1. Rewire the Postal Service: Innovate or Die

    postal address tag sticker

    Today’s postal service has a reputation for being slow and hopelessly stuck in the old ways. The term “snail mail” doesn’t sound much like a product that Google would be rolling out anytime soon.

    But it hasn’t always been this way:

    The U.S. Postal Service has a long history of exploiting technology to offer alternate means of message transmission. At it’s inception, part of the Postal Department’s mandate was the construction of a network of post roads for mail to travel along, infrastructure with obvious secondary benefits for the young nation. From there, mail traveled by pony express, railroad and steamship, surmounting the technical problems to keep communication on pace with the country’s expansion. Soon after the development of powered flight, the USPS innovated again by delivering mail by plane.

    Time and time again, circumstances have driven innovation,

    Between 1942 and 1945, “V-Mail” (for “Victory Mail”) service was available for military mail. Letters were converted into microfilm and reprinted near the destination, to save room on transport vehicles for military cargo.[35]

    From 1982 to 1985, Electronic Computer Originated Mail was accepted for bulk mailings. Text was transmitted electronically to one of 25 post offices nationwide. The Postal Service would print the mail, and put it in special envelopes bearing a blue ECOM logo. Delivery was assured within 2 days.[36]

    So what happened? Why did the postal service suddenly run out of ideas? Did they sit back in a daze while the world changed or were they so harried and battered that there was no time or funds for innovation?

    Here’s how I’d reinvent snail mail:

    Today’s users have a dangerously low threshhold for hassle. Physically writing addresses and finding a stamp and writing a return address… too many steps. The USPS needs to design a cheap, dead-simple postage printer and give it away for free.

    (Stamps.com, you say?  No, that’s too expensive and only does one thing.  A step forward but only for businesses.)

    Make the top surface a digital scale. Add smoothly operating software that syncs up with any list of contacts and spits out a standardized sticker with address and postage. When it runs low on stickers or ink, it asks to dial home and order more, debited from your account. The same account gets dinged for a few cents if a letter hits the processing system and comes up “Postage Due” for a malfunctioning scale or an awkward shape.

    Aside: Then there’s the secondary effect of having a sticker printer attached to every computer: Stickering goes mainstream. And no, nothing boring like putting your name on everything, real-life is now something everyone comments on. Public space is now public conversation, advertising posters are not a monologue but just the first voice in a conversation. The barrier to entry lowers, tech enables quality improvements, thus providing a more diverse group of voices, ie: people with something more interesting to say than drawings of penises or the letters BNE. /aside

    Pair the printer up with free desktop publishing software that prints and addresses envelopes for any size letter. Market the whole package based on the lure of the physical in a digital world. WE HUMANS STILL LIKE TO TOUCH AND OWN THINGS. We just need to be reminded of that and given neat, easy ways to do so. Give us templates and let us make and share templates. Get HP, Lexmark and Epson to bankroll it but don’t let them touch the software, we want something that actually works.

    Image derived from work by Blake Unger Dvorchik.

  2. Rewire the Postal Service: Banking Goes Postal

    $5 Deposit Certificate

    In many countries, it is not uncommon for the postal service to offer savings accounts. These often serve low-income populations with small savings who may not get the best deal from checking accounts geared toward salaried 9-5ers.  The U.S. Postal Service formerly had such a system, offering savings accounts from 1911 – 1966 that paid out 2% annually on deposits.

    This might be just the moment to reinstate a postal savings account system. Personal savings are increasing while banks are cutting down on the freebies and easy access to checking and savings accounts that proliferated before the economic downturn (free checking and savings accounts are often only for students and direct deposit users). Free and easy bank accounts could go a long ways towards reducing the poor’s reliance on check cashing services that skim off a percentage of their earnings and could increase their personal savings rate.

    There’s also the small matter of covering the gaps in USPS’s operating costs with the dividends of conservatively investing those deposits.  As long as the Postmaster General doesn’t take your savings account to the dogtrack or chuck it into CDOs, things should run just dandy.

    The Postal Service already has 32,741 locations (give or take a few hundred).  Slap in an ATM or two at each, add an extra window and you’re on your way. Further, think about converting some of those blue street corner mailboxes into hybrid ATM/automated postal centers and postal banking could be an instant institution in every major American city without paying a dime extra in real estate costs.

    Adding banking would also make post offices much more of a draw, creating a convenient hub for all manner of government services. The post office already handles passports, why not farm out some of the other basic citizen-government interactions to a satellite location? This especially makes sense as that the neighborhoods that need the most services are not always convenient to the downtown government buildings but would likely have at least one branch of the USPS.  Kiosks with video conferencing and a scanner could skip the need for moving the staff out of those hulking downtown buildings while still extending services.

