Why did fax machines fail?

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?

tangible problems

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.

intangible problems

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.