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Sunday, June 5, 2011

The decline and fall of the post office ( A story related to Canada Post ):

               Postal systems have been central to the administration of governments from the beginning of time, for they allowed leaders to extend their control far beyond the centre, as the primary instrument of nation-building. This interpretation was illuminated by the first American president, George Washington, in reference to the new U.S. Post Office: "we will bind these people to us with a chain that will never be broken."
                The first postal system in the world was established in the 6th century B.C. by the Persian Empire with a series of horses and messengers located every 14 miles. The famous phrase, "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," was written by the Greek historian Herodotus concerning the post office established by Cyrus the Great.
                The Romans later set up a similar system -cursus publicus -which was more efficient due to Roman roads, allowing horse carriages to move more quickly. The Roman stations were called "posts," from the Latin "positus" -to place.
                The first modern post office was established by Henry VIII with the appointment of the first Master of the Posts in 1516. The Roy-al Mail with a postal monopoly forcing everyone to use the King's mail, was created by Charles I in 1635 in order to spy on conspirators plotting against the King and to capture significant revenues for the Crown. Charles had good reason to worry for he was beheaded in 1649 -henceforth political leaders only had to worry about being retired by voters, head intact, to the University of Toronto or Oxford.
                At the very dawn of the British Empire in 1710, Parliament extended the British postal authority to "her colonies and plantations in North America, West Indies and all her other Majesty's dominions and territories." This was an important policy decision, for as Harold Innes argued in Empire and Communications, an empire requires a communication system to bind the periphery or the hinterland to the centre.
                From 1791 when Lower Canada and Upper Canada were established with legislative assemblies, through the Act of Union in 1840 and then Confederation in 1867, the post office in British North America and then Canada occupied most of the legislators' efforts, debating new post offices, postage rates and postmaster appointments while patronage was understood to mean hiring party campaign workers in the post office.
                By 1867, the post office had 2,300 offices in the four founding provinces.
                This number increased to 13,800 post offices by 1914 -with about eight million Canadians. However, the extraordinary influence of the post office and prestige of postmasters in the local community started to erode with the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting in 1929 that recommended the founding of the CBC.
This decision was a rupture for the post office, which had dominated government organization -for it was jilted by its strongest supporters, the politicians who could now deliver their voices instantaneously to citizens across the vast distances of Canada.
                From this point, the post office was no longer seen as the principal instrument of nation-building, never to recover.
                While the post office lost its policy role of nation-building, it found increasing importance as the critical communications system for citizens and as the centre of the payments system for industry and business. The substantial increases in volumes after the Second World War led to early mechanization and clashes with postal worker associations.
                In 1965, the Pearson Liberal government announced it would not allow collective bargaining in the pubic service. Postal workers staged work stoppages contrary to postal association leaders. The Pearson government quickly backed down and introduced collective bargaining for all federal public servants in 1966-'67.
                Throughout the late 1960s and '70s, the post office experienced 19 strikes or work stoppages.
                Citizens, businesses, postal unions and Liberal governments were increasingly angry with the situation.
                This culminated in the second inflection point for the post office with its transformation to a Crown corporation in 1981.
                This decision slightly predated the emergence of electronic communications starting with fax and later Internet, e-mail and social media, and electronic payments systems.
                In 2009, Statistics Canada survey of Internet use revealed that 80 per cent of Canadians use the Internet at home for personal use while 67 per cent used online banking.
                The Canadian Bankers Association stated that in 2009, more than 500 million banking transactions were conducted by phone or Internet while The Canadian Payments Association noted that in 2010, 85 per cent of all payments were electronic.
                An analysis of Canada Post financials for the past five years reveals a decline of 16 per cent in letter mail, the most profitable product line, and similar decreases in ad mail and parcels.
                Postal administrations around the world predict will continue to experience declines as the substitute electronic technologies mature and take more customers from the post office.
                The customer base of the post office that remains is mostly rural people who have not yet upgraded to high-speed Internet, elders who have not yet moved to pension deposit and e-banking and small-tomedium businesses including mass mailers that have not yet transformed to digital businesses.
                The decline and eventual death of the post office was predicted by professor Nicholas Negroponte of MIT in his book, Being Digital. Postal systems, says Negroponte, ship "things" that are composed of atoms while the knowledge-based economy is based on weightless "bits" that comprise an Apple iTunes song or Netflix movie online. Amazon reported that it now sells more e-books than physical books.
                Atoms are moved in postal trucks at 80 kilometers an hour (and sometimes go on strike) while bits move at the speed of light at 186,000 miles a second (and never go on strike).
                Bits always beat atoms. Regardless of the outcome of the current labour dispute, the post office, so central for so long, to so much of Canada, is now on its death bed.
Source : OTTAWA CITIZEN JUNE 4, 2011

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