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Luskin: Dead Letters

09/03/12 5:50PM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) Novelist, essayist and educator Deborah Luskin thinks that by missing its chance to change with technology, the Post Office may be another behemoth headed the way of dinosaurs - to extinction.

(Luskin) "Mom," my kids chided, "You're not supposed to sign your text messages." And here I was, feeling so "au courant" for learning this new technology after hearing email called "old school."

Old school or not, I like email. But I'm a writer, and I like the written word. And I can also type really fast. Before email, I loved snail mail - real paper-and-pen letters. As a kid, I even used sealing wax. As a young adult, I kept carbon copies of the long letters I typed to my far-flung friends.

I like letters so much, I even studied them - in the form of epistolary fiction: novels told in letters, which were all the rage at the end of the eighteenth-century, when fiction struggled for legitimacy.

I still write letters - real epistles full of thoughtful musings as well as news. But I usually send them electronically, as PDFs. The only letters I send by snail mail are note cards conveying thanks, sympathy or congratulations. I also pay a few bills by mail, but not many. I pay most bills on-line.

In fact, I don't use the Post Office much anymore, even though it's the only business left in my village, where the general store and church have both closed. Most of what comes to my box is junk mail, which I recycle on the spot. And I find myself curiously unmoved by the prospect of the White River Junction center closing its doors - and unusually at odds with our congressional delegation, which wants to save the jobs there at all costs.

I think the Post Office may have missed its chance to remain useful and profitable in the face of digital change. It invested only in processing paper mail faster, instead of looking at ways to use its assets in this swiftly changing landscape. And now, it may be too late.

With all its retail outlets, the Post Office could have remained vital by installing high-speed internet terminals in digitally underserved areas. Just as some people without checking accounts buy money orders to pay their bills, those without computers or high-speed connections could buy time on a USPS terminal to pay bills on-line. The Post Office could have served as the internet café on the backroads of America.

Had the Post Office been thinking nimbly, it could have offered the digital equivalent of Rural Free Delivery, by assigning us all email addresses with the cachet of a "usps.com" domain. Instead, it's been slow to latch on to electronic communication.

Its on-line services are mostly geared to processing paper mail from home - in an effort to close its retail doors. In what may be its last gasp, the Post Office now proposes to raise rates and cut services. But charging more for less is generally a poor strategy for success.

So, unless the USPS reinvents itself to become relevant again, I'm afraid its final destination will be the Dead Letter Office. And I have to say: May it rest in peace.

(Tag) Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist, and educator. You can find more VPR commentaries at VPR-dot-net.

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