Dame Sophie: Hello, darling Dame Karen! Neither of us is 100% awake as we write this, but we’re not going to let a little thing like a lack of full consciousness get in our way!
Dame Karen: I haven’t been fully conscious since 2015! Ha! Anyway…
Dame Sophie: Indeed! So, dearly beloveds, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called old-timey technology. Yes, when Dame Karen & I were talking about a theme for this week’s issue, I said, half-jokingly, that my only idea was something I’ve been noodling around with for a bit: the enduring popularity of faxing. It’s just a 24/7 party in my brain, let me tell you.
Dame Karen: I also enjoy brain parties because when Dame Sophie suggested the topic I GOT SO EXCITED! I love writing about old-timey things in general and particularly enjoy old-timey technology ruminations. Have you been faxing lately, my friend?
Dame Sophie: Funnily enough, yes! When I submitted my federal student loan forgiveness paperwork [we say a little prayer for meeeeee] in August, I did not trust that sending it via just one method would work, so I popped down to the local UPS Store and asked the nice people there to fax it and send it via their profanely expensive expedited courier powers. I had to chuckle, because a) otherwise I would cry with anxiety and b) there I was, in the year of our Beyoncé 2022, sending a fax, something I first learned how to do at a summer office job in 1993.
Dame Karen: Amazing. I myself haven’t faxed in years. The last time I remember faxing something was via efax in 2016 and weirdly enough, it was related to the one viral tweet I’ve ever had. That’s a fun party trick — if you’re hanging out with people who are way more popular on the internet than you are and they start talking about their experiences with viral tweets, it’s fun to wait for an opening and casually mention that your one experience with a viral tweet came when you explained how to fax a federal office.
Dame Sophie: I very much want to hear this story, and to learn any special federal office faxing tips you may be able to impart.
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Dame Karen: Well, it was right after Trump took office and some people were panicking and trying to figure out if there was anything they could do to mitigate what was happening. Things get a little hazy here because, you know, ::wild gestures at the universe::, but I believe there was a massive attempt to jam up phone lines over Executive Order 13769 aka “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” and there were actual busy signals and full voice mail boxes. Then, it hit me, and I tweeted that it was also possible to fax your elected officials and included a link to efax. VIRAL TWEET. I don’t know if there was actually a massive influx of faxes that night, but I do like to imagine fax machines suddenly springing to life and spitting out piles of furious missives from angry constituents across the nation. [I periodically purge all tweets and so that particular one is somewhere in the ether.]
Dame Sophie: I love that mental image of the fax machines springing to life in otherwise-dark and quiet offices. In my mind’s eye, I see it as a Busby Berkeley-style musical number. A Busby Berkeley Dream, to borrow a phrase from the king of grouchy & often retrospectively brooding romanticism, Stephin Merritt.
Dame Karen: Well that would be a [Busby Berkeley] dream come true — Busby Berkeley Fax Machine Number! The whirring! The graceful sheets of paper fluttering in kaleidoscopic splendor!
Dame Sophie: *dreamy sigh* wait, ok, sorry, I got lost in a little reverie there for a moment. One day we’ll live in a world where fax machines are the main characters in a Pixar-style romance musical, but until that great day dawns, we can at least share some understandings of how this rather unassuming technology has survived and continues to thrive.
I had kind of forgotten about faxing as a significant method of submitting important paperwork to faceless bureaucracies — your federal agencies, your massive student loan servicers — until I went to work at my last library, where it was definitely in our Top 5 most-used services (along with internet access, notarization, storytime, and borrowing books). I quickly saw that faxing held distinct advantages. For our patrons who did not speak English as a first language, and for our older residents who deputized their younger relatives to handle their technology stuff, faxing is less intimidating and time-consuming than setting up an email account. And it’s functionally the same thing as dialing a phone number, which nearly every adult knows how to do. Better still, faxing provides literal receipts stating where you sent your stuff and confirming its arrival, so there’s no worrying about the perhaps untrustworthy and certainly baffling cluster of 1s and 0s of an email zipping around the information superhighway. I started talking about this with my sisters, who also work in nonprofits, and they both said faxing remains an essential tool for their organizations and clientele. Charlotte pointed out that it’s hard to hack a fax, which is so reassuring when you’re sharing personal information in print, and Sarah said it’s so convenient to have easy access to both hard copies and cloud-stored documents (usually PDFs).
