Ghost in the Fax


Takiyasha, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798 – 1861

by Jessica Sequeira

Dear reader, here we are now, you and I. Ghosts, half here, half not. If I reach out and try to place my hand on your shoulder, I won’t feel a thing. But I know you’re close, so trust me. Follow me into this office, in a place far away. The first thing you’ll see is a plaque with Kenji characters in alarmingly bright shades of orange, pink and green, instructing employees on how to receive transmissions. If someone miles across the city presses the right series of buttons, a sheaf of papers will emerge on this side. If the same series is pressed here, the pages will be sent there, in a mirror of the process.

At rest for the moment, the machine calmly hums, anticipating activity. A few muttered complaints can be heard. Better ways exist of going about things, people say. The big box takes up space that might be occupied by a water cooler or Seibo vending machine. But when the admin asks if it’s time to swap out the machine, there are protests. The fax, gunslinging hero of electronic devices, resists any attempt at a coup. Nor do his subjects wish to see him go. Despite bureaucratic and logical objections, a barrier of allegiance remains. Big, solid, ferocious, the fax with his beeps and whistles seems far more accessible even in his inefficiency than the inkjet printer that rests in ominous silence, that fiend that jams without warning. “Alright,” says the admin with a sigh, secretly pleased at the protests. “He can stay another year.” The fax digs in his heels, Lone Star Ranger defending his ghost town.

Multi-colored neon paradise, glittering city of the future, Tokyo is also an epicenter for the intentional use of obsolete technologies. The fax is beloved, so much so that government reports lament widespread irrational attachment to the technology. Its electronic tones may be endearing, but surely it’s not the most efficient way to transmit information? Yet Tokyo collectors and office workers self-consciously embrace the demodé. Faxes are kept alongside modern computers, and the intoxicating scent of ink and paper perfumes the air. The old technology is present elsewhere as well, in a more complex, hidden way. Conceptually, the fax is nested inside the idea of modern email, and it’s not alone. Thousands of widgets, gadgets and toggles are kept tucked away in drawers, anachronistic but unforgotten, haunting the present.

While floating through the office we pass a girl in a Hello Kitty T-shirt. Perhaps the obsession with retrotech has to do with Japan’s kawaii culture, the obsession with cuteness and fetishism of childishness and nostalgia in the form of manga comics, schoolgirls and plush toys. It isn’t necessarily part of the national psyche, and “national psyche” is a myth, anyway. But the elements have been encouraged so heavily in the entertainment and marketing industries that it may as well be. Kawaii Taishi, ambassadors of cuteness, even travel around the world as representatives of the nation. Tempting as it is to attribute the prevalence of retrotech to the kitsch charm of machines, however, there’s something else at work.

Let us drift away now to see other marvels, and to try and draw the veil off these mysteries. Leaving the city, we reach an open field, edged in on one side by a dreaming forest. Of course forests can dream; how else do you explain their clearings, their dappled light and shadow? And there they are in the field, hundreds of them. Balls of blue fire, dancing will-’o-the-wisps. These are the hitodama, ghosts described by Lafcadio Hearn, a writer born on the Ionian islands of Greece. After a colorful life in the United States and French West Indies, Hearn came to Japan to work as a newspaper correspondent and schoolteacher. His impressions of the landscape and eerie tales of the country take up several books, and Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, his first chronicle, is full of ghosts, which he sees everywhere in nature. “The very clouds are not clouds, but only dreams of clouds, so filmy they are,” he writes, “ghosts of clouds, diaphanous spectres, illusions.” He wrote several books of kwaidan, performed Japanese folk stories — 怪 (kai) means “strange, mysterious, rare or bewitching apparition” and 談 (dan) means “recited narrative”.

He had much to tell, for there are many different kinds of ghosts in the culture, not just balls of fire that float in the night. You and I can go meet some of our first cousins, if you like. In the Shinto religion, the Kami are worshipped spirits, which include not just the dead but also the qualities possessed by those spirits. There are ikiryō (also called shōryō, seirei, ikisudama), which leave the bodies of living people to haunt others across distances. There are shiryō, which do the same but emerge from the spirits of the deceased. And there are yūrei, which roam the city, restless and seeking revenge; these appear in the tale of Banchō Sarayashiki, in which a servant girl is thrown down a well by her master after she refuses to give him love, and he accuses her of stealing a Delft plate from the family. Ghosts are everywhere, busy laughing, crying, loving, plotting, dancing and sleeping just like humans. Whether they lie in tranquility awaiting visits or whirl about buildings, they remain a link to the past.

But if Japanese tales allow inanimate objects like elements to have ghosts, isn’t it possible that obsolete machines have them too? Technology left behind takes on a phantom presence, both here and not here, physically present yet not considered useful. It isn’t simply nostalgia, but a reminder the “now” hasn’t always existed. Incarnations of the ghost-of-technology-past inform and shape the ghost-of-technology-present, in turn creating the conditions for the ghost-of-technology-future. The fax machine at the Tokyo office rests peacefully, but does not rest in peace. Dormant, it is still prepared for a shoot-off, a battle for the high stakes of whether or not it will be forgotten.

