From the Washington Post:
For years, postal officials denied that e-mail would change their
world. Now, faced with declining letter volume — in 2003, first-class
mail dropped by 3.3 billion pieces — the Postal Service has finally
realized that its right to a monopoly on first-class letters probably
isn’t worth the paper the Congress wrote it on in 1794. “All types of
correspondence mail have declined over time,” said a recently released
household mail survey by the Postal Service. “Most notable, however,
is the decline in personal correspondence between households.”…
the Postal Service’s hefty institutional costs for decades.
Trouble is, as the President’s Commission on the U.S. Postal Service
reported last year, Aunt Minnie isn’t writing that many letters these
days. Indeed, letter writers are a dying breed. Younger families are
writing even less than their parents did, the Postal Service says.
They probably depend on the Internet for communications that used to
be part of the postal monopoly. More troublesome for the Postal
Service’s bottom line, business-to-business mail is also falling….
It doesn’t take much analysis to realize, as the presidential
commission did, that the Postal Service is facing a crisis unlike any
since its founding in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress. Mail
volume is likely to keep declining, the panel said, while the big
agency’s costs, most of them directly linked to 700,000 employees who
handle the mail, will continue to soar.
As I read this story, I thought, Boy, does this have a familiar ring. Which, of course, it did: it’s also the story of the classical recording industry, and the heart of the matter can be found in the very first sentence. Deny, deny, deny–while the economic basis of your old-fashioned way of doing business crumbles beneath your feet.
Such is the way in which countless industries have quietly rotted away over the centuries. The difference is that in the information age, the rot spreads infinitely faster.
Now that CBS is finally admitting that Dan Rather was suckered by badly forged documents, long after that fact was incontrovertibly established by bloggers, you can see the process thrown into uniquely high relief. In this particular case, it played out over a period of less than two weeks, which doesn’t sound like much–but if you were following the story at all closely, it felt as if CBS had been denying the obvious for months, to painful and devastating effect.
This is a classic example of what Mickey Kaus has dubbed
“the Feiler Faster Thesis”:
The news cycle is much faster these days, thanks to 24-hour cable, the Web, a metastasized pundit caste constantly searching for new angles, etc. As a result, politics is able to move much faster, too, as our democracy learns to process more information in a shorter period and to process it comfortably at this faster pace. Charges and countercharges fly faster, candidates’ fortunes rise and fall faster, etc.
The fly in the ointment is that older, more cautious institutions unwilling or unable to adjust to the faster pace made possible by digital information technology are likely to get stampeded. That means old media–but it also means cultural institutions that refuse to think through the implications of new technologies, much less embrace them wholeheartedly. I watched the classical recording industry implode, predicting in print at regular intervals that it would do so. Now I’m wondering when the next column will fall.
Here’s something from today’s Wall Street Journal (no free link, alas) that caught my eye. It’s the latest “Real Time” column by Tim Hanrahan and Jason Fry:
As the digital age marches on, we find ourselves asking a question we never imagined: What will happen to all our stuff?
The music CD is already disappearing from our lives. Years ago Jace ripped his large CD collection into MP3s and banished the physical CDs to boxes now cluttering up a closet. (Having a baby son who loved hurtling CDs onto the floor accelerated this move.) Today he buys music online whenever he can