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The fax machine: A technological anomaly

“Imagine a world without fax machines”, is a talking point you’ve probably never encountered. Wedged somewhere in the timeline between the telephone and the personal computer, fax machines are a technology afterthought and are almost never referenced as an influential 20th-century technology among the ranks of the automobile, the radio, and the computer.

However, fax machines were an essential step in forming current communication behaviors. Without fax machines, we might not have been as open to the idea of email and instant messaging. Without fax machines, the personal computer (and thus the smartphone) may not have been well received.

The year is nearing 2019 and the fax machine has managed to survive in hospitals, law offices, and homes worldwide. However, 2020 will be the year we finally begin digging the fax machine’s grave where it will lay for eternity.

In July 2018, a Freedom of Information request (FOI) revealed that over 8,000 fax machines were being used by the NHS. This week, MP Matt Hancock, Health and Social Care Secretary, announced that from 2020 all fax machines in the NHS will be phased out, with a ban in place to stop trusts purchasing them. – Phee Waterfield, Forbes

There’s never been a better time to do a retrospective on the fax machine. To recognize the uncanny influence it had on the computer and smartphone. To credit it with playing a role in shaping the behaviors of the Information Age. And ultimately, analyze its life in hopes that it can inform us of the solution to one of humanity’s most pressing plagues: device addiction.

The Life of Fax

Pre-internet, the fax machine was a convenient and swift way to send large amounts of information at a distance. Every office worldwide and a vast majority of homes used this unsexy piece of technology to communicate.

One of the early use cases of facsimile (fax), was delivering the news. Faxpapers were sent via radio waves, which consumers could then tune the dial on their radiofax printing machine to print the daily newspaper. Although it only ever caught on with a dozen or so newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s, faxpapers were our first foray into instant news. Unfortunately for faxpapers, the television would prove to be a more effective platform for real-time news.

But, facsimile didn’t die in the 40s. The Xerox Corporation revived it in the mid-1960s by replacing radio transmission with telephone transmission. This was a defining moment in fax machine history because it allowed anyone with a telephone landline to hook up to a fax machine.

Flash forward a couple decades to the 1980s and the commercial fax machine is in its heyday. It became the go-to device to send memos, reports, and private info. But, it was more than a single function tool. It was a platform that allowed faxers to experiment with different communication experiences.

One Manhattan restaurant, Piatti Pronti, created Lunch by Fax which allowed hungry faxers to send their lunch order to the restaurant via fax. Lunch by Fax was a more accurate order system than phoning into a restaurant, as their business went up 10% thanks to the idea. In many ways, Lunch by Fax was the first version of GrubHub and EatStreet, which are today’s standard in online food ordering. Fax machines were first to enhance the food ordering service.

Faxpapers made a small comeback for the Connecticut newspaper, The Hartford Courant. Learning from the early faxpaper mistakes, they created a subscription faxpaper service that delivered a one-page summary of the next day’s morning newspaper. 100s of businesses in the Hartford area subscribed to gain this small competitive advantage.

In a 1990 article titled, Overwhelmed with Fax Attacks, the Washington Post talked with faxers that were using their fax machines to send in song requests to the local radio station. Some used the machine to send a friend their birthday card or a funny comic strip (sounds a little like early social media). For the procrastinating type, fax machines provided a great opportunity to organize football betting pools while the boss wasn’t looking. Even solicitors were using fax machines to send people Junk Faxes.

Later in the article, the Post described the reasons for the fax sensation, “…fax is cheaper, easier and faster than other forms of staying in touch. The mail takes days; a courier takes hours and costs dearly. Fax moves in seconds. Unlike a phone conversation, it can convey pictures, charts, graphics, doodles, handwriting. Unlike telephone calls, it leaves a record.”

It’s not hard to understand why fax was such a hit throughout the 80s and 90s – reaching peak sales of 3.6 million fax machines sold in 1997. However, the tool hasn’t lasted in the popular mass. Today, the multi-purpose fax machine is present in a meager 18.7% of U.S. citizens’ lives. Compare this to the mobile phone, which 86.3% of the U.S. population owns, and you see that the fax machine just isn’t a major tool anymore. Outside of lawyers and doctors faxing signed documents, you’d be hard-pressed to find an active “faxer”. Faxing has become an innovation afterthought in nearly every facet of our lives.

So, why did we cast this piece of technology away like we do our empty coffee cups?

Natural Cycle of Progress

Well, for the same reasons that fax gained popularity, is why fax eventually died. Email proved to be a communication tool that was cheaper, easier, and faster. To this day, chain emails entertain us. Email newsletters inform us. Sales emails advertise to us. Email provided people with many of the same experiences as the fax machine except on a better platform, the personal computer. And thus goes the cycle of emerging technology.

Even though the fax machine’s time in the spotlight was short-lived, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from its existence. In fact, the fax machine’s rise to popularity was centered on two simple truths – it was fun and easy.

There was something magical about dialing a phone number and sending a piece of paper so easily. And when you heard those distinct “sending tones”, you knew that your fax had worked and a little burst of dopamine rushed throughout your brain. I remember the first time I saw my mom receive a fax. I was mesmerized by this mysterious event. Where did this come from? Who was on the other end? Why was my mom chosen?

In a time when personal computers were complex and required hours of training, the fax machine was the cool older brother that everyone wanted to be around. It was slick and simple. And that’s why it caught on.

