Would you like a P.O. Box with that frappuccino?
THE FUTURE – Has it been only 30 years since the U.S. Postal Service, bowing to a hostile Congress, sought to stay alive by ending Saturday delivery of first-class mail — and setting in motion one of the most remarkable and rapid cultural and infrastructure revolutions in history?
To mark the anniversary of the post-Post Office epoch, let’s relive its history. The announcement in February 2013 that regular Saturday mail delivery would be ending became a touchstone moment. The Economist reported that America was doomed. Liberals decried the “decimation” of an institution they insisted bound us together as a nation. Conservatives, who had applauded a Republican-led Congress’s insistence on forcing the Post Office to make enormous pension plan pre-payments, reveled in the prospect they’d transformed the institution.
The fight was never far from the surface. When it became a 2016 presidential campaign issue, it ensured that the next president would have to do … something. But no candidate committed to anything more than “reform.”
When President Hillary Clinton was elected, progressives were relieved — but even they had no idea how audacious she would be.
In her first inaugural address, Clinton seized the moment to advance what she called “Manifest Digital Destiny” — a.k.a. the Hillary Doctrine. That would be: The Internet is a birthright of American citizens. In creating a right to the Internet, she would have an almost Lincolnian impact on the nation for generations to come: Affordable, ubiquitous broadband would set us all free. To hasten the transition, she provided a bit of incentive: The Post Office, hobbling for years, was to be shuttered within her first term. The new broadband network would take its place.
To make it happen, Clinton knew she’d need some muscle. That’s why she made Susan “The Enforcer” Crawford chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. Crawford had once been Obama’s special assistant for science, technology and innovation policy. But it was Crawford’s relentless, populist campaign against the “telco cartel,” crystallized in her 2012 book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, that made her the choice for the job. In the book, Crawford argued that the United States had squandered its enormous lead in the digital revolution — and that communications companies were squarely to blame.
It wasn’t long before the wireless companies understood the future of the grid ‑ namely, that it wasn’t the ATM that it had been. It was clear what Clinton and Crawford — whom Matt Drudge had dubbed the Digital Duo — meant when they spoke of “taking a fresh, comprehensive look” at spectrum policy. Once the corporate sector’s hold on broadband was loosened, various new entries pulled together, out of self-interest, to bathe the nation in cheap, plentiful connectivity. Everyone benefited: The wealthy received their multiple data plans combined into one, much cheaper plan. The poor received tax credits to pay for service whose cost was capped by law.
Once people could connect, they needed something to connect with. Of all industries, it was the newspapers that did the most to meet the hardware need. (Occasionally, desperation breeds innovation.) At the 2017 Newspaper Association of American convention, a consortium of newspaper publishers declared the death of print “by this time next year,” and put the Associated Press — sort of the chief operating officer of the American newspaper industry, anyway — in charge of the logistics.
The AP’s plan was bold: Newspapers were to liquidate all vestiges of the old era. Printing plants were melted down, newsprint shipments were nixed, and fleets of trucks were decommissioned. The proceeds more than paid for their initiative to put a Newspapers of America-branded tablet in the hands of every homeowner, free of charge. (Like the National Biscuit Company before it, Newspapers of America would later just make their name NewAmerica, since nobody remembered what a newspaper was.) They even offered hands-on tech support to make sure Aunt Bea could Skype and send e-mail — and hadn’t forgotten to subscribe to the local news app.
The pieces were now in place to eliminate the hand delivery of nearly everything. Everything that could be digitized now was — from legal documents to personal mail to invoices — because it had to be, the life-sucking crutch that was the Post Office now gone.
Naturally FedEx, UPS and the other package giants were the first to gain, aided by an innovation from Jeff Bezos, serving as honorary Post-Postmaster General. Bezos took a cue from stamps and simplified the laborious FedEx form, replacing them with personalized QR codes. When scanned, the code would automatically deduct the cost of shipping from a pre-registered PayPal account.
Post-P.O. Box franchises also flourished, with Amazon, which already had a locker system in place in big cities, taking the lead. But then, Starbucks got in the game, and when working people realized they could send their mail to their local coffee shop and pick it up on a coffee break, it was easy to let go of the very idea of home delivery. Starbucks used its mail reception as a loss leader – if you were coming for your package, you were coming for a latte.
Nevertheless, the private mail companies soon saw their revenue drop as people adjusted to the new era. Paying bills became frictionless. Banks saw the opportunity: They had always pushed their e-payment services — a way to keep customers “loyal” by making it difficult for them to leave. But then it dawned on them to be post-ost offices as well, especially to receive all their depositors’ bills, paying them up to pre-set amounts, providing overdraft insurance if necessary on the fly (and on the cheap).
Of course, catalog companies were bereft until Google stepped up and digitized all new catalogs gratis with spare bandwidth from the Google Books Library Project (those AdSense profits come in handy). Those pop-up alerts from the J. Peterman catalog on that tablet provided by your local paper warm the inner grandma in us all of us.
Sure, lots of people still grumbled about the end of curbside service. (Even in 2013, some people were still ranting about the lack of drive-in movie theaters). It’s a good thing Andreessen Horowitz Gore saw the opportunity to back a little startup called the “Post-Post Office Squad” — founded by Mark Zuckerberg. Zuck pivoted from what turned out to be a social network fad to get into on-demand mail delivery for the masses.
The P-POSse — that’s what they call those college kids — offered individualized delivery service and smartphone-enabled locker management. (FedEx later bought it for $1 billion, having phased out its antiquated delivery squads. Zuckerberg later said, “Finally, I don’t have to lose sleep over that Instagram purchase anymore.”)
But for most, 3D printers were enough. The industry’s fax-era tagline – you ring, they render – helped the technology go mainstream, along with major price drops. What private companies couldn’t deliver, a printer could create.
As everyone now knows, it’s been smooth sailing for decades. But there is still a legacy to the USPS. Most of the smaller post offices were recommissioned decades ago. But the big ones remain in some big cities. They’ve been turned into Apple stores.
Just the other day some urban archaeologists took a tour of Grand Central Station in New York — one of the grand palaces from the days of the USPS (Grand Central Station, not the Grand Central Terminal devoted to bullet trains). They found a relic — one of those one of the original Newspapers of America-branded tablets. As the group leader told the New York Post News Times: “It still worked.”
PHOTO: REUTERS/Mike Blake