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Fax MANIA

By Cara M. Familian

Few on the Harvard campus noticed it, but a quiet revolution has been evolving over the past past year.

The biological laboratories have played an active role in it. So have the Dining Services and the Criminal Justice Center. Even President Derek C. Bok, normally not known for his subversive tendencies, has taken part in the upheaval.

All have succumbed to the fax craze.

The first open signals came this fall, when the University released its new administrative telephone listings. Buried deep in the yellow pages was a previously unseen heading: "fax machines."

And now, at Harvard as in the rest of the U.S., fax machines have become the newest form of professional insignia. They perch on desks like pieces of art, symbols of academic prestige. They don't need to be used, just to be seen. Today, a fax is as important as the degree hanging on the wall above it.

The machines have revolutionized long-distance communication during the last decade, and fax sales have risen exponentially. Proposals, memos, documents, agreements can now be sent across the country or over seas in less time than it takes to dial the phone number.

The machines have become a standard, almost expected form of communication. And during the past year, the trend has hit Harvard with incredible speed.

According to Judy M. Matthews of the Office of Information Technology (OIT), Harvard bought--or "placed," as she likes to put it--a total of 68 fax machines during the last fiscal year. Another 30 have been bought since July 1, she says.

A grand total of 130 faxes are now in place on the Harvard campus, Matthews says. The University is stuffed with professors avidly faxing manuscripts to their New York publishers and scientists publicizing their latest research.

Some branches of the University seem to have taken the fax craze to extremes. The Government Department has not one, but four of the machines. And still the University keeps buying more.

"As more and more faxes are placed around the world, more fax machines are being used," said Linda Gillis, supervisor of the Message Center at OIT. "The fact is, more and more people are faxing."

The trend can often inspire wild flights of fantasy. One pictures the day when Bok, in his Massachusetts Hall office, and Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence, across the yard in University Hall, will communicate by fax. The two buildings are less than 500 feet apart, but each is equipped with its own fax machines. Like forts stocked for war, they are prepared to do administrative battle.

While this scenario might be a bit far-fetched today, it is not too far from the actual truth. Most of the secretaries who run the machines say the bulk of fax messages are sent within Harvard, from one department to another.

"It really saves walking," says a faxer at Phillips Brooks House Association. "We're totally dependent on it."

"It's a magic machine, like grace," says Joan Arnoff, a secretary in the Biochemistry Department.

The wonder machines first appeared during World War II. But then, it took military personnel 15 minutes to send one plan of attack from Europe to America. Today, it can take as few as six seconds.

Until the 1980s the machines were big and bulky, occupying several square feet of floor space. Japanese engineering managed to scale down the faxes for the typical business user. The new fax machines were half the size of a personal computer and could send documents up to 100 times faster than their immediate ancestors.

The desktop fax came in with the yuppies, with greed, with quick-profit materialism. They pushed courier services and Federal Express overnight delivery almost out of the market.

When fax machines became "affordable"--current prices range from $1000 to $6000--overnight mail was apt to lose business. But who could have predicted how many others would profit from it?

"Everyone uses it," says an employee in the Carpenter Center.

The Harvard fax revolution began six years ago, when the Office of Information Technology purchased its first fax. The OIT receives and sends faxes for Harvard affiliates.

According to Matthews, the average machine costs $2000. In less than two years, Harvard has rung up a bill totaling more than $200,000, she says.

But for all the money spent, Harvard faxes are not used excessively. The Math Department says it uses its fax only four or five times a day. Dining Services says the Same. Likewise for PBHA and the Social Studies and Physics Departments. Even if each of these groups shared a single fax machine, it would be in use for less than one hour per day.

So why is Harvard buying faxes like they're going out of style? Perhaps because their owners claim to rely on them so much.

"Inter-office mail and overseas mail are sent over our fax," says a secretary in the Government Department. "We also contact professors all over the world."

Office Work

One principle advantage of faxes is the amount of personal business professors and administrators can accomplish in their offices. Professors at the Carpenter Center send press releases, commentaries on films and project proposals over their machine, according to a staff member who works there.

Most professors have not offered to receive papers, lab reports or problem sets over the fax. But in the last year and a half, many professors, and most departments, have invested in fax machines--a phenomenon which can provide some unexpected advantages for undergraduates. One student, who asked that her name not be used, says she managed to cut a deal with her professor in a psychology class last fall.

"Your papers are due the first week of Reading Period, he announced. "You can drop them by my office, or you can fax them to me."

For small fee--considerably less than the cost of Federal Express or a plane ticket to Boston--the student faxed her paper to her professor and had an extra week to lounge on the sunny beaches of California. It took her less time to send 15 pages coast-to-coast than it would have taken her to walk from her Quad dorm room to her professor's office.

"Students don't send resumes anymore," says Gillis. "Professors don't mail manuscripts or research reports. They all fax."

But even the most miraculous of new technologies brings with it some problems. Fax-addicts claim that with a fax, you can be sure that your document has been received. But some users complain that, like dirty laundry, faxes can pile up.

Although a confirmation slip informs senders that their document has been spit out of another fax, they have no way of knowing their messages haven't been stacked in ever-growing piles of thermal paper--or simply thrown out.

"People are becoming as cavalier about junk fax mail as they are about junk mail at home," says Gillis. "How many letters do you throw away?"

As faxed advertisements from local stores and restaurants begin to proliferate, Gillis says, fax owners may quickly learn to ignore the majority of incoming messages.

"It's not a problem yet," she says, "but it could become one."

Harvard fax machines are intended strictly for official business use, Gillis says. Occasionally, however, University personnel have been known to stretch that rule.

Gillis says she has used the OIT fax to send recipes to her mother, for example.

And one employee at Leo's Place, a restaurant on John F. Kennedy St., claims that at dinner time, fax orders regularly come in on Harvard stationary.

"It's not small orders," he adds.

Broadway Supermarket plans to solicit business from fax-owners on campus because they a large potential for business,"

Gillis, however, denied that Harvard affiliates are committing fax abuse in the city's deli departments.

"Professors send correspondences and students send resumes," said Gillis. "But no one orders out for a Reuben sandwich."

The Style page, a new regular feature of The Crimson, is intended to provide helpful social commentary on the troubled times we live in. With any luck, the page will feature The Crimson's usual agressive reporting and incisive writing, augmented by brilliant editing and innovative layout. Or something like that.

The Style Page will run on page three on alternate Mondays. Keep an eye out for future installments.

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