I guess I should test this on other folks, but I have begun to think that almost all direct correspondence is now about money. So, I begin to wonder about the continued utility of these systems.
Let’s see, the US mail system, or maybe mail systems everywhere, operates as a public agency. Use of that service has been declining since about 2001, with about a 43% decline by 2017. Mail services globally have been operating for several thousands of years. By one account, by 3000 BC, Egypt was using homing pigeons for pigeon post, taking advantage of a singular quality of this bird, which when taken far from its nest is able to find its way home due to a particularly developed sense of orientation. Messages were then tied around the legs of the pigeon, which was freed and could reach its original nest. So, maybe that’s what’s lacking today. Pigeon-mail. I wonder how Mark Zuckerberg would transform that. Or Donald Trump. Think of how he could corrupt Pigeon-mail. Oh the ways of the wandering con-men.
But, looking at our incoming mail, I would guess that 80% of it is mail aimed at extracting money from us in some way, mostly for charitable purposes. Whereas, the other 20% . . . oh that’s for extracting money from us also, but via an actual bill for services rendered. Now, most of our bills are paid on-line. Only a couple are paid by a check in exchange for a bill. Note now, I have accounted for 100% of our direct mail, the stuff delivered by the US Postal Service via an actual mail carrier. That leaves zero percent for personal mail, you know, things called letters, or even notecards. Or postcards. Remember postcards? Those things folks used to use to jot down a few notes while traveling to exotic locations and then sending on to you, so as to make you jealous. I once, not so very long ago, tried to buy some postcards. I had to drive 3-4 miles to a headquarters of our little town’s main office. And there in their little supply store, they had a few postcards of our downtown. Now, to be fair, I make my own postcards, and my own notecards. I used to sell them when we had real Art Walks, but since we gave up the Art Walks a couple of years ago, I have had no outlet for them. And mine were at least as good as the official supplier. But that’s a tale for another day.
The point here is, even if you wanted to send a few postcards, you would have to look long and hard to find any to sell. Now, for notecards, you need to await Christmas. There, people still go to the trouble to fill out and mail cards. But even here, we note that year after year, our incoming Christmas cards are falling short of the previous year. And we adapt, of course. We used to send out about 125 Christmas cards to various places around the world each year, fairly steadily. Then, maybe 10 years ago, we began noting that the incoming cards were reducing in number. Last year, I think we received perhaps 30 cards. Now to be fair, some of that is attributable to the fact that we are aging in place. And a funny thing happens as you age. People begin dying around you. So, fewer cards. But even beyond death, we note that people are getting tired of buying and sending cards, and so the number keeps shrinking year by year.
And note that I have not even mentioned letters. Remember letters? When I was engaged, in 1954, and away in college, my honey and I would write daily letters to each other. That was several hundred letters during that year, just two folks in love. But even later, letters were still common. Within families, siblings and parents and kids would write to one another, just to stay in touch and keep people up to date on what was happening in their lives. Friends who lived too far away to see on a regular basis would write to one another. So our mail boxes, if not full each day, at least contained some personal letters on a routine basis. Your normal mailbox would have one or two personal letters, and several bills for services rendered. If you were of the right age at the right time, you even received an official notice from your friendly neighborhood government, that your services might be required for military service . . . unless you had bonespurs of course.
Now such personal correspondence continued until maybe the mid to late 1980s. And then . . . personal computers entered our world. Now computers had been within our world for quite some time. I still remember carrying out a study of engineering manpower within the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in about 1960. We collected data on workload in an attempt to determine what triggered the need for manpower increases or decreases, a classic industrial engineering study. And, having collected the data, we then entered the data onto punch cards, and then took the punch card stock into an office in downtown San Francisco, where we entered the data via the punch cards into an IBM 350 computer. That computer was the size of a large room. And we worked til the wee hours with that computer grinding away on the data we had supplied.
