Almost every letterhead still has a fax number (and I am sure I can’t be the only person in the world who accidentally dials the fax number instead of the real number, only to get that infernal whistling in the ear so reminiscent of starting up 1980s-style cassette-based computer games. In fact, it would be interesting to know how much money is made by BT and other ‘providers’ – high on my list of hated words – out of clots who ring the fax number instead of the real one. I do it about four times a year, probably costing me 5p a go. That’s 20p. So if there are, what, ten million people doing it, that’s £500,000 donated to the economy just by incompetence).
But does anyone still use a fax? I mean, really? I used to have – yes, yes, still have, in the back of the cupboard, just in case – a primitive fax machine. In fact, that’s how my early New Statesman poems arrived at New Statesman, which meant that someone at the other end had to re-type them. At the time, it was great, because it meant my Monday deadline could be Monday – not the Thursday or Friday before, by post. And like a lot of others (this is again an assumption that many are as stupid as I am), I used to ring up after sending it, just to check it had arrived (I wonder how much BT etc. etc. …) – after all, I might have put the paper in upside down.
The most gobsmacking thing about fax (facsimile) machines is that they were invented, in principle, as long ago as the early 1840s, and in some kind of use, in successive refinements of the original Scottish invention, throughout the nineteenth century. Yet we think of the fax as being a child of the mid-1980s, and one that, like some tragic figure in the universal family picture, has had it. Email has supplanted it – even in hotels, which seem to be the last bastion of the fax. I know that the British Library is trying to preserve some email communication, but are they trying to preserve faxes? I doubt it. They faded, the thermal, anaologue ones, almost as soon as they saw light (analogue ones, and you know that might be analog, or is this a English-American spelling thing?). They are digital now. Analog(ue) music perists – there are reviews of new vinyl everywhere, but most other things are digital. Behind me as I type there is an analog(ue) television. It has worked like a dream since 1980, but the signs in the city centre nearby say MAY – switch-off!, so that’s another thing to find a dump for, like old fridges and other white goods which are hors de combat.
I wonder if there will be an Antiques Roadshow in a hundred years, in which someone takes in a thermal fax machine (it had better be still in its original box – have you noticed that what really holds its value is cardboard?), and an expert with a capital E will say ‘That is an early Samsung, and it’s still in magnificent working order. If we look underneath it, you can see the maker’s mark. If the handle hadn’t been slightly scuffed, it would fetch £300,o00 at auction, but in this state, no more than £130,000.’
Who knows what legacy we leave our children? For all we know, it could be the ashtray.