A PUBLICIST in New York is calling to propose a story idea. She describes an event that will take place in two weeks, then offers to send more information about it.
``What's your fax number?'' she asks.
The reporter suggests that she mail the material, since there's plenty of time. The publicist bristles. ``We really need to fax it,'' she counters impatiently.
The reporter explains that the newsroom fax needs to be kept free for more urgent transmissions. ``Well,'' the publicist says, barely able to conceal her annoyance, ``we'll have to see what we can do to get this to you in time.''
This kind of exchange has become increasingly common as those hoping to get a journalist's attention try to make instant connection, even when time is not an issue. Callers who once would have been content to address an envelope and lick a stamp now happily busy themselves with filling out a fax cover sheet, dialing a telephone number, waiting while the document is transmitted, and then sometimes calling back on the pretext of confirming that all the pages arrived.
Never mind that the process takes longer and costs more than a first-class stamp. To fax enthusiasts, sending a letter seems as outmoded as the Pony Express. Transmitting a fax, on the other hand, signals power: I fax, therefore I am important.
Yet if these senders could see the unclaimed thermal pages stacking up in some fax rooms, they might gain new respect for good old-fashioned mail. Among the orphaned documents languishing near our newsroom fax machine at the moment are these: A map giving directions to a publicity party in Beverly Hills two weeks from now. A letter listing musical events in July and August. A multipage press release about a media trip to the Midwest in mid-June. And a release addressed to a reporter who hasn't worked here for six years.
Make no mistake: The fax machine ranks as one of the all-time great inventions, the kind that leaves many of us wondering how we ever managed without it. As evidence of its enormous popularity, a Gallup poll released last month finds that fax transmissions account for a whopping 36 percent of telephone bills at Fortune 500 firms. Obviously speed - or at least the illusion of speed - is of the essence.
A similar attitude prevails with computers. Even users for whom greater speed isn't essential feel compelled to upgrade to a faster system.
Sales are reported to be brisk for Apple's new PowerMac personal computer, which runs 2 to 4 times faster than the company's previous top-of-the-line models.
``Time-saving'' is a seductive word that gets applied to everything from recipes to home appliances to computers, promising to deliver efficiency, order, and freedom. In a hurry-hurry world, who can resist the appeal?
Yet a question arises: Do the extra seconds saved with a faster computer, or the extra days saved with a fax, really matter much of the time? For all their supposed efficiency, these technological advances never quite seem to create more time to read a book, walk a beach, or pursue a hobby.
Instead, what they sometimes do best is create an artificial urgency, a sense of tension out of proportion to the importance of the task at hand.
Urgent is, in fact, a word that has lost much of its meaning. Even the phrase ``Extremely urgent'' on an overnight express delivery envelope, printed in red and slanted forward to simulate speed, now produces only a ho-hum response among those who have received too many non-urgent communications.
Save a little time here, waste a lot of time there - how the busy days fly by.
The fax has joined the cellular phone as required equipment. Is there any hiding place left to stay blissfully out of touch? Beep goes the ubiquitous beeper like a baby crying in the night. Everybody is hooked up to everybody else by every electronic gadget possible. The Interneting goes on, 24 hours a day - and forget about weekends off for good behavior.
The new problem is: How to get unhooked, just now and then. If only this priority message could reach all the other message senders out there: Don't fax us, we'll fax you.