Dame Karen: So interesting. Faxing was a huge part of my early office jobs in the very late ‘90s. At one point I worked at a textbook publishing company and we were forever faxing authors and manufacturing companies. I had a folder for the literal receipts you speak of above and often referred to it to confirm that faxes people claimed they hadn’t received had, in fact, gone through. It was also a source of “workin 9 to 5 what a way to make a livin” bonding because several of the [male] executives, who I’m now realizing were probably younger than I am now, very cool, very nice, didn’t know how to fax and would always make an assistant do it. A real “ok Boomer” moment decades before “ok Boomer.”
Dame Sophie: lol all the young [white] dudes sure do love their learned helplessness, don’t they? I wonder what role faxing plays in the for-profit world these days.
Dame Karen: Right? I have a friend who owns a company [it’s a good one, check out their FUN MERCH] and I asked him if he ever faxed and he DOES NOT. He said he has an efax account and hasn’t used it in years. Not empirical evidence, I realize, but there it is.
Dame Sophie: yeah, a sample of one is unlikely to be predictive across multiple industries, but it’s a helpful prompt to think about what industries are helping to keep faxing alive. In fact, some cursory googling to ensure that we have more things to refer to than our misty water-colored memories of the way technology was has yielded several a-ha moments. I absolutely should have known that Healthcare and The Law, aka royalty among paperwork-heavy fields, drive a lot of the continued popularity of faxing. HIPAA compliance alone is a very big deal, and pairs perfectly with faxing’s hack-resistant essence. What really blew my mind was learning that although most contemporary faxing is folded into the functions of all-in-one copier/scanner/printers, the technology’s functionality hasn’t changed in a long time, so “a fax machine in 2023 is capable of sending to and receiving from a fax machine from the 1980s. In other words, these devices are extremely reliable, even if your model is decades old.” Of course, this immediately made me think of the role faxing plays in the unfolding of the plot of Glass Onion.
Dame Karen: Yes, as of 2019 fax machine use is actually GROWING, per this guy who wrote a whole book about the topic! Faxing technology is timeless, really. Not only can modern fax machines communicate with ancient ‘80s fax machines but the technology has adapted to include cloud-based services, like efax, which treat faxes like images and attach them to emails. Furthermore, medical offices often can’t communicate with each other thanks to competing database systems that are purposefully incompatible with one another but…they can still fax! Plus people just don’t like change, right? If you’re a small business and faxing suits your needs, why would you spend money “upgrading” to something else just for the sake of upgrading?
Tedium is always a good source of information on technologies past and present and I love this article on a proposed use of fax machines as a method for newspapers to use to spread breaking news. There were not one but two attempts to make fax happen! There was even a short period of time during which some newsletters were distributed via fax -- R.I.P. to our newsletter ancestor, the Montana Fish Fax.
Dame Sophie: If I could turn back time, I would love to have subscribed to that one for sure. May such idiosyncratic gems flourish for all time!
Hi! You know what’s flourishing right now? A great deal on a year-long subscription to this very newsletter! Paid subscriptions make it possible for us to bring you new issues of Two Bossy Dames each week — thank you for reading!
When I was about 9 or 10, I was at sleepaway camp and my mother, forever the attorney, sent a fax to the main office to tell me that she and my dad would see me on Saturday when they were coming to pick me up and honestly, it’s probably one of my favorite memories. One of the counselors brought it over to the lunch table and said, Lizzie, you got a fax?
I am a Children’s Librarian in a public library, and people come in every single day to send faxes. We do several a day and sometimes patrons have to wait as we can only send one at a time. It’s one of our most used services.