December 26, 2009

CANADA: George Jonas - Goodbye to paper, death and taxes

. TORONTO, Ontario / National Post / Full Comment / December 26, 2009 By George Jonas, National Post Editor Goodbye, the Zeroes; Hello, the Teens. Here’s to three things that are becoming obsolete in 2010: paper, death and the facsimile. I sent my first fax in 1985. I was filing a story from Tokyo, Japan, getting ready to telex it, when the lady in the business office of my hotel pointed to a machine buzzing in a corner. “Send your long message by facsimile, sir,” she suggested. “It’s much cheaper.” “What a wild contraption,” I said dubiously. “Never used one. Are you sure it works?” “I guarantee it,” the Tokyo lady said, and she was right. The machine worked like a charm. For the next number of years being able to fax things changed my life, until galloping communication technology superseded it. Current computers don’t even come with software for sending and receiving faxes any longer. The cutting-edge technology of facsimile went from state-of-the-art to obsolete in about two decades. I’m afraid the phrase “turning a new page” will sound quaint to my grandchildren. There will be no “pages” in their lives. Paper is becoming outmoded in the 21st century. People still use it, but more for reasons of personal hygiene than for writing or reading. What we do read is electronic squiggles on computer screens. Just as our ancestors went from stone tablets to paper folios, we’re moving from paper folios to digital screens. It’s not an unmixed blessing. Another thing that’s being phased out in the 21st century, even if only gradually, is death. It’s not an unmixed blessing, either. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss started the ball rolling, washing his hands before delivering babies in his mid-19th century Viennese hospital, thereby eradicating puerperal fever. Until then, mortality and childbirth were, if not synonymous, closely linked. Soap and water changed this. By 1900 a woman was far more likely to survive giving birth than not. And when Dr. Paul Erlich’s 606th experiment yielded a cure for syphilis in 1909, it gave people a chance to survive sex. Procreation was no longer life-threatening. Medical science is still hard at work extending life. So is public hygiene. By the 1980s there were about as many 100-year-olds living in North America as there were 65-year-olds in the 1900s, according to the doyen of Canada’s insurance agents, the late David Cowper. Now the floodgates have been opened. Nanotechnology will soon float automated probes through our veins for diagnosis and repair. Genetically engineered spares will replace worn parts. The day is approaching when there will be as many 135-year-olds as there are centenarians today. When that day arrives, we’ll have a problem. We’ll have several problems, in fact. If people still retire at 65, we’ll have to support some for 60-70 years. And if they work until they’re 85, their children will be 40-50 before any realistic hope for a starter job. The 20th century revolutionized people’s lives. Electric lights replaced gas and candles. Horseless carriages replaced carriages drawn by horses. Airplanes — well, they never replaced the automobile, but by mid-century pretty much superseded sea and rail for public transport. Revolutionizing lives means turning them upside down. The bad on top goes to the bottom; the good at the bottom rises to the top. Less happily, the good at the top and the bad at the bottom switch places as well. Since the late 18th century Europeans were getting rid of their old aristocratic top dogs only to discover their new plebeian bottom dogs — fascists, communists, and their ilk — were often worse. If we’re lucky the gods deny our wishes, because when they grant them, we may be in real trouble. With horseless carriages come congestion, pollution, dislocation, urban blight and mayhem on the road. With the eradication of septic and infectious diseases come both moral laxity and legal strictures. As the medical arts turned into medical sciences, individuals became less restrained themselves, but handed more powers of restraint to governments. Doctrines of public hygiene unlocked private doors to state interference previously barred by custom and tradition. In the 20th century the phrase “doctor’s orders” acquired a literal meaning. “The doctors don’t let me smoke a cigar” used to be a figure of speech; it became a tenet of law by the end of the 20th century. After boldly overthrowing the emperor who had no clothes, people meekly submitted to the tyranny of his tailor. What survives a historical epoch, and what goes the way of the hoola hoop? It’s hard to say, but possibly the Zeroes will be remembered for acculturating new communication technologies, such as Twitter, the haiku of the e-age. What the first decade memorializes for sure, though, is the transformation of the medium in which I work. For a potter it would be a requiem for clay. For a writer it’s a requiem for paper. The fax machine looked futuristic yesterday. Today it’s an antique — because it uses the passé medium of paper. It’s junk, a curiosity, good for little except nostalgia. For which it isn’t old enough. My personal fax-perience is summed up in two dates. 1985-2009. RIP. [rc] © 2009 The National Post Company.