In the once-distant future of 2015, the rather disappointing asshole that is the adult version of Marty McFly is unceremoniously fired from his job via three fax machines all scattered around his futuristic home. “YOU’RE FIRED!!!” the faxes read, well before the real-life Biff Tannen made that saying a catchphrase.
Like the flying cars, hoverboard and self-lacing shoes, the ubiquity of fax machines in McFly’s home felt like the epitome of future technology in Back to the Future: Part II. While the fax was the one piece of tech in that movie that already existed back in 1989 when the film was made, what the fax could do was so impressive that it seemed almost magical. There was even a 1990 episode of Columbo where the crotchety detective marvelled at the device by saying, incredulously, “You can write a letter on this machine… and send it anywhere in the world?”
At the time, this “newfangled gadget” (as Columbo called it) was pretty much the height of human evolution in the office setting. Where it once took days to mail a letter, get it signed and then mail it back, the fax machine could have it all done in a matter of minutes. It was nothing short of revolutionary.
The crazy thing was, though, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was just becoming a fixture of the modern office, the concept of a sending an image over a wire and creating a facsimile (or “fax”) had already been around for well over 100 years. It dated all the way back to 1843, when inventor Alexander Bain created a device that worked via two pendulums connected with a telegraph wire. While impressive, the copies made weren’t of the best quality, and it wouldn’t be until Xerox created the first commercial fax machine in 1964 that it started to find its way into an office setting.
It took a few decades to get there, but by the early 1990s, the fax machine was a hulking presence in just about every office in the country (and many other places around the world, most notably Japan). It became a central hub of office communication and an essential way to do business. But in addition to the serious work of transporting medical documents and legal writings, the fax machine was also used in less official ways. Savvy restaurants would send their menus via fax to local business, informing them what they had available for lunch specials that day. Additionally, in something of a precursor to the “hilarious” FWD: FWD: FWD: email, jokes sent via fax to friends in other offices was a way to pass downtime on the job.
It was throughout the 1990s, too, that the fax machine worked its way into popular culture. In addition to Marty McFly and Columbo, there was that time Johnny Carson faxed a joke to a young David Letterman while he was still hosting Late Night. In Scream 3 the killer sent a death threat via fax before offing his next victim. And in an episode of Seinfeld, Kramer gets a bunch of menus faxed to Elaine’s apartment (which, of course, didn’t have a fax machine).
But that clip from Seinfeld also illustrates the drawbacks of the fax, and these were hurdles that the tech never really overcame. Unlike the email, the cellphone and even portable music, the fax machine never became “small.” It was always at least printer-sized (as it had to hold the paper), and in offices it generally would become a printer/copier/fax combo, making it a gigantic machine that often required a small room all to itself.
Not only was it big, but it also required the recipient to have another fax machine on the other end; without that, it’s basically like sending a text to grandma’s landline — nothing happens. That Seinfeld clip also illustrates a related problem: It tied up the phone line. So if you wanted a fax machine, you had to choose between getting a new phone line (and paying for it), or pairing it with your own line, and at least sometimes, having to hear that horrific screeching noise if you picked up a phone call that was actually intended to be a fax. It was because of these drawbacks that the fax machine, in most cases, never really left the office for the comfier environs of home. And as the internet and email grew, the fax machine became less and less necessary.
But despite more advanced forms of technology, certain industries still use the fax machine on a very regular basis. According to David Hold of the service eFax (which allows companies to communicate between a fax machine and an email), “certain industries still use the fax machine a great deal, like healthcare, finance, banking, manufacturing, legal and government.” This is even true outside of the U.S., as evidenced recently by this piece about how Britain’s National Health Service is the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines, still using around 8,000 of the “absurd” machines as of December.
So why is such a hulking, seemingly obsolete machine still in use? As it turns out, there are a number of reasons. One is simply a case of people being stuck in their ways: Karen, who works for admissions in a special needs school, shares that most school districts still send paperwork to her via fax. The same was true for Caitlin, a teacher in Queens who sends documents to the Department of Education solely via fax. Both of them chalked this up to a lack of resources in school districts, as well as people who having been doing this for a long time and are reluctant to change. The same can be said about those other industries, too: Money is tight and people have been doing these jobs for decades, so they’re reluctant to change (bankers, you have no excuse).
There’s another reason why the fax machines still prevails, though. When I put a call out to friends of mine who still use fax machines, an old buddy named Bryan, who works in government, said that in his line of work, the fax machine was still used very heavily because it’s considered more secure than email. In fact, he said, he’s heard the fax machine referred to as “unhackable.”
Believe it or not, there is some truth to this: Citing HIPAA, which is the basis of all of our healthcare privacy law, Hold shares, “In healthcare, the regulations favor fax because there is a level of security in a fax that isn’t available to email. It’s considered the same as a phone call in the regulations, and phone calls don’t need to be encrypted.” However, any email containing personal health information has to be encrypted, which I learned back in the days when I worked in compliance myself.
Put more simply, the government prefers faxes not just because it’s run by a bunch of old guys, but because you can’t hack a fax the way you can an email. At least, that was thought to be the case until a few months ago, when a couple of researchers demonstrated that a fax can be the perfect entryway into a private network. Because it’s unsecured by a firewall, a malicious fax can be sent to a fax machine, after which access to the network can be gained. So what was (and still is) considered to be “unhackable” was shown to be the very thing that could be causing the weakness in a business’ firewall.
“Old people scared of newfangled machines” and “unhackability” are not the only causes of the infernal machine’s continued existence: In some ways, the fax machine is still the quickest, easiest way to do business. Hold explains it like this: “Let’s say you have a document that you can send by fax or by email. If you consider what the office person has to do, they have to take that document, walk down to the scanner, put it on the scanner, hit the scan button and have it sent to themselves. Then they walk back to their desk they have to find that email, open it, rename the file, then attach it to a new email and send it.” On the other hand, with a fax, all you have to do is walk to the fax machine, dial the number and the document is sent. Now, this might only be the difference of a few minutes, but in healthcare and law and government, where tons of paper is sent all the time, it actually would save a great deal of time just to fax stuff as opposed to emailing it.
So while the fax machine isn’t futuristic, isn’t technically “unhackable” anymore, and in many cases, glitchy, cumbersome and rage-inducing, it’s easy to see how it’s still more convenient than scanning and renaming stuff all day long, especially if you’re in a line of work that “sends hundreds of thousands of faxes a month,” as some of eFax’s customers do.
Even if we do come up with an easier, quicker and safer way to scan and send something, don’t forget that Xerox invented the modern fax machine in 1964, yet it wasn’t commonplace in offices until the 1990s. In other words, that fax machine in your office is going nowhere for at least another decade. The only true solution to this archaic piece of technology, then? Well, I’ll let Office Space take it from here.