Oblivion: such a beautiful word, so terrible when it occurs. When a technology appears, first there is change; then, forgetting. One technology replaces its predecessor with awful rapidity, annihilating its memory. It may be possible to send and save as much one likes, in an almost infinite archive, but the mediums that perform this task are jettisoned and replaced with astonishing speed. Yet not all is lost. Physical reminders keep the past alive. Museums full of objects in glass cases, on the one hand; but also old technologies and objects outside the institution, half dead and half alive. The sight of them links what was, and what is coming into being. Progress is not simply linear, and does not forget what came before it. Each step adds something different, a new input, yet the previous value hovers for a time “embedded” in the present. Amnesia is the natural course; the challenge is to ensure the opposite.

In Japanese culture, oblivion is a special concern. Moderns suffer from “character amnesia”, and forget how to write kanji characters since they are so used to phonetic transcription. Oblivion threatens entire sign systems. During the Edo period, a branch of Japanese mathematics was developed in parallel with Western math, a product of the country’s global isolation at the time. Japanese geometrical problems and theorems were written on wooden tablets, and placed as offerings at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. In Floating World Era Japan, sacred mathematics was produced and taught in local schools by samurai, who “had originally been independent warriors but settled down in the seventeenth century to become a local aristocracy of well-educated officials and administrators. It was the samurai class that supplied mathematicians to create the sangaku and work out problems,” write Fukagawa Hidetoshi and Tony Rothman in Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry. The interested reader (anyone who likes cryptics, crosswords and circular puzzles—sound familiar, my fellow ghost?) may consult the book Japanese temple geometry problems: Sangaku, published by the Charles Babbage Research Centre in Winnipeg, Canada.

A brief digression, which may prove not to be so brief, or so much a digression—Who is this Babbage, of the Charles Babbage Research Centre? He was the inventor of the difference engine, a mechanical contraption that received input to produce output, essentially a calculator. His machine worked on the basis of functional equations, in which the result forms part of the input for the next round, one abstract nested in another. The machine was able to solve equations based on addition and subtraction. Later Babbage improved it with the analytical engine, which could also take on multiplication. His friend Ada Lovelace compared the machine to a Jacquard loom, since just as with a shuttle, the old does not disappear, but helps to determine the next starting point.

For an object to persist even after it has been rendered obsolete or died, finding a way to be physically present rather than existing solely as data, is a victory in itself. (Back in Tokyo, the fax at the office fires off two ebullient crrrrr-ee-crrrrr-ee-crrrrr-ee-crrrrr sequences.) Nor do humans simply disappear, any more than data does. Their memories can also hover as ghosts. Those famous or loved enough might get a plaque, or a tombstone, or a spare thought now and then from the living.

On the side of Walworth Clinic in London, Babbage’s blue plaque rests content, reading: “1791 to 1871. Mathematical genius, astronomer, inventor and ‘Father of Computing.’” Babbage also appears stuck on thousands of envelopes in the form of a popular postage stamp, sporting a scarlet coat and bow-tie, his bright yellow head filled with an inverted pyramid of numbers. Multiple versions of the difference engine continue to exist as physical objects at the Science Museum in London.Whether or not Babbage is now a ball of fire floating through the night, his inventions have not disappeared, but persist into the present in phantom form, the basis for what came next: the modern computer.

While at Cambridge, Babbage was a founding member of the Ghost Club, which “collected evidence and entered into a considerable correspondence upon the subject”. How does one ensure that ghosts survive, that traces are left after a death of the physical body? Either through a physical monument, or through writing. As Babbage writes in his preface to his Passages in the Life of a Philosopher: “Some men write their lives to save themselves from ennui, careless of the amount they inflict on their readers. Others write their personal history, lest some kind friend survive them, and, in showing off his own talent, unwittingly show them up. Others, again, write their own life from a different motive — from fear that the vampires of literature might make it their prey… This volume does not aspire to the name of an autobiography. It relates a variety of isolated circumstances in which I have taken part.”

One of these “isolated circumstances” was recently uncovered on a tapestry. Shortly after Lafcadio Hearn arrived in the town of Matsue, he was shown a series of kakemono, or hanging scrolls. He described one this way: “In the upper part of the painting is a scene from the Shaba, the world of men which we are wont to call the Real, — a cemetery with trees in blossom, and mourners kneeling before tombs. All under the soft blue light of Japanese day. Underneath is the world of ghosts. Down through the earth-crust souls are descending. Here they are flitting all white through inky darknesses; here farther on, through weird twilight, they are wading the flood of the phantom River of the Three Roads, Sanzu-no-Kawa.”

