The future of the post office – and of snail mail generally – is a frequent topic these days. (Well, it has been for a while.) I listened to an excellent show from On Point the other week that had on several people, including someone with the post office. It was excellent in that the guests made several really strange points that were extremely thought-provoking, and I’d never heard them before. I think they deserve to be discussed widely: they broaden the conversation from just “post office or not?” and think about the actual role of this institution in serving its consituents. What is the point of the post office, anyway?
The post office delivers information, reliably (mostly) and often securely. It provides a way to get delivery confirmation and insurance on your stuff, rents out mailboxes (especially important for people in neighborhoods where mail delivery is unreliable, often due to the lack of safety and lack of access to mailboxes – and lack of maintenance by landlords). It lets you get stuff where it’s going, fast. I know that UPS and FedEx and DHL do these kinds of things too, but for general purpose information delivery, the post office is here to serve all of us, no matter where we are, no matter what. This is its mission.
As time goes on, demand and form of information changes, obviously. We’ve already had new technologies and new regimes of categorization that bave been developed to accommodate changing needs. I have only to look at pre-ZIP code letters to be reminded of this. Honestly, for someone who has grown up with ZIP codes, it’s shocking. Within my lifetime, moreover, the place of ZIP codes on the envelope has changed (no longer a need for a new line; in fact writing it along with the city and state is encouraged). We have even more, better technology for reading the messiest handwriting, for distinguishing that ZIP code (and now, a 4-digit code afterwards that means it’s your house) from the text written next to it. We’re getting pretty advanced, here, if you think about it.
So now there is the fairly dramatic change of declining mail volume, which has not been accompanied by a high enough increase in stamp prices to keep up with the times (really, every other country in which I’ve mailed a letter has been close to $1 for even domestic mail). We have a lot of people conducting their information needs online, even those bits of information that must be kept secure: banking, shopping, student financial aid and loan applications and processing, university business (I’m thinking of my own stuff here). We need secure document delivery, and we need it to be a lot better than it is now. Recent break-ins to companies that are holding customer and credit card information (ahem, SONY) are making this abundantly clear.
In light of this, do we need some kind of central, trusted authority that we can go to for secure document delivery?
I argue yes, and I argue that this is exactly a natural place for the post office to step in. I’m not talking about printing out PDFs and making sure they get securely to their destinations. I’m talking about a secure information infrastructure provided as a public service for all of us. No, it will not replace our banking or our insecure game network accounts. But don’t you think that this would be a great service, one that we can’t quite imagine now what it would look like… and one that exactly fits the mission and history of the post office?
Through any kind of calamity, no matter what, we will get your stuff securely and reliably to where it needs to be. We will make it available to you, no matter what.
This sounds a lot like the current mission that surrounds the delivery of paper mail and packages. I am not arguing that this should replace what they’re doing. Don’t close all the post offices and argue Internet for everything. There are still a lot of things that need to be delivered securely by post: you wouldn’t believe how few forms will take my secure Adobe digital signature on the PDF as the equivalent of a pen signature. Imagine being able to develop that pen signature (so easy to forge) into something more secure, in digital form. Would that not be awesome?
With the way things are going, I hardly think that anyone in government would consider this kind of natural evolution as worthy of supporting, as worthy of seed money for infrastructure. We are not so good at thinking outside the current narrow box of the status quo; we have blinders on that we can’t seem to remove. But the post office itself sees itself as needing a transformation for proceeding from here on out. If only innovation and creativity could win out, but I’m not holding my breath.
Incidentally, this whole post office closure thing? Most articles I read are about people complaining they would have to drive 6 miles to the nearest post office. Guess what. I have had to drive miles to the nearest post office my whole life, because I have been unlucky enough to grow up in the suburbs, then live in a city that thinks it’s a great idea to build their fancy new post office (and library!) miles away from our small but active downtown, and make it miles away from any public transit: you can’t walk either, because you’d need to get across several very dangerous freeway on and off ramps. Seriously.