Oddly, whenever I think of post, I actually think of W.A.S.T.E., the secret underground anarchist postal service from Pynchon’s ‘The Crying Lot 49‘. Ludicrously, for something that has been functioning (according to a cursory wikipedia glance) to some extent or another since the 5th Century BC in ancient Persia, the idea of a postal service has a post-apocalyptic ring to it.
In Pynchon’s book, my mental imagery shifted abruptly at the idea of secret symbols bidding you to place letters in bins to be picked up by a network of outsiders. Suddenly the monstrous bay area nightmare felt more like it had survived the collapse of civilisation. I can’t tell if this was because of the need for an underground postal system, or simply because the idea of post seems somehow apocalyptic.
Information no longer appears to move at the speed of objects. Letters and books have at least partly been replaced with email and webpages. The exchange of information is happening overwhelmingly fast and often. This is almost certainly a good thing.
Post is no longer simply information, I doubt it ever was. Communication belongs on so many different levels. The presence of a system for distributing objects across the whole breadth of the world is probably one of the finest examples of what civilisation can do. It is also, quite clearly, the pattern upon which the internet was based. Networks of subsystems interlocking and passing packets around constantly. Electrons move faster than postal workers, but can only carry the tiniest amount of weight.
I suspect post will change.
If we end up in a post material world, the the postal service could wither to a gimmick, like a singing telegram, an excessive and old fashioned gift in and of itself. All the real objects will be digital then.
But that world is an incredibly long way off. Our present material culture, and more practical alternatives, require objects. Once the world is connected, disconnecting it seems like a huge loss. I want to be able to send a postcard to the exact opposite side of the world if I want to. I don’t mind it taking time, to know I have touched the same material as a long distant friend.
Stuff will probably need to keep on moving around for a while. As long as people want to share stuff, we’ll need a well organised ferry service. As long as people are used to getting things fast (next time you get impatient with a buffering video, think about going to the cinema to watch a silent film accompanied by a low rent organist, making shit up as they go along).
Until we live in a world where everyone has their own nano-fabricators in their front room, and the CAD skills to send everything digitally, there will be post.
Of course, at that point, the nano-plague will probably wipe out the entire planet, and any survivors will need a way to get in contact.
Mute your post-horns, just in case.
Illustration by Helen