Let's Bring Back the Fax Machine

A manifesto for revitalizing a waning technology.

Jun 12 2014, 11:00am
Image: Office Space screengrab

I recently finished reading Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, an epistolary 1997 novel in which the sending and receiving of faxes is an occasional plot point. I was beset, as I read, with future nausea. Seventeen years have passed since the novel was published, and although its essential fixtures—love, obsession, and the city of Los Angeles—remain unchanged, the now nearly-obsolete reality of quotidian faxing struck me as a jarring anachronism. 

I Love Dick is not a book about technology. It’s about the kinetic flash between two people who meet by chance, and the descent into psycho-sexual madness that occurs for one of those people as she begins to write increasingly long unrequited love letters to the other; letters which eventually transform into manifestos about love, art, and feminism. It is a patently untechnological book, about academics and art-world people and their feelings. 

At one crucial moment in I Love Dick, however, a fax is sent to the wrong address and is instantly regretted. A drama unfolds which is not fantastic; the ensuing events are, at best, tragically mundane. But the fax machine, even in its banality—perhaps because of its banality—felt science fictional to me as a reader in 2014, and tremendously strange. 

I realized that I’ve never touched a fax machine before—that it’s as abstract, for me, as the laser guns and flying cars of my pulpier literary habits. And although I can port Chris Kraus’ experience to contemporary email-and-SMS fuckups from my own personal history, I’ve never experienced the fax machine’s emotional depths. I have never felt the specific terror, for instance, of realizing that it’s too late to undo a faxed letter. 

Seen from the vantage of 2014, I can only imagine that terror as a cocktail: a generous slug of time spent crafting a handwritten letter, swirled with the intoxicating fizz of instantaneity. Add a dash of impulsiveness, and garnish with the screeching melody of a 1,300-Hertz tone to drown out any regrets. I was born in just the right sliver of history to be passingly familiar with the howl of a modem, but never to have sent a love letter via fax. By the time I wanted to write, there was email. And for my adolescent nostalgic affectations, there were thrift-store typewriters. Faxes occupied an in-between space: too old to be new, too new to be classic

Now, however, the fax looks pretty good to me. Having grown up hurling bytes across the planet, I’m nostalgic for the handwritten—for the sweetness of a doodle and the mindful attention it takes to sit down to write—but I’m also keenly aware of the inherent solipsism of hand-written correspondence in the 21st century. Upon receiving a handwritten letter in the mail, I feel both charmed and put-upon. Who has the time to respond in kind? And what if something changes between the moment the stamp is applied and the moment the letter is received, if the letter is even sent at all? 

Imagine building an “offline” network of friends and family who fax. It’d be a small club at first—fellow pioneers of the retro-future.

Faxes are marginally less vulnerable to interception than messages sent, unencrypted, over the Internet. In some countries, electronic signatures aren’t recognized by law, so faxing is still relatively commonplace. And the humble fax retains a great deal of cachet in business and legal circles; fax machines lurk behind doors in hotels, doctor’s offices, and business centers. But for personal use, to send letters and drawings between individuals for no reason other than the joyful impulse for communication, they were omnipresent for only a brief lacuna of time before being subsumed by other mediums—namely email. 

The relative privacy and authenticity of messages sent via fax is the product of the technology itself, compounded with its own slowly looming obsolescence. This makes them interesting not only as devices for secure business transactions, but as engines for personal discretion—a fax is as private as a letter, as instant as an email. The best, in a sense, of both worlds. And yet the likeliness of discovering a real fax machine in someone’s home is low; remotely hosted fax-server services are now are widely available from VoIP, e-mail providers, and online, fulfilling most laypeople’s fax needs. 

Old school paper-and-toner fax machines likely aren’t long for this world, but you can totally still buy one. They fetch as little as $40 on Amazon, to say nothing of the countless thousands languishing in thrift stores and scrap heaps around the world. A long distance phone line won’t break the bank, either. And although faxes, in their halcyon days, were receptacles for constant junk messages, the spam hysteria has died down, both through legislation and as an inevitable consequence of the fact that there are few people with fax lines left to advertise to.

These are quiet times for the fax. Perhaps it’s time to turn those 1,300-Hertz tones back up—to couch fax machines in nostalgia and reimagine them, much as music geeks have held fast to the vinyl record and rekindled the cassette, as aesthetes have sniffed out analog synths and typewriters, and steampunks have fetishized the bellows and brass of the industrial revolution. 

Culturally, the moment is right for fax nostalgia. A generation raised on the web is beginning to sniff out and claim the aesthetics of the early Internet; at the same time, malaise about our constant connectivity is growing increasingly manifest. We talk of unplugging, of going off the grid. But what if we stayed plugged in, only differently? What if we picked and chose, as from a buffet, selective varieties of connection?

Imagine building an “offline” network of friends and family who fax. It’d be a small club at first—fellow pioneers of the retro-future. But as conspiratorial notes, love letters, and doodles started emerging from the plastic jaws of consumer-grade fax machines in living rooms around the world, the network would grow. Its members might imagine, although they could never be quite sure, that they were casting a wrench in the surveillance state. And every morning, they’d wake up to a small stack of hand-written love letters, sent over buzzing telephone wires in the dark fax of night.