Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Technology not picky about the industries it destroys

It’s a regular lament that can be turned into a Mad-lib: People and kids don’t (verb) (plural noun) anymore.

For the verb, substitute “write” or “send”; for the plural noun, substitute “letters” or “personal mail”.

Recently, The Gainesville Sun announced that the Gainesville mail processing operation is moving to Jacksonville. Other newspapers announced similar postal changes, including St. Petersburg and Sarasota. St. Pete’s mail will be processed in Tampa, and the postmark will be “lost.” Sarasota’s mail may end up going to Fort Myers.

To some, that’s the end of the world and life as we know it. To postal workers, it means changes in a job where the “Stasis Service” guaranteed or seemed to guarantee that nothing would ever change. To customers, though, not much actually changes. We’ll still empty mailboxes full of advertising we don’t want – for the most part – and hope we didn’t throw out something important.

We’re warned that unless we do something, like protest, our mail will be slower. The thing is that for many – but certainly not all – of us, paper mail is almost becoming irrelevant.

Having said that, let me say that I like receiving mail. Catalogs, magazines and other items, including bills, still come via the mail and still get my attention. Sometimes I buy something; always, I pay the bills.

There are people who constantly email the newspaper complaining that kids today don’t know how to write personal letters. Funny, but when I was growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s, people wrote letters to the newspapers complaining that kids back then didn’t know how to write personal letters. There are projects where education time is wasted having kids write letters and mail them so that they’ll learn how to do so.

But it’s interesting that no one shows up at schools and demands that students learn how to write telegrams. Or emails.

There was a time when a telegram was the latest in high-tech communication. So long as setting up a long-distance call was a kludgy and labor-intensive effort, a telegram actually was faster and less costly. Long-distance calls were expensive before direct-dialing was available, and what people had to do was call an operator and say they wanted to place a person-to-person call.

Then the person would hang up the phone and wait, stopping others from using the phone while the call was set up. All along the line, switchboards needed to be set up for the call. Finally, when the line was ready, the operator could ring the phone and tell the person placing the call to go ahead with the conversation.

By contrast, sending a telegram was as simple as going to the Western Union office, writing it out on a slip and paying by the word for it to be sent to another Western Union office, where it would be dispatched by messenger to the person receiving it. Telegrams cost less than long-distance phone calls. I recall reading in a New Yorker magazine issue from 1927 that so many people wanted to send Charles Lindbergh telegrams of congratulations that Western Union devised a set of numbered phrases, and the telegraph operators could simply send the destination address and then the number of the phrase — in Morse Code — that the person wanted to send.

The first and last time I saw a telegram was in the early 1970s, when a friend’s mother received word from Poland that her father had died. My friend showed us this curiosity of a piece of paper delivered by Western Union.

Today, Western Union still exists, but it’s vastly different from before. Technology killed the telegram.

The thing is that postal management is stuck between a choice to make mail irrelevant now, or later. The argument has been that closing facilities and slowing down the mail will be the death knell of mail service, but the fact is that the choice is really between a slow death or a slower death.

For all the talk of the wonders of the telegraph system, it was doomed by the technology, and no amount of prayer, legislation, labor action or protests could stop its eventual demise. It became easier to make telephone calls, mail service got more reliable and other advances made telegrams pointless.

Postal Service efforts to catch up with the electronic world date back to the early 1980s, with the ECOM service, which tried to combine both email and letter mail. But let’s face it, there are segments of communication that are lost to the Postal Service. They’re gone, and they’re not coming back. It isn’t fun for postal workers to read that, but it’s true.

Maybe because I was in college during some of my last years in the Postal Service, or maybe I thought the new technology offered opportunity in or out of the Postal Service, but I never saw the advance of communication technologies as a threat to me and my livelihood.

And maybe it’s karma that in the career I chose, journalism, I lost my job not once, but twice, to technology. But I’m still writing for newspapers, so it’s not been a total loss. And the technology has made me a better and more effective journalist.

Face it, the Postal Service is becoming obsolete. It gives me no pleasure to say that, because I transact some business through the system, but that’s the reality. Maybe I have to move some work online, but I’ve moved other things online and it hasn’t been all that bad. The best I can say to postal workers fearful of losing their jobs is to be flexible, jump at the remaining opportunities and accept the reality that the old days are over.

It’s not the answer you want to hear, but that’s the way it is.

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April 4, 2012 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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