Lum: The rush to obsolescence

Su Lum

“Why don’t you people get a fax machine?” asked Peigi, the office manager at Coates, Reid and Waldron Real Estate.

“What’s a fax machine?”

Peigi did her best to explain that it was a device capable of sending actual pages of printed information across town or even across the whole world, which sounded like absolute black magic to me.

“Coates wants us to get a fax machine,” I told Bil Dunaway, then-owner, editor and publisher of The Aspen Times.

“A fax machine! Why would we want a fax machine?” he roared. I don’t know if he knew what it was, either.

Long story short, we eventually did get a fax machine that immediately changed the lives of everyone in the office. Mostly lives changed for the better because clients could fax over their ad copy instead of bringing it over or our picking it up.

There were some downsides, such as having to call the client to ask, “What’s your fax number?” and then to call to say, “I’ve sent the fax,” and their having to call to say that they had received the fax (or not, sometimes the case). This was before we got our voicemail system, so the phones were constantly ringing.

Another downside — the worst one — was that instead of thinking through their ad copy, clients began to use the machine to send us the Platonic idea of their ads, figuring that when they received the faxed proofs they could always tweak them or change them entirely.

In the very early days when the newspaper was a linotype operation, clients told you what they wanted to say in their ads, and if they wanted to see an ad before it was printed, they had to come down to the office to look at a proof. Most chose not to.

Now the fax machine has gone the way of eight-track tapes. In just a couple of decades, the fax machine has become an antique if not a relic, as obsolete as a rotary phone or a floppy disk.

Who would have thought that credit cards would ever replace money? Who would have imagined phones that do everything except take out the trash, that clients would be able to create their own ads and no one (alas) would even have to proofread them?

Who would have imagined TV sets the thickness of a pad of paper or the 3-D technology that’s around the corner?

Our economy is now based on keeping up with the new technology, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not smarter than a smartphone. I retired from the ad department just in time. I was young enough to adjust to the fax machine, but I’m too old to be selling social networking when I don’t even have a cellphone. That’s a partial lie — my friends and family made me get one, but I don’t use it, forget to charge it, and I’m not telling the number.

Overall, I find it scary. As a species, I don’t think we have the wisdom to keep up with our technology. Everyone leaping into the communal database strikes me as very ominous, like lemmings diving into the sea, but what do I know? The parade has long since passed me by. I eat its dust, hoping it won’t lose its momentum before I do.

Su Lum is a longtime local who wonders why, in the march of progress, we still can’t open a half-pint cardboard carton of whipped cream without resorting to a screwdriver. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at


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