Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Is Snail Mail Stll Relevant?

As a stamp collector and an historian who enjoys reading old letters, I (like many others) mourn the death of written correspondence. That may be a ridiculous statement to be posted online, yet there is a enough romance in the written letter that I have to salute the letter even as it is (nearly) buried.

My reason for singing this dirge (and many have sung it better: Clifford Stoll, Nicholas Basbanes, Wendell Berry, and others) is to look at some of the assumptions of the those who take offense at the tattered remains of the United States Postal Service. I cannot remember the last time I paid a bill without seeing an advertisement printed on it somewhere implying that time, money, or the environment could be saved by using online bill paying instead of the old fashioned way of writing a check and dropping it in the mailbox (if you can find one).

The argument seems to be that since electronic debits via the internet, are done quickly and painlessly and automatically, that method is better thatn the drudgery of writing a check, putting it in a stamped envelope (at a pricey 44 cents). then using gasoline to both pick up and deliver the payment with all the pollution that implies. These arguments are persuasive up to a point, but I'd like to ask some questions:

1. Is the amount of energy used in keeping the nation's computers running greater than, equal to, or less than, the environmental cost of postal mail? Remember, computers use energy, too, and must run 24 hours a day in many cases.

2. Does the savings of using a stamp rather than an online transaction have values other than straight cost? For example, I pay my electric bill through automatic internet deduction, but I still receive a printed receipt by mail. This I can keep in my desk, and, if needed, refer to it later without firing up the gas-guzzling computer. It takes me about ten minutes to get the computer started up, logged in, and searched. Anyone who thinks they save time by leaving their computer on 24/7 is saving time at the cost of carbon emissions.

3. Since the mail will keep getting moved, at least until the Constitution is ammended, there is no real savings, at least in terms of energy used, for doing everything by email. I do not want to go back to the days of horseback mailmen and no home delivery, but it has worked in the past. And if we eliminated all home delivery and returned to the past, would that make sense if we all drove into the post office every day anyway? (This argument if full of holes, but I enjoy making it)

4. Part of the cost of any human system is infrastructure. Obviously the infrastructure of the USPS is large; I have no idea what the physical infrastructure of the WorldWideWeb is, but I cannot believe it is minor. If you chose a date in the computer age (let's say 1990), and compared the infrastructure expenses of the USPS and the WWW, what would the figures look like?

And as far as personal correspondence goes, two more:

5. Can a price be placed on the "value" of communication? I read once that if you want to write to your Congressman and your first decision is whether to email him or write a letter to him, the obvious choice is to write to him (or her). While it is true that sounding off on your favorite (most or least) government exenditure is certainly easier if a lobbying group sends you an email that you can "sign," a letter is a rarer, and thus more noticeable, communication. Whose communique will Senator Bedfellow be more likely to look at: the one that shows a million copies sent by pressing a button, or the one an individual cared about enough to craft and pay to have sent?

6. This last point may have more to do with personal preference than utility. Do we really want to live in a world where everything is so impersonal that the machines are doing it all? Maybe so; maybe I am in more of a minority than I realize when I sit down to write to distant friends. When I was a librarian, I used to see kids on the computer at "social networking" sites sending emails to total strangers. Nothing wrong with that, in theory, but all that most of them had to say to each other were "conversations" like this:

A: Whazzup
B: Whazzup

True story. Now I know full well what my detractors (do I have any?) will say that the average nineteenth century letter was just about the weather, sickness, and how the crops were doing. But there is a difference in quality, surely. Even a semiliterate farmhand or factory worker had to think about his message, and even if the letter was routine, it required several minutes or even hours of thinking. In the old model, correspondence was an intellectual exercise open to anyone liteate enough to write a few words. In the new, we seem almost to write without thinking. It's fast and easy, and being so fast and easy makes it kind of intellectually lazy.

Not every communication, of course. I send dozens of emails a week, and in the main find them an easy way of getting things done. But I would back away in horror from anyone who proposes the elimination of the Postal Service. Not yet, anyway.