSTUS+LOW%22
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbot_Augustus_Low
  7. http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/06/26/declassified-govt-report-details-decades-nsa-computer-spying/
  8. http://www.ironmountain.co.uk/services/secure-shredding
  9. http://www.cpni.gov.uk/Documents/Publications/2013/2013062-secure-destruction-sensitive-information.pdf

What Waste Means

…and Possible Solutions

What is waste nowadays? Well, waste is not simply rubbish, that’s for sure. Waste is one of the hot issues of the day, whether we are talking about household waste and the recycling of it, whether we talk about nuclear waste and the risky consequences of not being handled with very special care, or whether we are dealing with economic waste and the reduction of it, especially in the context of current economic crisis.

Recycling seems to be top of the list when it comes to priorities and possible solutions that could impose themselves over waste. Recycling involves the transformation and reuse of already used material – be it raw material or not. But what if recycling would be applied in the reuse of already used information? What if some – by thinking recycling-wise – would try to build their kingdom on already thrown away data?

If so, this is when the term of confidential waste comes into the discussion. Handling with care confidential waste can become a priority for many businesses, if the philosophy of recycling gets too much rooted in the minds and intentions of competitors. It would mean that the confidential waste produced by your own company would become the fertile ground of competitors, who would even use whatever might be strictly confidential for you in their own advantage, for increasing their own profits and benefits. And this is how the philosophy of recycling could lose its ethical ground and become its opposite. Also, by comparison, your own confidential waste not handled with care can become as dangerous to your business’s well being as nuclear waste can be to the planet, despite nuclear power having been so useful.

But is there any solution to avoid or diminish at maximum any risk for a disaster? Well, there might be. Just as handling with care and attention the nuclear waste so that it not to produce a disaster to the whole humanity, handling with care and maximum of attention the confidential waste produced by your company could also impose itself as the most proper of even only existing solution at the moment. Also, as there are specialized organisms handling very dangerous waste, there are also specialists in handling whatever is to be considered confidential waste, so that it won’t turn against the well being of the organism or enterprise that produced it in the first place.

Back in the old days, when businesses still existed and confidentiality was an issue as well, papers and documents containing information that could have been harmful for one party or another used to be thorn apart before being thrown away. Based on that example, shredding services have been invented to insure the proper handling of that data that should and must disappear.

It is absolutely necessary to make use of such shredding services for the sake of the health of the business you might be running. The bad news today is that the software to manage to put back thorn apart documents has already been invented. Therefore, information that you might consider destroyed and long gone already might be recreated by use of specialized software. Therefore, there is the urgent need to rely upon some experts that could do the job properly.

Moreover, in case you do care not only for the well being of your own business, but also for the well being of the environment, you should then also think about some specialized companies that can handle the informational waste with care, but also the physical waste with proper consideration. This involved to contract the services of those companies who could actually guarantee, on the one hand, the fact that the confidential data would not be ‘recycled’, but, on the other hand, the fact that the physical support upon which this data had been inscribed – be it paper of plastic – could be recycled, for the benefit of the whole planet and the protection of the natural environment.

Given the complex relationship between waste and recycling – be it confidential or not, be it well-intended or not – we then need to conclude that proper care and attention will always be the best guards to prevent a possible disaster. Take care!