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August 25, 2006

The Fax Will Make Them Free

Reader Brian Thomas commented:

“The fall of the Soviet Union was, as we know, greatly accelerated by the Reagan administration's continued pressure to maintain military parity, which ultimately bankrupted it. But it was also enabled by technology that made it possible for the citizens to know that the government-controlled media view of life was distorted. Yes, they could jam radio broadcasts, but they couldn't jam all the phone lines, and the humble fax machine brought news from outside to thousands, and spread to millions.”

Mary and I had personal experience with the importance of fax in revolutions during the 1980s.  We were then running Solutions, Inc. which developed software for the Macintosh.  One of our products, BackFax, was the first commercial fax software for the Mac.

One day in December of 1989 we got a frantic call from a user in Washington who was suddenly experiencing a problem.  Our customer service rep tried to talk the user through the problem, offered to FedEx a later version (no Internet for this purpose then), and asked to have various logs sent to us to aid in diagnosis.

The user insisted that solving the problem immediately was a matter of life and death.  Skeptical, our CSR escalated which meant that Mary got the call.  She was in my office a few minutes later telling me we needed to fix the problem on the phone now!

In 1989 there was a civil war going on in Panama.  The government was controlled by strongman, drug lord, and ex CIA operative Manuel Noriega. In May, undeterred by Jimmy Carter’s outrage (he was an observer), the government had had retroactively cancelled an election following a vote for reform so big they couldn’t rig against it (thanks to wikipedia for refreshing my memory).  The government itself split: some supported the reform Civic Crusade, which was also supported by the US; some supported Noriega’s brutal Dignity Battalions.

The Panamanian embassy in Washington was in the hands of Noriega opponents.  They communicated with the opposition in Panama by fax because ordinary phone calls are too easy to tap (fax can be tapped, too, but it’s tough to tell which conversations you want to listen to since it all sounds like growling before being decoded). The embassy had been relying on the fact that they could fax back and forth directly from the Macs on which they prepared their plans and could count on exact rendering when they went Mac to Mac.

I was skeptical and placede a few phone calls to make sure it was the good guys (at least by American definition) that we were helping.  Also wasn’t convinced they couldn’t just print and then fax but Mary reminded me I said that customers “needed” our software, plain faxing wasn’t good enough.

Took off my CEO hat and put on my nerd hat.  They wouldn’t let me connect directly to their computer by modem because of the top secret info on it.  Problem made harder because it didn’t seem to fail on less secret data.  As usual the problem turned out to be an INIT conflict (you don’t want to know unless you’re a nerd and, if you are, you already understand this part); had nothing to do with how secret the data was.  Got rid of the INIT that conflicted with ours and they were back in business.

However, the civil war was resolved not by fax but by a US invasion a few days later.

Trivial as my example is, Brian Thomas is exactly right.  The Berlin Wall was trampled in large part because there was no way for the government to the east of it to hide from their citizens how much better people lived in the West. Information HAS often had a key role in revolutions.

Better communication is not a panacea.  In some cases it leads to even more severe crackdowns by governments determined to keep power (see North Korea).  Better communication can be used for disinformation; better communication can be used for organization and coordination by bad guys (see al Qaeda) as well as good guys.

At an accelerating pace since the invention of the printing press, the barriers to communication are coming down.  Cost and distance are both disappearing as obstacles.  The civic impact is at least as important as the economic impact. Like Reader Brian, I’m an optimist.  Democracy has a stake in an informed and participating public; tyranny doesn’t.

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