Competition is the driving force that has pushed capitalist economies forward as businessmen and engineers try to produce products that are better or cheaper than ever before. Competition breeds continuous improvement, but consumers ultimately get to decide what they prefer, and sometimes they make curious choices.
Take chopsticks for instance. Why do they still exist? They were probably first invented when people only had sticks and stones. Granted, China was still probably using sticks and stones until recently, when the communists finally realized that capitalism actually did have some redeeming values. But now that they have decided they would rather have modern conveniences, technology, and fashion, why are they still eating with sticks? They had no problem ditching the look-alike Mao hats and clothes, so what’s up with the sticks?
Eating with chopsticks is kind of like going camping. It might be fun for a change of pace, but few of us really want to live in a tent and dig a hole in the woods every day. Sure, I’ve got some chopsticks around for the kids, but it is rarely their utensil of choice, even when eating Chinese take-out.
Chopsticks originated in ancient China during the Shang Dynasty. The earliest evidence comes from a pair of bronze chopsticks dated to 1200 BCE. Ironically, chopsticks are said to have replaced the fork. That’s right, they replaced the fork! I guess ancient Chinese forks were just too expensive or just weren’t good enough. So, we can’t blame the Chinese for not wanting to go back to that awful, old eating technology again. If it is redesigned, maybe the spork will have a chance of displacing chopsticks as the predominant eating utensil in Asia.
Let’s move on to the fax machine, a low data-rate device that takes an image and sends it through a landline telephone connection. There is no way to be sure the fax on the other end received the image, or that it was readable, or that there was paper in the machine, or that the right person was there to pick it up. You can’t even send a high-quality color image to most machines. Oh, and my favorite reason to hate the fax is that there is no way to stop fax spammers from using up your ink and paper with their advertisements.
The fax lives on for two main reasons. First, it is so simple that anyone who has a phone line can use it. Second, most jurisdictions now recognize a fax as a legal document, but a scanned and emailed copy is not necessarily admissible in court. What the lawyers say we must do will always lag behind what the inventors make it possible for us to do.
If you can use a scanner and have a network connection, a fax machine is no longer needed to send a fax. If you have the right software, or better yet, an online fax service, you don’t even need a fax machine to receive a fax. You just need an email account, or maybe even just an app. You can easily email, upload or scan a document using a fax service that will send it to another fax service that will convert the fax into a document and send it to your email. That’s right, two people can be faxing each other even if neither of them actually owns a fax machine. The only people who really need a fax machine are the ones who only have a phone line, but that number is shrinking down to almost nothing.
So, why do technically savvy people still use fax machines or services? Mostly, I think it is due to the protection afforded to fax copies and because nobody can agree on how to create digital signatures that are legally admissible in court. Ironically, I file my federal income taxes electronically every year with nothing but a PIN number and my name. I guess the IRS doesn’t have to bother with minor issues like the legality of your signature. If you owe them money, they are going to take it one way or another.
Sometimes a better mousetrap just won’t do. How about a virtual mousetrap?