Sunday, July 8, 2007

Playing Post Office

So, whenever I open my mailbox, most of what I find is junk mail and bills. But I haven't lost that sense of excitement checking to see if the mail has come, and looking through the daily delivery to see if something interesting or informative, or something personal perhaps, maybe even something unexpected (a present?!) has arrived.

Daily mail delivery, with the exception of Sundays and holidays, is something that most people I know take for granted. There may even be some among us who recall a time when mail was delivered more than once a day. It's just a part of life, as we know it.

The Season 8 Seinfeld episode entitled "The Junk Mail" had Kramer bricking up his mailbox in the apartment building where he and Jerry lived, and going down to the post office demanding that his mail be canceled permanently. The joke is that the request is absurd, and that in response Newman and Postmaster General Henry Atkins, played by Wilford Brimley in a parody of the film Absence of Malice, treat Kramer's actions as a major threat to our entire way of life. It is, of course, part of the Jerry Seinfeld brand of humor to question the seemingly common sense arrangements of everyday life, which are quite arbitrary conventions peculiar to our culture and times. The Seinfeld series is in fact a great course in media ecology microanalysis (along the lines of Erving Goffman, Edward T. Hall, and Paul Watzlawick).

But in thinking the unthinkable, Kramer actually makes it thinkable, and the program does reflect changing attitudes towards mail delivery. We rail about all the junk mail we receive, and about the increasing cost of postage, and if anything were to get lost in the mail, well, forget about it. We ridicule and denigrate postal service which is limited by the speed of physical conveyance, calling it snail mail. And we adopt as a metaphor for rage and insanity the term, "going postal," thereby talking about postal workers in a manner similar to the way people spoke about Vietnam vets (that's what Rambo was all about, after all). So we don't love the mail, and it seems that the mail may not love us either. Are we on the verge of a messy break-up? Consider the following Associated Press article dated July 6:

What's next for the US Postal Service?
By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Could mail one day go the way of many pizza chains, where customers can pick it up or pay extra for home delivery?

Will the mail still arrive six days a week? Will the government still be involved?

The Postal Service is facing big questions as it struggles to cope with rising costs and major changes in the way people communicate.

Nations' mail systems vary. England's Royal Mail, for example, is a government-owned business, while Germany's Deutsche Post is a publicly traded stock company. All are much smaller operations than the U.S. Postal Service, which handles more than 40 percent of the world's mail.

Few doubt there will be adjustments in the U.S., but what those will be remains to be seen.

In 1993, Postmaster General Marvin Runyon drew a barrage of criticism for suggesting mail delivery might be cut to four days a week.

That was a bombshell then, but it's something postal experts say may still be a possibility.

"If you have hard copy delivery, you might have it six days a week, or three days a week or one day a week," William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union, said in an interview.

And, he added, it may not even be delivered; the recipient may have to go retrieve it.

Already, hiring private delivery contractors is an issue, prompting informational picketing by letter carriers in Florida to protest contracting out new routes in developing areas.

"I think within the next six to eight months the Congress of the United States is going to decide an issue that's going to determine whether or not we have a reliable, efficient postal service in the future," said William H. Young, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

"What I'm referring to is the decision that's been made at the highest levels of the Postal Service to give all the new growth, and the new deliveries that are springing up, to private contractors," he said.

But such changes may be necessary, says Gene Del Polito, president of the American Association for Postal Commerce, which represents advertising mailers.

If the Postal Service is to survive, it will to have to consider outsourcing more of its activities, he said.

It's conceivable, Del Polito said, "that a postal system in the future could evolve into something which I would call the master contractor, where it maintains its government identity by the government being the master contractor but that it puts things out competitively on bid...."

"At the end of the day, what you need is a universal mail delivery system, you don't need a universal mail delivery enterprise," Del Polito said.

