This Happened: Fax Machines


Right now, I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s postmodern opus Infinite Jest. It’s not exactly a light summer read. In fact, if you aren’t a book critic, lit major, or an insufferable white dude who wants to appear brainy and sensitive by stocking his bedside table with books he hasn’t quite finished but has really strong opinions about, you might not be familiar with the title, despite it playing a central role in last year’s Jason Segel/Jesse Eisenberg indie flick The End of the Tour (and I mean, who here didn’t line up to see that movie on opening weekend?). If that’s the case, you’ll find no judgement here.

This will be my third attempt at finishing it. Right now, after three months of lugging it around in my backpack (I had to start wearing a backpack to carry it around), I’m not yet halfway done. The book is long: 1,000+ pages, including about 200 pages of endnotes. It’s also Important. Although, while reading it, I get the sense that DFW didn’t intend it as such, which surprised me. It’s dense, but conversational, like a hastily tossed-off email from a friend who happens to be a super-genius.

I mention that I’m reading Infinite Jest for two reasons. The first is because I’m secretly that insufferable dude mentioned above who likes to read the right books so that people will know how smart I am (Why yes, I did name my dog after George Saunders [1]). But, the real reason is that Infinite Jest, which was written in the mid-‘90s, takes place in an indeterminate future time. (Indeterminate because in this world corporations buy the naming rights to years (ex. Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment)). Stories written in the past but set in the future are always interesting, if to only see what technologies the writers assumed would persist and/or exist.

In spirit, Wallace gets a lot of things right. The book explores a world where people are debilitated by their pursuit of entertainment — something that anyone with a smartphone understands. [2] But, he gets a lot of the technological specifics wrong. For instance, in his future we’re all still very interested in CD-ROMs. Remember CD-ROMs?

If one were to create a master list of all the products and services that the Internet effectively killed, CD-ROMs would be near the top, along with travel agents, video stores, privacy and nuance. Oh, and fax machines.

Every now and then a business will insist on having something faxed to them. By now, it’s nearly an impossible request. Sure, our printer probably has a fax function, but it can also scan and send documents digitally. Asking for a fax is like asking someone to call you, but only from a rotary phone. I’m sure somewhere there’s an entrepreneur who is crafting an artisanal fax machine, clinging to the misguided hope that all old technology will become relevant again, because of a false definition of what it means to be authentic. This happened with vinyl. And it’s happening with cassette tapes, too. [3]

Our culture is equally obsessed with disruption and nostalgia. We want every new business and product to destroy the status quo, but we have reservations about the future we’re always clamouring for. In this space, we hold up the new in one hand and the old in the other. But, we don’t often spend much time on the products that bridged the two. The stop-gap innovations that didn’t, couldn’t last. Like minidisc players or George Lazenby. Or fax machines.

They had the immediacy of email, along with the ear-splitting screech of dial-up Internet. The convenience of a printer, with (at least at the beginning) paper that felt as smooth as nails on a chalkboard. Even though they weren’t long for this world, visions of the future — the ones crafted in the ‘80s and ‘90s, at least — always included them. We thought we had reached the pinnacle of innovation.

But so what? Hipster luddites aside, there isn’t a risk of fax machines making a comeback. So why remember them at all? Because even in our pursuit of constant disruption, which implies restlessness towards the status quo, it’s important to remember that nothing is constant. Not how we communicate, receive information, or even how we’re entertained. [4] What we value now, personally or culturally, might as well be fax machines. And the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can open our minds to experiencing new, more awesome things, and ironically, truly enjoy the inevitable impermanence of what we have now. Like reading a book. Even a big, long Important book.

Did I mention I’m reading Infinite Jest?

[1] Who, interesting fact, was a good friend of David Foster Wallace. The author, not my dog. Although, so long as he wasn’t on a skateboard, I’m sure my dog would’ve been a fan of DFW. Sadly, we’ll never know. Wallace died in 2008.

[2] Full disclosure: I know that this is a theme not from reading Infinite Jest so much as reading about it. By pg. 370 that theme has been merely hinted at.

[3] And, not for nothing, cell phones. See our latest issue for more on dumb phones!

[4] I should mention here, as I did in the latest issue of Sharp, Chuck Klosterman’s new book But What if We’re Wrong?, which is kind of about this whole idea — though I don’t think he discusses fax machines.


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