August 17, 2012
When I heard that a British company is banning paper clips my first reaction was to defend them. Sometimes when you hear about something that seems really boneheaded, that reporters giggle about as they discuss it and that becomes a widespread joke and then you start looking into it carefully it really starts to make sense and not seem quite so boneheaded after all. This is not one of those times. Of all the things in this world that are potentially dangerous and that should either be banned or at the very least kept away from people who are too irresponsible to be trusted with them I’m pretty sure paper clips fall somewhere between cotton balls and squid ink. If paper clips were dangerous then I have enough of them just in my office to stage a coup in New Caledonia.
And paper clips aren’t even the most dangerous thing in my office. There’s also a stapler, filled with staples, a staple remover, whose designer based it on a crocodile’s skull, and a globe and several large heavy books I could hit someone over the head with. I have a ball of string that’s more dangerous than any paper clip, even the ones that look like kind of a misshapen star. I know from personal experience how dangerous that ball of string can be because once a co-worker and I tied a pink stuffed hippo to one end of the ball of string and opened the window and started lowering it to the ground to see if I had enough string to reach all the way from the floor where we worked to the ground. And then I realized I hadn’t tied the last foot of string to the rest of the ball so the hippo went into free fall. And you know what’s even more dangerous than a ball of string? An open window on the seventh floor of an office building. Paper is more dangerous than paper clips. I’ve had at least three dozen paper cuts. When was the last time you got a paper clip cut?
But what was really shocking isn’t that an office of presumably intelligent people banned paper clips. What was really shocking was that a representative of a company that makes paper clips came out in defense of the paper clip. And if you’re thinking, "Well, yeah, that’s what he’s paid to do" you’re missing the point: there’s a company that makes paper clips. Okay, I don’t think paper clips are born or that they grow on trees or anything ridiculous like that. I’ve just never had to buy paper clips. I’ve never known anyone who bought paper clips. When I go into office supply stores, which I do pretty frequently, I don’t remember ever seeing paper clips, except the rubber-coated ones that come in different colors and sometimes even have really cool designs. I always assumed, though, that all the paper clips in the world were manufactured in 1923 and that we’ve just been reusing, or rubber-coating, them ever since. Any time I need paper clips all I have to do is take two steps out of my cubicle to where there’s a big box of them. Amazingly whenever the box runs low another office will send over the paper clips they’re not using and it can be refilled. How does a company that makes paper clips stay in business? Here, though, is where they can become potentially dangerous. The paper clip is perfect. What would we replace it with? Chewing gum? There’s no way to improve on its design. But I know someone in some company that makes paper clips-and hopefully there’s only one-is working on redesigning the paper clip. He’s probably trying some jagged edges, or a pointier shape, or expanding the paper clip into some sort of multi-dimensional hypercube that will connect pieces of paper in completely different cubicles. Or at least he was before that whole internet thing stole his idea, but that’s another story.
And I know it’s a guy. Not to be too hard on my own gender, but I’m pretty sure a woman looks at a paper clip and sees a perfectly good functional object that does what it’s supposed to do and doesn’t need to be changed-and, to be fair, most men are the same way, while there’s a certain subset of men who look at the paperclip and think "How can I change the design of this in such a way that it becomes completely useless?" This is why women do things like discovering radium while men do things like building atomic bombs, which should be banned because everyone’s too irresponsible to be trusted with them. Have you ever seen what happens when one of those falls off a desk? Although it is possible that it was a woman who called for banning paper clips, and not just any woman, but someone’s mother who was afraid that someone might straighten a paper clip and poke their eye out. Only mothers tell us not to play with sharp things because we might poke our eye out. Fathers, on the other hand, never say this, because they secretly hope we will poke our eyes out, because a big old eyeball just lying on the ground would be a pretty cool thing to see. And then they’d like to see what happens when you stick a firecracker in it and light it. I’m pretty sure Enrico "One-Eye" Fermi did this with his dad.