Let the post office atrophy (and change)

I’ve been meaning to offer an entirely unrelated aside regarding my mail box. Yours too, for that matter. I’d love it if the dang thing were gone, completely gone, retired into some landfill where the telex machines and vacuum-tube radios are rusting.

This will never actually happen, I realize, even though it now seems that the trend is in that direction. Which is to say: snail mail is obsolete. The volume of mail (chart, bottom right) started dropping before the recession, at about the time when most of us started having boadband internet. And I predict it will keep falling, just more slowly, when the recovery starts. Senators are contemplating cutting the loss-making Post Office’s service. I say: Make it once a week, then once a month.

I personally (as opposed to my wife and my kids!) get very close to zero mail. All our bills are electronic now, all my private and soulful communications are digital or in-person.

The only thing that comes into my mail box is:

  • junk mail, a genre in which America outdoes every other country that I am familiar with. Verdict: ๐Ÿ‘ฟ
  • All the paper crap that America’s countless, overlapping and nasty bureaucracies churn out, such as jury-duty summons and IRS spam. Verdict: ๐Ÿ‘ฟ
  • Tangible gifts by grandparents and fans to my son and daughter. Verdict: ๐Ÿ˜› (But many of those things come by FedEx and UPS)
  • The occasional post card or letter from a friend who has still not sussed out that I’m OK, really OK, getting these things electronically. Verdict: ๐Ÿ™„

Snail mail gets soaked, lost and bent. I constantly carry important letters that were put into my mailbox in error to the neighbors. I rarely get any coming the other way: Does the carrier only make mistakes for others, or am I not getting something important? Either way, this would not happen with electronic communications.

Then let’s talk about our addresses as identifiers. How passรฉ is that? People move (as I just have) and most of the stress in a complex country such as America is not hauling boxes but updating and untangling the dozens of databases of banks, DMVs, insurers and other authorities. Folks, this is not necessary. We use email addresses and passwords as identities online. That, and perhaps a new and improved (meaning safer) Social Security number, should be all the bureaucrats need from us.

Young people have already dropped their landline phones for mobile phones and skype, which are, well, mobile and personal. Landlines are silly. And so are mail boxes.


As Solid Gold Creativity reminds us, (and thanks for pointing me to the chart), there is a certain sensual and sentimental value in the post. An old tradition, yet another of the many, is under threat.

I’m not against sensuality. Indeed, I love and need to touch some information in marked-up paper form. But that is not at risk! As I argued in the similar context of the “dying” newspapers, no old medium ever goes away when new media arrive. Instead, the old media change context.

When cars showed up, we did not kill horses. (Paul Saffo and I have had fun trying to verify our guess that there are more horses in America today than there were in 1850.) But we don’t take the horse to the Wal-Mart. We take the horse to the Polo Game or the ranch or the Lipizzaner stables. It’s a classy thing nowadays. The context is fun. That (ie the change from mundane uses to rewarding ones) is a positive change.

The same will happen to the post. We already have FedEx and UPS for things we care about. Well, the post office can start being as good as they are. Cut out the junk mail and perfunctory admin crap, and deliver–occasionally or at haste for a premium–only the good stuff. That would be progress.

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6 thoughts on “Let the post office atrophy (and change)

  1. In most countries (including the USA) the postmaster-general, or minister of posts, was a cabinet minister (cabinet officer), and this was up to around 1970. Thereafter, the position was downgraded as the post-office became a quasi-independent government agency, crown corporation, or other parastatal organisation.

    Hence the post office’s decline in importance didn’t happen overnight.

    Now that we can send greeting cards electronically via Yahoo, the post office becomes yet more redundant. However, many people still feel insulted if they receive electronic birthday and Christmas cards.

    And what about the letter, or card, of condolence (like for a death)? To sent it to the bereaved person via e-mail or as a Yahoo card might still, by the bereaved, be thought insensitive or unseemly.

    Perhaps those of refined sensibilities in future generations may still handwrite (perhaps with a quill pen) letters to friends, and post them, to show they are not of hoi polloi.

    • Sensibilities do change, but remember also that I’m not pushing for complete elimination of the post office. We still ride horses for special occasions, so we will also send paper for special occasions, and funerals count.

  2. Hi Andreas. Thanks for the links to my site. Much appreciated!

    I agree with your conclusion that new media don’t supplant old media. There are many examples of this including the cinema vs. home video one. It was feared the introduction of home video would make cinemas obsolete, yet it had the opposite effect.

    As for the mail, I still get excited when I go to the mailbox some days, especially when I get a book I’ve ordered via Abebooks. I like unwrapping the parcel and seeing the book and what kind of offcuts and scrap cardboard they’ve used to reinforce the whole thing and get it across various oceans. Maybe this is unique to Australia, but while ever the Post Office delivers goods purchased online I can’t see it going out of business.

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