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The Power to Fax

Mises Daily: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 by

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Last week, this office had to send a fax, and the receiving number was the same for fax and voice lines. Of course that trick never really worked well in the 1980s, and it doesn't work well today. The fax didn't get there, and I had to go through the error logs to figure out why, and then try again. That meant hunkering down, again, over a machine with a wired phone sitting on top — a living relic of a bygone era.

By then I had already crumpled up the original — I had forgotten the faxing convention of waiting to make sure it went through — so I had to print out again, and check the number, and punched it in properly. And so on.

You may or may not know the drill. There is a an entire generation coming of age without a clear sense of what a fax machine is or why one should need one at all.

That we now consider the fax to be an annoying anachronism is a testament to the pace of technological development in our time. It took more than 100 years from the first attempts at faxing to the introduction of the domestic fax in the mid-1980s. Twenty years later, we hardly use the thing at all, and we laugh at its old-tech ways.

And yet I recall what a remarkable thing it was circa 1985. It was the great foreshadowing of the digital age. Until that time, documents had to be mailed. Or they could be sent by a private service that delivered overnight at a very high price. Or if the need was to send something across town, you could pay a courier service. These were the only ways to get documents from place to place. This was a situation essentially unchanged from the beginning of time to the second term of the Reagan presidency.

Then one day the great machine arrived. The Mises Institute had one in our offices. It was the size of an upright piano and weighed hundreds of pounds. It sat in our office on a lease agreement. It was not easy to use and it was slow. It was hilariously ostentatious, with buttons that when pressed sounded like trumpet blasts.

Office Space fax scene
Workers attack fax machine in the movie Office Space

But, given was what possible, it was amazing, amazing, amazing. You put the documents in the machine and watched as they were magically transported to some other place of your choosing. Try to imagine a world without email and without the web. The fax machine was like the Star Trek transporter. Documents were being "beamed."

Only a few years later, the gigantic machines were dinosaurs. Every office could have a fax machine. The paper came on rolls and was printed by heat. A slicer would cut the paper as it rolled out, and then pages would fall on the floor in little rolls. A 50-page fax would create a pile that looked like an oversized and spilled pasta dish.

In time, you had to have a dedicated fax number. Anything less was considered shoddy and embarrassing, and this was true also when the fax machine became domesticated. For several years, it was just essential to have two phone numbers at home, one for phone and one for faxing. If you tried to do both, you would end up faxing on top of someone's yelling "hello?! hello?!" or talking loudly over the creepy kshhhhhhhhh beeeeeep kshhhhhhhhh sound of the fax machine trying to intercept.

The mainstreaming of the plain-paper laser fax was yet another step. No more rolls of paper. We had to throw away the giant stash we had developed. Every office-supply place ran fire sales on their outmoded fax-paper rolls.

This series of developments took about 10 to 12 years. We lived and breathed the fax machine. It was the way things were done. Its power was not insignificant. When people speculated that the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism collapsed because of new technologies, the fax machine was commonly cited as the premier example.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, why did we need them? Email was around, but it was primitive. You could send and receive straight text but there were no images, no attachments, no actual documents. I'm not sure when PDF came along, but we knew nothing about it.

The fax gave us some sense that the present was not like the past. Someone from Prague could open a newspaper, clip an article, and send it to someone in Dallas so that it arrived in seconds. I could write a 50-page paper and send it off to anywhere in the world, spending no more than the cost of a phone call.

At the Mises Institute, we went through a period of submitting op-eds to newspapers around the country by carefully programming in fax numbers. The machine dialed each and sent them one by one. We could submit to 100 different locations in the course of an hour. True, this seems like nothing now, but then it was miraculous.

Keep in mind, this wasn't all about using the newest gizmo or playing with the newest toy. This was about economizing on time in a better way. The fax machine made us more productive so that we could spend more time doing things we were good at rather than doing things that just ate up the day for no good reason. It also helped open up the world, enhancing the possibilities of communication between all peoples.

Around this time, the US Postal Service started to get worried. Doesn't it possess the monopoly on this type of thing? Isn't it supposed to be in charge of paper communications and documents sent over distances? And so the post office developed this menacing machine they called Fax Buddy (as I recall). It sat in the main area of the government building. It looked like it would eat your arm. The government wanted to assign everyone a number and keep total control.

It was like a joke. The private fax machine was already smashing the government's monopoly — not because the post office wanted it that way but because the regulators couldn't keep up with the pace of innovation.

In 1995, the web browser began its trajectory toward the mainstream. Attachments from our hard drives could soon be added to emails, and email contents could be downloaded. Years later there came the digital signature. Most institutions would accept them.

Here it is 2011, and the fax machine is not entirely obsolete but almost. It survives mainly because some people still can't figure out how to use the digital signature option within PDF. The only other advantage to fax that I can think of is that it does not digitize the document in a manner that makes it instantly reproducible. I can imagine that there might sometimes be an appeal to this.

Then there is the digital faxing service, which allows you to appear to be sending and receiving faxes when you are actually working within an email interface. The "fax" becomes a tiny scanner on your desktop that exports straight to a remote fax machine, while receiving a fax amounts to a quick conversion to PDF or some other format that you can read within email — which of course is accessible through a handheld device. What is what begins to blur.

In any case, as we look back, we can see that the fax machine served a crucial role in the history of technology, meaning the history of the practical arts, which is the history of how we live. It was a luxury good that became a universal tool only to be replaced. In its day, it was thing that provided the bridge from the age of physical things into the age of digital things. It helped us to glimpse how we could find and use tools to overcome the limits that scarcity itself imposes on us.

The fax machine helped us to imagine the prospect that we might not forever be restricted to handing things from person to person, and even that we might someday achieve a world in which the sharing of things was no longer preconditioned on proximity in space or time.