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​For the Love of Paper Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​For the Love of Paper

For the Love of Paper

“The UK’s National Health Service still relies on archaic fax machines” screamed the headlines this week. Oh well, I guess it makes a change from Brexit and Trump’s controversial visit to the UK. Even so, I couldn’t really see the problem, although I was supposed to be shocked when the article declared that a recent survey revealed that around 9000 fax machines are in use across England, with the Newcastle Upon Tyne Health Authority being the worst culprit with around 600 machines in daily use. Such horror!

I guess the reader was supposed to read between the lines that patients are at risk because of the use of this ‘outdated technology’, and of course the opportunity was used, as usual, to blame the funding crisis for ‘the problem’. “This is ludicrous,” screamed one senior surgeon, “The NHS cannot rely on technology that most other organisations scrapped in the early 2000s”. Clearly, this esteemed surgeon has little knowledge of life in Spain, where the humble fax machine is still used and revered by most hospitals, surgeries, banks, local authorities and businesses.

When we moved to Spain, we were given several pieces of helpful advice from other expats. One of these pieces of advice was to “buy a fax machine” or at least to make sure that we had ready access to one. This piece of advice was invaluable and is still highly relevant. Over the last few months, I recall several occasions when I have been asked to fax a document to a bank, the customs office or local authority department. Indeed, my new mobile phone operator asked for a copy of my residency document to be faxed to them only the other day. Fax machines in Spain are still heavily used, valued and trusted. This is not to say that emailing documents is not possible, in most cases it is, but the Spanish have an ongoing love affair with paper and the fax machine fits the bill nicely.

The Spanish love affair with paper is to blame, of course. Despite the wonders of modern technology, the country still relies heavily upon paper records. I was recently persuaded to change my credit card, which I thought would be a simple process, since it was to be issued by the same bank branch that I have used for many years. The process was indeed simple, and all I had to do was to provide an electronic signature. I made a comment to the bank clerk that this was so much easier than on previous occasions when I had left the bank with a handful of paper. He smiled knowingly and wandered over to his combined fax/printer, which was busily churning out continuous streams of paper. He gathered a handful and asked me to initial the fifteen pages before stamping each sheet with a momentary glint of pleasure and passing them to me. Hmm, so much for the use of technology I thought, as I left the bank clutching yet another handful of paper. Some things never change over here.

In Spain, the fax machine fits seamlessly into the love of paper that nothing else can replace. What can be more pleasurable that stuffing an important document into one machine and pressing a button, for it to appear out of another fax machine some distance away as if by magic. I have to admit that I also still enjoy the process and find it more reliable than battling with emails that may or may not be sent, or sorting out a computer virus, or whatever else should infect my laptop. A fax machine works, just as long as you load it up with paper and remember to top it up with ink and speak to it kindly. Yes, I know, it may jam occasionally, but we are not after perfection, are we?

Do I still use a fax machine? Well, yes and no. Our old fax machine died long ago and I now use an app on my smartphone that does the job nicely. However, I must admit that I do miss the physical process of sending and receiving a fax, knowing that it had been sent and receiving an automatic confirmation of receipt. What’s not to like?

So, to those who bore us senseless about the ‘digital revolution’ and criticise the NHS for not scrapping their fax machines, I suggest the old adage that ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ may be relevant here. Many hospitals and GP surgeries may be quite content with this “outdated technology”. Maybe it offers the security and reliability that emails, WhatsApp and Snapchat cannot provide. Oh, by the way, did I mention that the NHS is also being criticised for using that most antiquated of all technologies known as ‘pagers’!

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