The announcement by the U.S. Postal Service to cut Saturday delivery service is the latest in an unfortunate string of really bad news for anyone who likes getting mail. They didn’t ask me, but it seems obvious that cutting Saturday service will make the USPS even less relevant in people’s lives, which will only exacerbate the problem. I understand that delivering a piece of paper to a specific house all the way across the country for 46 cents is a tough business model, especially when the internet is delivering so much content so much faster for so much cheaper. But if they don’t find a way to make the postal system more essential to people’s lives, there is only one direction this thing can go.
As if all of that isn’t depressing enough, it turns out the USPS depends on junk mail to stay in business. Junk mail is spam incarnate that you have to crumple up and throw away to get it out of your life. So at a greatly subsidized expense, the USPS is driving around countless mail trucks on every street in America nearly every day to deliver bundles of printed spam. What kind of business model is that? Surely it’s not what our first Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin, had in mind.
So what is it about the mail that we want to keep? What is it good for? And what are we losing if it goes away completely someday? Of course there are the rural communities that depend on the postal service, and the birthday card from your grandmother with that check for $10. But I think there’s more than lifelines to small towns and the occasional post card from paradise at stake here. The U.S. postal system is astonishingly efficient—it's the original social network. It would be nearly impossible to put it in place from scratch today. It must be of great use to us somehow to have a real world network that runs alongside its virtual counterparts. I propose that it’s up to the people who use it to find new ways to make it relevant.
For many years I’ve been creating art projects that depend on the postal system in order to function. With help from curator Dakin Hart, a few years ago I started Anonymous Postcard, a suggestion box for the world. More recently we launched How We Saved the Post Office, an experiment for generating more mail with the help of a print of a blue sock puppet. Both of these projects are a hybrid of digital and analog communication—a broad audience can see and learn about them online, but what they are looking at is primarily a physical thing being sent from one real place to another. I don’t expect any of these projects to make a dent in the nearly $153 billion deficit the USPS is currently running. But as long as the postal network is intact, I'm going to keep playing with it.
If the U.S. postal system was being unveiled today, what would you use it for? What kind of businesses might spring up to take advantage of such a vast, real world network? If we started over, would junk mail be the answer? I'm convinced we can do better.
Images in order of appearance courtesy of the New York Times; Anonymous Postcard; How We Saved the Post Office