Message: 10
Date: 4.1.94
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

The Fax of Life: Playing a Bit Part

People are startled when I criticize the fax machine and accuse it of retarding the ascension of computer-readable information. I truly believe that the fax machine has been a serious blemish on the computer landscape, the ramifications of which we will feel all too soon. But the typical response to such a statement is: "What do you mean? The advent of the fax has been extremely positive."

The fax is a step backward because it does not contain "structured data," but rather an image of text that is no more computer-readable than this page of Wired (unless you are reading it on America Online). Even though the fax is delivered as bits before it is rendered as an image on paper, those bits have no symbolic value.

If, 25 years ago, we (that is, some of us in the scientific community) could have been overheard predicting the percentage of text that would be computer-readable by the turn of the millennium, the percentages would have been as high as 90 or 95 percent. But then, boom, around 1980 the previous steady growth in computer-readability took a nose-dive because of the fax.

This magazine page, without my picture, takes about 20 seconds to send by fax. At 9,600 bps, this represents approximately 200,000 bits of information. On the other hand, using electronic mail, only a quarter of those bits are necessary: the ASCII and some control characters. In other words, if you charge me per bit to transmit this page, not only is e-mail better, because it is computer-readable, but it will cost less than a quarter of the fax price. Who's fooling whom and why did this happen?

A Japanese Legacy
To understand the fax, one must understand Japan, Kanji, and iconic "alphabets" (full Kanji, for example, has over 60,000 symbols).

As recently as ten years ago, Japanese business was not conducted via letter but by voice, usually face to face. Few businessmen had secretaries, and documents were written, often painstakingly, by hand. The equivalent of a typewriter looked more like a typesetting machine, with an electromechanical arm positioned over a dense template of choices to produce a single Kanji symbol. It goes without saying that a string of 8 bits, like ASCII, was insufficient to represent the full set of choices.

The pictographic nature of Kanji made the fax a natural. Since little Japanese was then (and is now) in computer-readable form, there was (and is) no comparable loss. In a very real sense, fax standardization, lead by Japanese companies, gave great short-term favor to their written language but resulted in great long-term harm to ours.

I have heard estimates that as much as 70 percent of telephone traffic across the Pacific today is fax, not voice. Like the answering machine, the fax is a blessing to the phone companies.

E-mail Is the Right Way
Use of e-mail is also exploding. In some respects, the invention of e-mail is much more recent than that of the fax, which can be traced to the early 1900s. However, general use of e-mail predates the general use of fax. E-mail started during the middle and late 1960s. The slow and steady growth of e-mail continued through the 1970s and then was dramatically overtaken by fax communication.

But this is now changing.

Today, there are about 40 million "long-distance" e-mail users, and that number is said to be growing by more than 10 percent per month. This does not include the countless closed systems through which a small set of users send messages among themselves. By the turn of the century almost everyone will be using e-mail, not fax.

What about photographs, graphics, and richer typography? These will come with page-description languages, which exist widely today but have no commonly accepted standard. For this reason, e-mail today is typographically parsimonious, only one step beyond the upper-case-only vernacular of telegrams.

E-mail is data that can be filtered, sorted, retrieved, and edited. Its form makes it meaningful to computers, as well as people. Unlike the fax, e-mail represents the alphanumeric structure of a message. Such structure has wide implications.

Football as a Model
Television is "moving" fax. The Economist estimates that less than 1 percent of the world's information is in digital form. This estimate certainly appears accurate when considering photographs, film, and video, all of which require so many bits. However, the statistic does not reflect the fact that when many of those media are digital, they are neither more nor less computer-understandable than they are today.

Consider your audio CD (audio fax, if you will), which is indeed digital, but not structured, data. So far, the closest example to audio ASCII is musical notation as we know it in scores.

A football game, recorded and transmitted via digital or analog video, has no structure. Each frame functions like a fax. The alternative is to capture the game as a model, with each player represented as a complex mathematical marionette, whose kinematics can be derived by a sensor and transmitted to your receiver (4-Dimensional ASCII). At the receiver, not in the camera, the representation is "flattened" onto the screen or displayed holographically.

Not only can the game be seen from any perspective, but the computer can reconstruct plays as diagrams, compare the tactics of one play with a previous one, show it from the perspective of the quarterback, or make some canny predictions.

My point, therefore, is more general than a flame at fax machines. It is a call for greater attention to the structure and content of bit streams, versus the wholesale digitizing of data. Being digital is not enough. When American Express began storing my credit card slips as images, my heart sank. They seemingly threw out the content of the transaction and saved only a picture of my payment. Similarly, I just don't believe that insurance adjustment forms need to be stored as pictures.

We need the computer vendors to stop selling imaging systems to information providers. These are no more inspired or helpful than microfilm. It is time to buckle down and attack the hard problem of page, document, picture, and video description languages that allow for all our data streams to be in symbolic, not facsimile form. Otherwise, we are all being sold a "bit" of goods.

Next Issue: Bit By Bit on Wall Street

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[Copyright 1994, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 2.04 April 1994.]