  3. Rewire the Postal Service: There Is No Address But You


    OK, let’s pretend that Mike Kuniavsky’s idea of postal service as DNS service has come to fruition and let’s say I’ve paid for the distinction of being Aaron Cael, U.S.  Thus, all anybody has to do to direct any physical object to me would be to slap on adequate postage and write “Aaron Cael, U.S.” on it.  Bitchin’, right?

    Well let’s say I’m something of a jetsetter, the type who regularly doesn’t see their mailbox for days or weeks at a time.  Having one’s vital communiques and well-wishes bound to something as old-fashioned as a physical location is the sort of thing that wears on a modern mind.

    But what if one’s “postal DNS” resolved not to one physical location but to where ever one’s body happened to be?

    Sync your calendar up with your postal account and that letter from your grandma and those sneakers you ordered off Amazon arrive at your hotel at the same time you check-in.  Buy toiletries and a tie online  before a business trip, delivered automatically to the hotel upon your arrival.  If you really want to stay up on your mail, allow the postal service access to your phone’s GPS and packages can be routed to you in real-time, for an extra fee of course.

    Think of it as Google Voice for the physical world.

    Naturally, these features would be elective and responsive to instruction.  Getting away from it all?  Leave mail forwarding off and don’t see a bill while you’re at the lake.   Text back an emphatic ‘no’ when its asks via SMS about delivering that cast-iron cookware and crate of wine just before you head to the airport with only a carry-on bag.

    How would you use this service if it existed?

  4. Rewire the Postal Service: Meatspace DNS

    Again I’ll say it: the U.S. Postal Service is a strange and doomed beast, constantly hounded and bleeding from a thousand cuts but cursed to never die.  And maybe that’s why I love it.

    A ways back we solicited opinions on how best to transform the struggling U.S. Postal Service, stirring up barely a leaf’s rustle of feedback.Said feedback suggested that we could best “help the postal mails by solicitously expediting transfer of good faith monies” to the Nigerian bank account specified.  Nearly a year later and I’m still waiting for my fortune in embezzled oil wealth.

    But nothing’s changed.  The postal service is still hemorrhaging cash, still viewed as antiquated and a dead-tree dependent business that is haunted by technological changes, rather than an institution that stands to benefit from them.  Apropos of nothing but my own surging interest, I hereby declare June 3 through June 10th TITLE OF MAGAZINE’s POSTAL WEEK, dedicated to wild speculation on the reinvention of the US Postal Service.

    – – – –

    Mike Kuniavsky had a smart idea for a postal business model change over at his Orange Cone blog:

    Here’s what I came up with in the bar: the US Postal Service (USPS) needs to become the equivalent of the Domain Name Service for geographic locations. DNS is the digital service that translates human-readable domain names such as orangecone.com into IP addresses, such as

    This, more or less, is exactly what the USPS already does, but it’s still tied to the sender writing the actual physical address on the letter. However, as any recipient of a slightly mis-addressed letter that still arrived knows, the service is actually pretty good at figuring out where the letter is going. The USPS is already resolving ambiguous address data into physical locations.
    It’s been doing it for years…

    Why not make name-to-location resolution the primary role of the postal service?
    For example, rather than having your address be “Your Name, 1234 Oak Street, Town, State, Zip Code” you could pay to have it be “Your Name, Town, USA.” Microsoft could pay to have their address just be “Microsoft, USA.” It works for “Santa Claus,” why can’t the USPS charge MS to make it work for them?

    On the back end, the postal service could provide a number of routing services using the infrastructure they already have. The “Microsoft” letter could go either to a regional office or to a central location, depending on what Microsoft wanted to pay for.

    Be sure to click through and read the rest where he breaks down the numbers on potential profitability and other bits of the nitty gritty.

    I think this is brilliant the way it builds on the core function of postal service–making everyone in the country locatable and able to be communicated with.

    I propose that this could be taken a step further to create something like a physical version of call forwarding.  A Postal Meatspace DNS customer would input a list of common locations that they frequent–home, office, bar, camp–and be able to adjust their mail delivery to follow them via a simple web interface.  I’ll flesh this idea out a little later in the week.

  5. Rewire: The Postal Service


    Alright, I confess: I still write and send actual, physical letters to people.  People I know even.  For non-special occasions, not even as a ritual or an outdated formality.  I’m a sucker for physical objects, what can I say.

    As often as I think that I’m the last non-corporate entity who still uses the post office, there’s still that enormous line at every sad outpost of the U.S. Mail.  Weird.  Who are these people?

    Before this devolves into a pointless antiquarian rant, let me get to the meat: there’s an article brewing that I want to get a conversation going about before it starts.

    Topic: how would you go about making the postal service relevant?

    Included in this would be the issues of improving the user experience, competing with email for ease of use, making all those hackneyed storefronts do something and running it all without just digging a big hole to throw money in.

    Somewhat harder than all that would be: how can we revive the culture of sending each other tangible objects?  How does one create a market for the delivery of things?

    Go nuts in the comments.  Let’s get talking.