When the US Postal Service makes a mistake

An envelop arrived in the mail recently– containing another envelope inside visible through a transparent window, obviously damaged. Front of the package bears the red stamp “Received in damaged condition at Seattle, WA.” The back reads:

“Dear Valued Postal Customer:
I want to extend my sincere apology as your Postmaster for the enclosed document that was inadvertently damaged in handling by your Postal Service.”

What makes this unique is the infrequency of mail mishandling by the USPS. Quaint and old-school as this apology may be, it shows how seriously the postal service takes its duty of delivering mail reliably. (In this case it did not even matter: it was a newsletter from a theatre company in Seattle that continued to keep this blogger on their mailing list even after he had moved to the East Coast.) As the message points out, USPS handles over 200 billion pieces each year and most of them arrive at their intended destination without a hitch.

The reliability of physical mail stands in sharp contrast to what happens with its high-tech cousin. From the early days of the Internet, the basic infrastructure of email was predicated on “best-effort delivery.” There are no guarantees, no one to apologize if the message disappears into the ether and not even a reliable return receipt feature when crossing organizational boundaries. While network and software reliability has improved, widespread deployment of anti-spam measures erased any gains. Ironically messages can now survive unscathed through multiple hops in cyberspace, only to be filed away as “junk” at the destination by an over-zealous spam filter.

One could argue that state of affairs makes sense economically, given that it costs money to send letters when email is free. (It is not, but the perception remains because of ubiquitous free email providers. “Free email” is subsidized by advertising, often based on extensive data-mining. As Heinlein would say, TANSTAFL.) But the problem with email is that there is exactly one quality-of-service, independent of how motivated the sender is. A good friend does not always have better odds than the spammer outfit based in China for getting email into your inbox. There is no equivalent to registered or certified mail even if the sender cared to pay for it, either in real currency or virtual one such as HashCash.


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