upon reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography, it’s no wonder he became Postmaster General. just imagine waiting for a letter from England to be dispatched on 1 of 2 annual voyages.
a hundred years later, logistics efficiencies reduced waiting to a couple days. another hundred years after that, fax machines to a few minutes. and a decade after that, email pushed us to the (still) bleeding edge of 1 second.
in practice, waiting seconds vs minutes is a distinction without a difference. but fax machines failed, while snail mail and email persisted. why?
fax machines pose a vulnerability — senders can bleed out your ink or paper supply. although mitigated by overnight snoozing and approved contacts, faxes allowed other people to physically alter your resources without express permission.
for a society obsessed with controlling nature, this is unacceptable.
email can be ignored, filtered, infected with a phishing virus. emails have a unique ability to make many people stop whatever they’re doing and type long messages with their thumbs. while driving.
email is also free (no barrier to entry).
tangible is real
the explosion of Instagram/YT Follower counters, Realtime Subway signs, and the latest Shopify Order ticker is not surprising.
despite all our data being at a click’s reach, something feels good about physically manifesting it. printed books still destroy eBook sales. open any Gmail message and the top right icon is a printer shortcut.
what this means
faxes aren’t coming back. i’m not trying to make faxes a thing. but i do want us to reconsider some of the technologies currently on our Innovation Chopping Block.
- source material research vs machine learning summaries
- digital money vs what’s buryable in your backyard (reminder: govt controls internet)
- biometrics linked to a server (is your opinion about X “correct” today?)
a more down-to-earth example for startup readers. popular design system Bootstrap was replaced by Tailwind in part because, “every website started to look like Bootstrap.” do we want every website to feel like it was created with AI?
i’ll take a surprise, faxed meme while i’m working over a Nigerian prince’s dying offer any day. please don’t be tricked into thinking iteration == progress.
I know it’s just an example but it’s worth noting faxes remain — and in extremely widespread use BTW — largely in the medical field. EVERY doctor’s office STILL has one. Standard email is not HIPAA-compliant and many documents need to be sent back and forth (prescriptions, consent forms with signatures filled out on those old clipboards in the office, etc) and so they stick around.
Of course none of this is REQUIRED in the truest sense. (For instance, I personally avoid wherever possible doctors who don’t let me fill out all that stuff at home on my computer in advance. I don’t like the manual data entry circus in the waiting room.) But to your point about printed books vs ebooks– some innovations just don’t dominate quickly. However, note that’s not because the reverse is true: luddites refusing to adapt to better systems doesn’t make them the ones to follow, even though they may still a market make. Eventually– I’m talking over decades– the economies of scale prevail and the innovation (which is indeed superior– key word) wins out.
Also I’m a bit confused by the “tangible vs intangible” issue you raise. While, yes, faxes allow people to hijack your paper supply unsolicited, if people keep sending snail mail, wouldn’t it follow they would continue to fax? Perhaps I’m missing the point but I don’t think those are the vectors here. Faxes, BTW, are easily done today through online platforms (I use them for various reasons) so it’s not just a matter of physical vs not. To your point about the faxed meme vs the prince’s email– one is preferred BECAUSE of those barriers to entry you mentioned. Namely, time– though most people also think they need a machine to send and receive. So you get fewer of them. Most executives will tell you they get one sales call for every 100 clearly-AI-generated sales emails. Which do you think gets the desired attention and why? (A marketer I follow doesn’t have email but only fax b/c it forces his clients not to just send the latest 1-line brain fart. I have yet to have the balls to do that but it’s amazing.)
The mail sticks around because most interpersonal mail is NECESSARILY physical in nature– packages, greeting cards etc. No one wants your e-greeting card. Also checks, though recent checkwashing scams might hasten that end sooner rather than later. Indeed, consider when was the last time you got a personal letter in the mail? “Are you kidding? They would just email it.” Exactly. Different expectations, really.
Most innovation– in a (western) world of problems of excess, not lack– are ipso facto solutions in search of problems. But you know, I remember laughing at the iPad when it was announced. MadTV did a skit on that years prior, literally using the same name, as a joke for an Apple version of a maxipad. Now everyone has one. Is it necessary? Better? Depends who you ask. I have two– but mostly my daughter watches cartoons on them. Again, they found the use case I had, not anything truly necessary or important or novel.
To the point about things on the “chopping block,” consider some contradictions here. Physical money, for instance, isn’t better when the government controls the printing press just as much (indeed, more) than it does the internet. The issue isn’t the innovation but the use case and the NEED for the innovation. All money becomes worthless if/when the government finds a way to restrict its use, hyperinflate it, etc. Black markets are by definition limited in their application. And unless we are discussing literal anarchy, now we are just dealing with systemic failure risks that are by definition unavoidable.
Indeed, your point about “failed” innovations (inasmuch as they don’t eliminate the incumbent) like printed books appears really just to be a matter of preference. But I’ll tell ya– I can carry a whole library with me and not check a bag. Does that matter to everyone? No. But it helps me so I prefer ebooks. It also allows me to read more and more diverse things, writ large, than whoever is relying on what the airport Hudson News is stocking that Tuesday or what Barnes and Noble felt fit to stock or what they reserved at the library last week — and limited to what they can fit in their knapsack. Merely preferences– but enough to keep them all in business, at least for now.
To that end, I think rather than positing what may or may not exit the scene or what should or should not prevail, the individual can see things more simply: what allows me an advantage based on my goals and needs? Luddites seek out legacy options and are afraid of the new stuff necessarily. Their results are accordingly underwhelming by and large. “Innovators”– from a diffusion of innovations– perspective can get lost in the newest shiny toy. They lose the forest for the trees. Both are wrongheaded. Instead, seek the options that fit you best– often that will be an innovation but frequently it will be a reheated old-school offering (indeed re: faxes, want a pro tip for getting a lead’s attention? Fax them!)– and you’ll be miles ahead. Because nothing really “goes away”– it just falls into disuse. Fire it up– kick the tires and see what you can do.
Phew! That was a long one! I guess the Red Bull finally kicked in ;-)
Cool story. One of my first projects as a IT person circa 2003 was to implement a new fax/email hybrid system so you could send faxes via email. No idea the relevance of that but if I knew what irony actually meant, I might say it was ironic