Burrus points out that "the world is changing dramatically in terms of instant communications. We as a species have discovered the ability to have instant communications. That's not consistent with hard copy. I would suspect that over time hard copy will play less and less of a role in our communications."

Not so sure is Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., who believes hard copy will always have a place in the mailstream.

"Clearly, the way Americans communicate on a day-by-day basis is changing," he said, citing computers and cell phones. But there will still be core requirements such as hard copy that the post office will be needed for, said McHugh, a longtime congressional leader on postal issues.

Tony Conway, a longtime postal manager who now heads the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, said he expects the Postal Service to "evolve, probably into more of a focus on the strength of the organization, which is its delivery network. That's the heart and soul of the organization, no current private carrier can compete with it."

But, he added, "it may or may not be a government organization."

"The $64,000 question is how to keep the delivery network affordable," Conway said, noting the decline of first-class mail.

The only significant growth area is standard mail, which is primarily advertising, he said, and as the cost of postage rises, "at what point do you start losing that volume growth."

"The days of reckoning are coming sooner than people probably now appreciate," Conway said. The post office is adding 2 million new delivery points every year, raising costs on a declining revenue base. "That's not a pretty financial model."

As the article continues, it is worthwhile to note that the junk mail that we all hate is keeping the postal system solvent. When was the last time you sent a letter to a friend or relative? How many of your bills are you paying online now? It's just a fact of life that we have been transferring more and more of our interpersonal communications to the electronic media, and have not been thinking about the consequences. Anyway, the article continues:

And both postal service and mailers fret about "do not mail" bills proposed in several state legislatures. Designed to mimic the "do not call" rules, the bills would allow people to opt out of receiving what many call "junk mail."

Since that mail, advertising and solicitations, is the main postal growth area, passage of such bills would strike a financial blow at the post office, perhaps forcing it to raise rates again.

That worries Del Polito.

"We're already seeing signs that we're at the point now where people are seriously measuring the effectiveness of mail against alternative mechanisms, such as e-mailing or retailing or telemarketing to your known customer base, shifting to direct response TV or any of the other channels that previously one would have looked at and said, 'God, these are expensive venues.' Now, all of a sudden, they're looking at them and they're saying, 'Well, the cost of those venues are coming down but the cost of mail is going up.'"

That means there are a lot of unknowns about what the system will look like in the future, he said.

"Sooner or later we're probably going to have to make a decision as a nation as to whether or not the core services that are provided for free are going to be done the way that they are today, or whether they're going to be offered in a more restricted capacity and in a more cost efficient capacity," he said.

For example, he suggested the possibility of requiring centralized delivery and allowing the consumer pay something extra to get actual delivery service to the door.

"Now, when you do that, that means you must also give the consumer the opportunity to say what I want to get and what I don't want to get, and that could change the nature of the postal system," Del Polito said.

Burrus noted that last year's postal reform legislation set up a system to pay down the post offices' $70 billion to $80 billion unfunded health care liability.

Once that is done, he said he expects pressure for privatization to increase, perhaps with some legislators calling for limited or partial privatization.

American society guarantees delivery of messages to people wherever they live, but if private companies are allowed to skim off the easiest, least costly routes, the government cannot subsidize delivery only to the expensive places to reach, he said.

Dan Blair, chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, agrees that there will be changes.

"It certainly will be different from the post office we know today. If you look at the post office of 50 years ago, it was significantly different from the one we have today, so it will evolve just like other government institutions."

"It will be interesting to see what it will look like, even in 10 years," he added. "We don't know where it's going to end up, but people will always need hard copy delivery."

Postmaster General John Potter has repeatedly said he is "bullish" on the mail, but the post office declined to make him available for an interview on the future of the service.

Does it matter if we have reduced or no mail delivery? If you rebel at the thought, is it just nostalgia? Or something more?

