Swift: The fax of life: '90s technology doesn't hold up in high-speed world

Tammy Swift, columnist. The Forum
Tammy Swift, columnist. The Forum

FARGO -- I don’t remember how I spent most of the '90s. I think much of that decade was spent trying to get Drew Barrymore’s haircut, pretending I liked Adam Sandler and “cleverly” sliding phrases like “sponge-worthy” and “not that there’s anything wrong with that” into daily conversations with friends.

But beyond that, most of that decade was spent faxing stuff. No, really.

I remember once applying for a job in Lincoln, Neb., just one day before the application deadline. In the era of Ask Jeeves, the quickest way to submit my cover letter, resume and writing samples was through the mollusk-like speed of the fax machine.

Of course, I couldn’t use the machine at work, so I had to schlep over to a tiny printshop and use the fax that Eli Whitney used to send his cotton gin blueprints off to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It took an hour to send the 23-page application, and the proprietor charged me $20 for the luxury of this temperamental technology.

Surprisingly, some businesses today insist on the trustworthy torpor of faxed documents. For whatever reason, they are suspicious of any documents that did not require the killing of at least one tree, so they will accept only paperwork that is snail-mailed or faxed.

When I turned to Professor Google to research why fax machines are still used, one online expert surmised it was because fax machines circumvented digital manipulation of documents and were a more “secure” way of sending sensitive information. (Especially when the receiving machine prints out your document so it can sit on top of the fax machine for three days, inviting everyone from that company’s interns to the night cleaning crew to read it.)

I happened to do business with one such company recently. I needed to send an 11-page document, but they would only accept fax. How hard could it be to find a fax machine, right? I mean, almost every business card someone hands me still has a fax number on it. Surely, millions of fax machines were still whirring and clacking behind the scenes, laboriously and unreliably sending scratchy, unreadable documents to like-minded late adopters all over the world.

Wrong. Everywhere I looked, people no longer had fax machines. “We just got rid of ours because no one used it,” one woman at a customer-service counter told me.

“Are you planning to send a fan letter to your favorite Spice Girl?” another aspiring comedian asked.

Finally, at long last, I found one. Two of them, actually, at a local office supply store.

Amid all the high-speed laser printers and scanners, they sat in a corner, looking dusty, clunky and a little miffed — kind of like the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon of the office-machine world.

I still remembered how to do this, right? Fill out the ridiculously detailed cover sheet, write the fax number on the bottom sheet so I remember it, place the pile facedown in the feed tray, punch in the phone number and transmission would be complete. Wrong.

The Brother Laser IntelliFax 800Z 17.7 Kbps had other ideas. It gobbled the paper in clumps, disconnecting before I could peel the pages apart and resend them. This happened two or three times when I started to panic.

The sign said it cost $1.83 per sheet. Would I be charged for all of these false starts? Desperate, I asked for help. They sent over some young guy who had probably never used a fax machine. He had the same trouble I did. We decided to try the other machine. He fed the paper into it and they slid through seamlessly.

Except — except it was transmitting with the speed of an elderly koala. We stood there, peering hopefully at the little screen. “P 1,” it still read. “P 1 … P 1.”

We passed the time by making jokes about '90s technology and getting to know each other. He’d had a convenience store burrito at lunch — a move he since regretted. I regaled him with tales of a magical, faraway decade, in which women wore Vixen nail polish and men danced the Macarena and we all listened to Radiohead and ate at Olive Garden.

Amid his heartburn, he pretended to find it interesting. "Did I really need to fax this?" I mused aloud. Couldn’t I just put it in a bottle and send it upriver?

At least my new friend was enterprising. He suggested we try sending on both machines at once. Perhaps, in the spirit of competition, Walter would rouse from his deep, grumpy slumber and try to outfax Jack. It worked.

My helper found a way to feed the paper into the original machine to avoid clumping — and the pages transmitted with a speed that was impressively mediocre. So that’s my story, exactly as it happened. Just the fax.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.