Years ago while interviewing a member of the North Dakota state Senate the issue of technology came up. This lawmaker told me that he sometimes wished we were more careful about technological innovations. After all, back when farmers used horses to pant and harvest, agriculture employed a lot more people. Because it was labor intensive.
I was gobsmacked by the insinuation, as if anyone today would trade the benefits of modern agriculture for the days when farming required far more hours of labor than it does today.
I thought of that exchange – which is a perfect example of the very real Luddite movement – while reading this story today about the US Postmaster General dressing down a couple of upstart entrepreneurs who were jeopardizing the Post Office’s business model of delivering dead-tree advertising to people who don’t want it.
Evan Baehr and Will Davis started a company called Outbox after leaving political jobs and enrolling in the Harvard Business School. Their goal was to improve postal service by allowing customers to get their mail electronically. Users enrolled in the service would have their mail forwarded to Outbox, who would then digitize it and forward it along. What’s more, users could opt out of junk mail, which Outbox wouldn’t bother to forward at all.
That last is what cost Outbox their relationship with the USPS. Because the bureaucrats aren’t going to let a little thing like innovation get in the way of you getting your junk mail.
But once Outbox started to get successful and was covered on CNBC, Evan and Will got a call requesting them to come back to Washington to meet with the Postmaster General. Evan and Will thought about discussing how they could work with USPS nationally, perhaps even to provide some of their technology through a license for USPS to offer it directly to all their consumers.
They believed that their technology could actually save the Post Office money. If consumers started to opt-in to Outbox, or other services like Outbox, then the Post Office could receive the full benefits of the stamped envelope but never have to deliver those packages, which is one of the biggest costs for the Post Office. In fact, if properly implemented, when a customer sends a letter from Austin, TX to Alaska, if the Post Office knew that they weren’t going to receive the letter anyway, then the Post Office could forward the letter from Austin directly to Outbox, and never have to ship the letter across the continent. …
When Evan and Will got called in to meet with the Postmaster General they were joined by the USPS’s General Counsel and Chief of Digital Strategy. But instead, Evan recounts that US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe “looked at us” and said “we have a misunderstanding. ‘You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.’” Further, “‘You mentioned making the service better for our customers; but the American citizens aren’t our customers—about 400 junk mailers are our customers. Your service hurts our ability to serve those customers.”’
According to Evan, the Chief of Digital Strategy’s comments were even more stark, “[Your market model] will never work anyway. Digital is a fad. It will only work in Europe.”
“Digital is a fad.”
To be clear, I’m not at all convinced that Outbox had a successful long-term model. Because at what point do people who are paying to get their mail digitized just cut out the middle man by moving the original documents – letters, bills legal papers, etc – into a digital format?
But that aside, if there was ever any doubt that the Post Office is an anachronism kept alive to serve as a host body for millions of unionized federal workers, set those doubts aside.
You will get your junk mail, America, whether you like it or not. Woe be to those who try to opt out.