by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 5, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When the Incas ruled South America, they created a series of stone highways running up and down the Andes mountains and westward to the sea. Trained runners were organized into relays. A fish caught in the Pacific Ocean in the morning could be on the plate of the Inca king in the mountains of Cuzco that night.
The Incas came to my mind when Postmaster General John E. Potter asked Congress to allow a cut in mail delivery. Saying the U.S. Postal Service "is in a severe financial crisis," Potter told a senate panel, "The ability to suspend delivery on the lightest delivery days, for example, could save dollars in both our delivery and our processing and distribution networks."
Potter's comments inspired Nieman Journalism Lab blogger (and former Brattleboro Reformer publisher) Martin Langeveld to muse on the desirability of cutting postal delivery (niemanlab.org).
"There was a time when, in cities, the mailmen... came twice a day, six days a week," he wrote. "Eventually, telephone and telegraph made that superfluous, so they cut it in half to just once a day... Now that widespread Internet access is usurping most of the functionality of first class mail (the volume of which is plummeting along a curve similar to that of newspaper revenue) why not cut the delivery schedule in half again, to three times a week, or even twice a week - would anyone care?"
My husband, Randy Holhut, posted this response: "Where I live, the USPS is more reliable than internet providers (let alone FedEx and UPS) and arguably more important. I am fortunate enough to be served by one of the best post offices in the state, and the level of their service borders on the heroic. In rural America, the USPS remains an essential service. It delivers where private carriers fear to tread. It provides its service at a competitive price. Sure, email is great, but there are times where it won't suffice... No private service can touch this for speed, reliability and cost. The point of having a national postal service is universal service to the entire nation at a low cost."
As a working journalist, I can't imagine doing research without the Internet. I send and receive about 30 emails a day (minus spam). I get most of my news and political commentary online. The Internet feeds my shameful celebrity gossip habit. I occasionally shop there, too.
Still, my 91-year-old mother down in Florida can't use the Internet, and neither can her friends. Technology terrifies them. The tv remote is too complicated. In fact, I can't tell you what scares my mother most, a real mouse or the one attached to a keyboard. Don't tell her she has to go on-line to rent a movie or pay a bill.
The digital divide is still alive and well. Billions of people can't afford a computer, and hundreds of millions more don't have Internet service. Do we move our entire world on-line and leave these people behind? That's what is being suggested when we talk about cutting postal deliveries or television dramas or even newspapers.
Destruction for the sake of destruction can turn our lives into a Procrustean bed where we cut away vital parts of ourselves to conform to often temporary standards or situations. Progress for the sake of progress doesn't always work. The first Model Ts got 20 miles to the gallon, workers could afford them, and you could fix them in your back yard. Today, cars still get 20 miles to the gallon, cost a fortune and require computers to fix them. They may be safer and look flashier, but how much have we really progressed?
Once you dismantle the postal system, you won't be able to build it back up. Once newspapers are gone, they're gone forever. Do we really want this to happen?
Change is inevitable. The pony express folded quickly after the transcontinental telegraph came in. No-one wants to go back to the days before rural electrification, where we washed our clothing by pounding it against a rock in a stream. We don't want to be the last person standing who depends on a buggy whip.
Still, electric power often goes out. Packages have to get from Amazon.com to the house. Bills have to be paid. We treasure love letters over Twitters. Newspapers are where most good journalism comes from. And we can't spend all our time in front of a screen - we still need occasional human companionship.
We're locked into this bigger-faster-more world now. But we need to practice a very creative kind of destruction. We need to protect what most needs protecting, save what most needs to be saved, and then, maybe, we can discard some of the rest. It's important to remember that even the Incas, after all, needed a postal system.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her website, joycemarcel.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.