But that was then. Then, during the 1980s I worked for a time in Government, running an evaluation office in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. We also carried out large scale computer analyses using large mainframe computers of the IBM 350 ilk. We would send the data via phone circuitry to the mainframes at NIH, and then receive our analytic output back on paper stock. But then, during the mid-1980s, we discovered the world of personal computers. Both IBM and Apple began producing personal computers. Apple produced a thing called the Apple II, and IBM began producing an IBM-PCXT. The Apple was a kind of cute toy, but the IBM was a more serious business model. It had a hard drive, with, gasp, a ten megabyte capacity (can you imagine, ten megabytes??). And the PC had an internal memory of 64K - 640 KB. Wow, huh?
But that’s an aside. Mainly, what I began seeing was other ways to communicate with people. There was no Internet as we know it today, no Facebook, not even any formal e-mail. But there was something called CompuServe. CompuServe operated something called “Chat Lines”, which were little systems you could call into and then chat via your PC with people you knew. I used them initially to “chat” with other consultants with whom I worked. But that was in the 1980s. Slowly, of course, the PC became ubiquitous, and became larger in capacity if not in physical size. And then the systems whereby we communicated using these PCs began to arrive and to grow in popularity.
I think initially, the PC had only a modest effect on the US mail system, perhaps into the 1990s, after which the world really did begin to change its paper practices. I imagine one of the first things to go was the personal letter, replaced by the phone of course, but mainly by e-mail. Email actually was developed in the early 1970s, using something called ARPANET. But that quaint system changed when restrictions on carrying commercial traffic over the Internet were dropped, and e-mail began expanding rapidly during the mid-1990s. Soon, virtually everyone was using e-mail, and paper systems began reducing.
It is interesting to me that as paper communications began diminishing, giving way to electronics, the latter, electronic systems took hold only for a brief period. Considering that mankind had been writing and sending things called letters for a couple of centuries at least, I might have expected the electronic systems—E-Mail—to last a bit longer. Now, to be fair, E-Mail still exists, so we have maybe a 35-40 year history. But really, what has begun happening is that formal communications between people in that tradition of informing people we know what is happening in our lives seems to be diminishing and headed out the door. I still receive E-Mails daily of course. But now I note that perhaps 95% of my E-Mail is from people who want money from me. That is, solicitations, mainly from charitable organizations, rarely arrive by regular mail, but instead arrive via E-Mail. And the occasional bill for some service also arrives via-E-Mail, instead of regular mail. Now we continue to receive regular mail, mainly solicitations for donations, but now our E-Mail is a duplicate for those communications, sometimes from the same people. We also get both by E-Mail and regular mail solicitations for services in which we have no interest—they may be scams but I prefer to call them unsolicited service inquiries. The true scams seem to have moved permanently to the telephone system. Again, I receive maybe a half dozen telephone calls per day, of which ¾ are from some scam caller trying to sell me some service that might be real, or more likely a fake on the Donald Trump model.
So, now, virtually all communications directed at me or my wife seem to be about money, and some method of extracting our money for services we do not wish to receive and have not requested. It’s now all about the money. Virtually the only non-money communications we receive are either text messages, or commentaries of some sort on postings we introduce on social media. And I note that even text messages are beginning to contain scams about money, i.e., trying to sell me a service I did not request.
And it all makes me wonder what happened to human communications. Do people simply no longer communicate with folks they do not see on a daily basis? And are all formal communications now consigned to the waste bin because they are all about money—extracting money from me? And if so, when will those systems begin disappearing? I wonder especially about the US Postal Service. It currently employs over 600,000 people. And Trump wants to disappear the Service and privatize it. Unless we succeed in Dumping the Trump, we may well have no postal service within a year at best. And that would be sad. But, on the other hand, since no one writes any longer, and most financial transactions are now electronic, do we actually need a US Postal Service, public or private?
And are we then all about to retreat into a little world of our own making, in which we no longer communicate with the outside world? And what kind of world is that—a one-way communications system of radio and TV, in which we no longer participate except as a passive listener. I fear that will be an unhappy world at best. But I fail to see in what way we could begin improving from that sorry state. But perhaps that's for another day.