651 Getting the message across

Recently (May 2016) I’ve had a lot of contact with various “professionals”; hospitals, doctors, social services, solicitors and estate agents. I and others around me have been puzzled as to why communication by post and even by e-mail has been so slow. Letters dictated on a particular date seem to arrive a week later, and e-mail is no quicker.

I think I’ve worked it out. The first clue is that word “dictated”. This is the time-honoured way of doing things. The doctor, or whoever, speaks the letter into a dictaphone and the content is sent, nowadays via the local intranet, to the typists. Alternatively a more up-to-date medic types the basic facts and sends them through the network to the secretarial staff, to be fitted into a standard letter.

That done, the text is then printed out, in as many copies as needed, onto headed notepaper and the whole thing looks official and professional. It can now be posted and a spare copy filed away. If it is to be sent on line, the paper copy is scanned to PDF and the result is attached to an e-mail.

Why is it done in this laborious way? It would be much simpler to edit up the rough text and then copy it into an ordinary e-mail. Of course, they wouldn’t then have the paper copy to file away; but a file on computer is probably easier to find – until, many years later, they replace the computer, of course.

I think there’s a question of attitude as well. Many people think of the paper version of anything as the “master copy”, the only authoritative and authentic version (even if the online version is identical). It’s the one you can look up years later; it’s the one you can wave around in court, at a police station, at an official inquiry. Reading out an e-mail just doesn’t carry the same conviction.

And why PDF? Well, years ago, professional types used to send each other documents using a system called telefacsimile, or fax for short. You typed the text (using a typewriter), placed the document on the screen of the fax machine, and keyed in the fax line number of the addressee, hoping to get it right. The machine would then scan the document and send it down the phone line to the recipient, whose own fax machine would then print it out. The print quality was often none too good, but because it was called a facsimile people trusted it. And of course if it was originally on headed notepaper (which was seen as a kind of authentication) then the copy coming out at the other end would similarly be headed.

That trust in the official heading has carried over into the digital age. Fax machines, along with Telex and similar things, do in principle still exist – you can even send faxes and telex messages from a computer – but people who hanker after the reassurance of the convincingly headed facsimile tend to go for the apparently modern yet reliable equivalent; a PDF scan of a print-out. Never mind efficiency, it just looks right.

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