Smartphones: A Societal Crutch

When you think about intuitive technologies of today, you cannot pass over the smartphone. As if it took lessons from its grandparent (the fax machine), the smartphone is easier, faster, and more fun to use than the personal computer that came before it.

However, unlike the fax machine and the personal computer, the smartphone has created a moat that will make it very hard to be replaced. The smartphone has brought together dozens of devices into one tool. The GPS, MP3 player, calculator, handheld gaming device, alarm clock, kitchen timer, calendar, and many more are all irrelevant devices thanks to the smartphone. Although combining all these devices into one has made the smartphone one of the most convenient tools available, it’s brought with it a set of consequences.

You cannot deny that we are addicted to our smartphones. Ten years ago, losing a cell phone wasn’t a big deal. You probably had many phone numbers memorized and could just borrow someone else’s if you needed to make a call. Today, losing your cell phone means losing access to your lifestyle – emails about work updates, alerts between family and friends, and even your entertainment through social media, games, and videos. The smartphone is an extension of our being. Without it, it seems as though we cannot “be”.

Contrast this against the fax machine, who nobody was behaviorally attached to. The smartphone addiction tells us a lot about our behaviors.

Not only is the smartphone act as the door to the rest of the world, but it’s becoming a societal crutch. In the same way that my grandfather’s generation turned to martinis and cocktails as a societal crutch, we are turning to the smartphone.

Our smartphones provide comfort and protection from all of life’s trials. But, it’s a pseudo-comfort and pseudo-protection. As we know about alcohol as a crutch, it’s artificial. The smartphone crutch shields us from pain, embarrassment, and loneliness. Instead of professing our identities and opinions in person, we save ourselves the chance of embarrassment by hiding behind our digital voice.

I have many friends that cannot stand the deep feelings of loneliness that surface before bedtime, so they fall asleep to the glow of their Facebook feed for distraction.

When situations are awkward, boring, or nerve-wracking out come the smartphones. Go to a bar and notice how many people are wrapped in their phone, instead of interacting with strangers. The same goes for the boring bus or train ride to work. Who’s actually embracing life’s banal situations to inspire them to meet new people?

Just like the popular crutch of the 20th century, the smartphone as a crutch is very dangerous. An alcohol hangover resurfaces whatever we tried to escape with drunkenness. The smartphone hangover amplifies our problems by disconnecting us from our own emotions.

Smartphones are putting silence out of business and it’s in silence and solitude where we have those tough conversations with ourselves. How can you expect to “follow your heart”, “find your passion”, or “know yourself” if every time your heart tries to talk about your problems you turn to a screen?

Our emotions make us real and blocking those feelings with a smartphone distraction makes you more artificial.

Finding Harmony

I’m not proposing we kill the smartphone. On the contrary, I think it’s a fantastic tool to use. The problem is that many of us allow the smartphone to use us. They allow Facebook to use hours of their attention for profit – distracted from personal progress. They allow Candy Crush to steal time from interacting with friends.

It’s imperative that we realize the gravity of this situation. The rush of dopamine our brains receive a couple hundred times a day from the phone’s vibration in our pockets will have serious effects on us. The medical field has already recognized Phantom Vibration Syndrome – a condition where we perceive our phones to be ringing/vibrating when they really aren’t. In other words, we crave the feeling of being pinged so badly that our brains will literally hallucinate a notification. This should be a major warning sign. Michelle Drouin, a researcher that studies the psychological effects of social media and communications technology, found that 9 out of 10 undergraduates at her college experienced phantom vibrations. And I would bet a large portion of smartphone users have experienced a phantom vibration (I know I have).

Anyways, I draw the parallel to smartphone’s forefather, the fax machine because people used the fax machine in many of the same ways we use our smartphones – to communicate and connect. But, using the fax machine didn’t take away from our human identity. It didn’t replace our ability to connect with others or even ourselves.

We cannot expect to grow as individuals if we continue to rely on the smartphone as a societal crutch. The trend I would like to see going forward into 2019, is an honest search from everyone to find a personal harmony between their technology and healthy, productive behaviors.

We’re beginning to notice the Zeitgeist flowing in a positive direction. I’m hearing more and more people around me complain about their almost unconscious technology addiction, which means there’s a desire to make a change.

Just in the past few years, the term “digital detox” has grown as a topic of discussion. Camp Grounded – a digital detox camp for adults – was way ahead of its time opening in 2013. Today, there are dozens of these camps for kids and adults to help them beat internet addictions and disconnect from the digital livelihood.

On a larger scale, Vitamin Water just launched a competition called the Scroll-Free Challenge that will award up to $100,000 to anyone that can spend all 365 days of 2019 without using their smartphone. Although the logistics of the challenge don’t quite add up (how will you prove that you didn’t use your phone), it’s still great to see the people and brands with a voice putting this great message out there.

Even legislators are getting involved. Earlier this year, a New York Senator proposed a bill called The Right To Disconnect which proposed a human right regarding the ability of people to disconnect from work and primarily not to engage in work-related electronic communications such as e-mails or messages during non-work hours.

Even though there are small pockets of change occurring, this is no time to rest on our laurels. It’s an active change that must happen within us all.

We must strive for a symbiotic relationship between technology and humanity. When one overpowers the other, we lose something precious. Too much human-centeredness and we lose progress. Too much technology and we lose our humanity.

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