What he doesn’t tell is how he walked on, and saw another kakemono, with its image mounted on a silk panel. What was painted there, in exquisite jewel-like detail, was a difference engine, carefully sewn in black and gold silk. It looked dormant, but in reality was tabulating functions based on polynomial coefficients, using ink and thread count as its initial input. Are you surprised by what I’m telling you? You don’t look taken aback, nor should you be, for it makes sense. Babbage began creating his first difference engine in 1821, and his analytical engine in 1834. On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed his frigate Susquehanna into Tokyo harbor. Japan opened to the west, and knowledge of European inventions entered the country.

A Japanese artist chose to dedicate one of his works to a recent invention, not from the Edo period of Japanese sacred geometries and temple mathematics, but from the new Meiji age, in which the West was no longer considered a demon. In this way, the calculator of the difference engine appeared in his work. Using ink and thread, this third difference engine, one never dreamed by Babbage, calculated our ghosts, and this story. Do you still believe me? After seeing such strange, eerie things, you must have asked yourself who we really are. Ghosts, yes, but what kind? Just know that in a world where ghosts co-exist with the living, the marvelous is always possible. We are here, we are not here, binary, infinite.

Story of a drifter

I was just a floater down those Tokyo streets. Surrounded by bright lights, I would have been so lost, if it hadn’t been for the Boss. To most of the world he was just one of those Yakuza bad guys. Hey, get over here, he said that morning. Broad daylight and a knife in my back. It was pointy, to state the obvious. You can do something for us, he said. You’re going to help round them up. He took a long drag from his cigarette. The others laughed (that’s when I noticed there were others) and showed their big donkey teeth.

All of it was just something I fell into. I never meant to be a yakuza man. It’s still weird. Maybe later, when there’s time to reflect, everything will seem natural, new life spilling from old. Organs from the belly of a dead man. No, I don’t like that image at all. Man sprawled in a street after being popped off, it’s not something I’ve ever seen in real life anyway. Except in movies about yakuza men.

In general I’m a peaceful guy. Even after I joined, nothing changed about my routine. Strong morning coffee. Yellow suit (it defines me). Nice shoes. Sunglasses. Hank Mobley’s Soul Station on vinyl, repeat. You wouldn’t believe how much I love that album. I’ve had to replace it three times already. Lookin’ good, I say to myself in the mirror, do the finger-gun. Then I’m out the door, down the stairs and into the Kabukicho district. What a neighborhood.

Like I was saying, I’m just a normal guy. I even work in a photocopy shop, zero glamour. What, photocopies here? You’d be surprised by how many people want things Xeroxed. Paperwork for a Visa, housing this and that, legal type stuff. Sometimes girls come in asking for copies of books, Banana Yoshimoto and that kind of thing, so when it’s necessary they can pull out lines about moonlight and shadows and cherry blossoms.

I was just making my way to the shop when I felt it, the knife in my back. The Boss explained very clearly what we were going to do. Collect clunky old machines people wanted to throw out. And then? He grunted. We have to round them up. Some of ’em we take apart and repurpose, the ones no good for anything else. Most we try to relocate. Find ’em good homes.

Sounds like they’re the ones running the show here, I grumbled. In a way they are, he said, unfazed. People think we’re a gang, and I guess technically we are. But we’re protectors of those old machines.They’re the real warriors. The samurai. Getting dragged into that job hadn’t fazed me. It was surprisingly easy to get used to, and better than the copy shop, that’s for sure.

But I was surprised by what he said. And the really big surprise came later, when I found out that on top of everything I was a ghost. We all were. The pointy knife had killed me. Legends were already springing up around the city about a yakuza ghost gang. And I — was one of them. It wasn’t so bad though, as long as I could keep busy. And my yellow suit was just as bright in the afterlife.

Ada Lovelace, she was the only one I missed. That’s what she called herself, the girl I went to see sometimes. Bangs and short dark hair and big eyes, pale skin that glows, lips like a cherry ice. She pouts and looks so fragile, pouring out tea in her soft lavender sweater. But don’t be fooled. I told the Boss about her once, in one of those virile moments at the bar, sharing things over sake. (Ghosts drink too.) Went on and on about how feisty she was. How I missed her. Got a little weepy, maybe. Next day she was there with us. That pointy knife of the Boss’s must have made her a ghost too.

How all this got started beats me. I don’t ask questions, just take the machines to the warehouse to get taken apart or relocated. Sometimes, in the middle of a run, I stop at the copy shop. Maybe I’m sentimental, maybe I think the past never really disappears in the present. I go and run off a stack of Banana Yoshimoto’s, for old time’s sake. Without fail, some pretty girl with pink and orange barrettes and a schoolgirl skirt comes by a few minutes later, giggles and picks one up off the counter. Sometimes, but rarely, she shows up later in our gang.

About the Author:

Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.