Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Reality Check Is Not in the Mail

This month, for the first time in decades, a payment I sent did not reach its intended recipient.

This rare mishap was a reminder that good old reliable snail mail is in its death throes after 234 years of creating a national community out of isolated places thousands of miles apart, making a daily visit to the mailbox an adventure that brought the world to us with words on paper, many of them in the handwriting of people we love.

The decline now is even faster than it was during the Great Depression as the Postal Service projects 10 billion fewer pieces of mail in each of the next two years, from a high of 213 billion in 2006 to an expected 170 billion next year. The price of stamps will rise, of course, and there will also be less frequent deliveries and more closings of small post offices as Americans e-mail, text-message and tweet one another instead of dropping envelopes through narrow slots.

It's so much more convenient to pay bills online and have instant communication with friends and family that there will be few mourners for snail mail but, as with all progress, something will be lost.

Writing from the hand of a loved one on familiar stationery is becoming an anachronism (no beribboned bundles of e-mail will clutter future attics), but the thought and feeling that went into love letters will be gone, too, replaced by the product of racing fingers on keyboards and minds too pressured for careful choice of words.

Newspapers and magazines have migrated to the Web as well, trying to make sense of the world from minute to minute. By the time they arrive in mailboxes, most have the freshness and urgency of hieroglyphic tablets but. as they swamp us with instant information and interpretation, do we understand our lives any better than we did a century ago when there was more time to sort out the important from the ephemeral?

The Postal Service is surely going the way of dinosaurs but, in our all-electronic future, will there be any reality check in the mail?

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