Lost in the mail

Like most (all?) readers of this column, I have an e-mail address. Like many (most?) readers of this column, I have in fact several e-mail addresses. And like many (but not enough?) readers of this column, I also have a physical address, a place at which the postal carrier deposits the stuff with the stamps.

And never the twain should meet. Right?

Right?

The US Postal Service's announcement that it is thinking of offering e-mail addresses to every residential US address wasn't met with the outpouring of chants and huzzahs it might have been expecting. Nothing against USPS leadership, you understand, but they appear to have missed the boat (or, as I think we ought to start saying around here, hit the bridge with the barge) on that one—after all, aren't there enough Hotmail and Yahoo addresses to go around?

So goes the Conventional Wisdom. But like the movie poster told you, look closer.

It's all still quite theoretical, but reports indicate that services the USPS is considering in its Net push include making certain mail (say, bills) routeable to and payable from e-mail rather than those oh-so-easily-trifled-with boxes at the curb; a forwarding service for people moving from one ISP to another; and, yes, an e-mail address linked to one's home address. This would be in addition to the services the USPS has already brought online, such as package tracking and USPS-branded e-mail postmarks designed to enhance e-mail security for important missives.

No mistake: The Post Office must get with the times, and I'm saying that as someone who really, really likes paper mail. Maybe it's because my grandmother currently refuses to use her e-mail account, or because I come from a long line of stamp collectors, or because you can't send cookies (the food kind) electronically, or just because compared to the 400-plus daily deluge in Eudora that paper-wrapped stack looks rather manageable—but there's a reason my postal carrier gets a big tip at year's end while my ISP does not. Snail mail, like pancakes and polka music, makes people happy.

But happy don't feed the bulldog, and government studies show that by 2003 first-class mail will start to diminish (to the tune of $17 billion) as people pay bills and conduct correspondence online. That kind of income slashing isn't going to hurt those of us puttering along with e-mail in the big city. It'll hurt the poor, the rural, and other sectors of society that rely on universal access to postal service, folk who will be confronted with diminished service, abbreviated routes, rate increases, and the other things a for-profit enterprise like the USPS has to do to stay afloat. It is, in short, a coming manifestation of the Digital Divide so many folk are working so hard to eradicate from society.

So the every-address-an-e-mail-address proposal is, in a sense, an attempt to ameliorate the coming crisis. However, it may not go far enough, and going far enough may entail going right over the financial cliff (along with this painfully extruded metaphor). The Postal Service isn't just about the physical mail, but about the physical mechanism that gets that mail from Point A to Point B. Granted, going electronic means less infrastructure of the little-white-truck kind, but it puts a whole new spin on the humble mailbox. If the USPS is going to deliver a portion of the mail electronically, do they have a responsibility to provide "mailboxes"—that is, e-mail receivers, be they PCs or some other kind of electronic access device?

And you thought stamps were expensive. (They're not, by the way. Go overseas and check prices and then get back to me on how expensive stamps are. I digress, but that particular brand of American beef really annoys me.)

I'm glad to think that the USPS will adapt and survive; my inner stamp-collecting child would be unhappy in a world with only FedEx and UPS and the like. But I'm uneasily aware that the conveniences of online bill-paying and multiple e-mail addresses already exist online with no USPS involvement; I'm using them now. If by doing so I endanger the rights of others to have access to inexpensive, universal postal service, I wonder as I check my overflowing Eudora inbox if there's not a better way.

 
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