1. 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.


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

    boxes

    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?


  3. 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 168.75.111.15.

    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.


  4. Rewire: The Library as Cloud Storage

    Libraries are storage repositories for books, but just certain books, not your books. No, you have to store those yourself.  Most of the time, those books are speed bumps or structural elements because most of the time you aren’t reading them.  While a well-stocked bookcase or two can be good for showing off to friends and potential mates when you have them round the place, there’s something to be said for not having a half ton of dead tree hanging about the place, taking up valuable space that could be used for holding broken electronics or a knife throwing range.  See where I’m going with this yet?

    Two things about me: I’ve got no money and I live in what would be considered a treehouse if it was in a tree, rather than over a store that sells do-rags and tire chains. Thus I think a lot about making use of the limited space I’ve got and keeping myself stimulated without laying out a lot of cash.  Add that to my nerdish tendencies and it’s a no brainer that I have a pretty steady relationship with the local library.

    I took a big box of books down there yesterday to donate after cleaning out the apartment. (My New Year’s resolution had something to do with house guests not getting tetanus)  They thanked me, dropped in a coat closet and would presumably be storing them until they can be bought at some semi-annual sale by other people who will also use them to clutter up their apartments.

    So I got thinking: what if we applied out internet age expectations of resource sharing to Dead Tree Media?  What would that look like?

    Now a library is an old, old approach to a problem that doesn’t really exist anymore: books being rare, expensive and the only way to reliably preserve and transmit the written word.  True, it can still expensive to build up a book collection of one’s own, especially if the knowledge you’re after is something that might be captured within the textbook/university publishing ghetto where the writing is dry and the prices are high.

    These days, libraries are struggling.  Cities everywhere are deeply in debt and over budget so they’re slashing funding to everything they can.  At the same time, the gushing info pipe that the internet provides has made the modest offerings of the local public library seem less important to those well-off enough to afford their own computer and net access.

    So how can we rewire libraries to increase their relevance?

    Well, one suggestion would be to have them work more like cloud storage, crossed with a little bit of file sharing. (yeah buzzwords!) Dig: Libraries could take a patron’s books, either assuming full ownership or holding them for a mutually agreed upon term.  Then, the patron would be able to get them back at any time, provided no other library patron has checked them out.  Donating patrons would have priority on retrieving any books they donated (i.e.: could skip ahead of the line if an item was heavily reserved) and donated books would be stored in their donor’s home branch, keeping them nearby most of the time.  The donor gets imperfect access to his books but for most books, who needs them right at hand 24/7?  I could certainly wait a week if I ever got the yen to read Glamorama for the third time.

    Downsides would include the additional cost for libraries to absorb many many more books.  This could be partially offset by requiring patrons to pay a fee upfront for storage of their books within the system. I’d gladly pay 10-15 cents a book to have it nearby but out of my apartment.  These payments could also be credited in-kind to a patron’s account to reduce their overdue charges or pay off future fines.

    Another downside would be a significant hit to sales for book publishers.  If libraries were suddenly flush with free books, they wouldn’t have to spend as much.  Likewise, such a system could encourage less people to actually buy popular books if they knew that it was sitting there for free at their local library.

    All in all, not perfect but worth a shot.  Thoughts?  How would you rewire your public library?


  5. Rewire: The Postal Service

    letter_crude

    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.