How intrinsic is the postal system to our sense of identity as a nation? From the point of view of Harold Innis, and James W. Carey (who I wrote about in an earlier post), it was first the postal system and then the telegraph (which functioned in tandem with the mail) that really bound together the modern nation-state in the late 19th century. And even before that, well, look what it says on the United States Postal Service website:

When the Continental Congress named Benjamin Franklin the first Postmaster General in 1775, the United States was a weak confederation of colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard. The postal system that the Congress created helped bind the new nation together, support the growth of commerce, and ensure a free flow of ideas and information.

In the more than two centuries since, the United States and the Postal Service have grown and changed together. Today, the Postal Service fuels the nation's economy and delivers hundreds of millions of messages and billions of dollars in financial transactions each day to eight million businesses and 250 million Americans. The Postal Service is making history, too, as it helps lead the way in making the federal government more businesslike and responsive to customer needs.

Yes, it's self-serving public relations promotional material, and I left that second paragraph in to make that clear, but hey, Benjamin Franklin, come on, the man who gave us electricity, who was a newspaper publisher in the colonies, there should be no question that he was a pivotal person in media history (not to mention, in the words of the Firesign Theatre comedy group, "the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States"). His association with the US Mail, his status as the archetype of the Postmaster General, should tell us something about the significance of postal delivery for the republic.

So, ok, the post office was vital for 18th and 19th century America, but so were horses and buggies, sailing ships, etc. We particularly mourned the loss of the romance of the rails, I grew up hearing all about the magic of trains from the older generations, but life goes on, right? And nobody seems all that broken up about the recent demise of the typewriter. To coin a phrase, "where's the beef?"

And maybe this is a strictly vegetarian diet I'm serving up, but I am reminded of the 1997 Kevin Costner film, The Postman, based on a novel by David Brin. Brin's science fiction story about a post-apocalyptic future United States is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. But Costner's film, much maligned and in my opinion vastly underrated, gets to the heart of the matter in a more direct and powerful fashion (as is common, the novel's strength is ideas, the film's is dramatic impact). Here are two plot summaries for the movie listed on the Internet Movie Database:

In the year 2013 civilization has all but destroyed itself. After a war that decimated the government and most of the population of the United States (possibly the world) people struggle to survive against starvation and rogue groups of armed men. One such group is called the Holnists. This group is bigger than any other and their leader, General Bethlehem, has delusions of ruling the country. A drifter (Costner) is captured by the group and forced to join. He escapes at the first chance and happens on a mail jeep with a skeleton in it. The skeleton is wearing a postal uniform and the drifter takes it to keep him warm. He also finds a mailbag and starts conning people with old letters. The hope he sees in the people he delivers to changes his plans and he decides that he must help bring the Holnists down. Written by {}

Set in 2013, after the war has destroyed most of USA, including the government. A solitary traveler (played by Kevin Costner) is captured by a fascist military group called the Holnists led by Hitler-like General Bethlehem. When he escapes from the Holnists he finds an abandoned mail Jeep and uniform, and starts to travel through small cities, telling them he is a postman, a representative of the restored United States. No one believes him at first, but soon he has followers, and they start to prepare a revolt against Holnists. Written by Gustaf Molin {}

Perhaps one reason for the hostility expressed towards this film is its patriotic sensibility. Fundamentally, the story is about community. America, as a community, has been broken, shattered, seemingly beyond repair. Costner's character is an actor just trying to survive, who takes on the role of a postman as a con at first, but people believe in him, and he in turn starts to believe in what he represents. And it all revolves around the simple act of trust, faith, and service, in delivering the mail from one locality to another, and thereby binding seperate outposts, each with their own selfish concerns, into a greater commonwealth, a great community, one capable of standing up to and ultimately overcoming the threat of force and fascism.

A romantic story, yes. But does it have something to say about our own times, about what is happening to us, and where we are heading? It would be altogether appropriate to mention Neil Postman given the topic of this post, and when it comes to change brought on by technology, are we, as Postman argued, all to eager to give it an automatic stamp of approval?

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