Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

August 2, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GOLDEN OLDIES....I used to work in the document imaging industry, and aside from a general cynicism about our industry's future ("the paperless office will take over at about the same time as the paperless bathroom," went the usual joke), the most pervasive irony was the dawning realization that imaging and other digital automation actually increased the amount of paper used in offices. Lots of stuff got scanned and stored, but then it eventually all got printed out. Multiple times. And then copied and distributed. And then mailed.

Today, the New York Times reports on a similar irony:

In 2005, revenue from first-class mail like cards and letters, which still made up more than half the Postal Services total sales of $66.6 billion, dropped nearly 1 percent from 2004. But revenue from packages helped make up for much of that drop, rising 2.8 percent, to $8.6 billion, last year, as it handled nearly three billion packages.

It is impossible to say how many of these were online orders, but Postal Service officials give e-commerce a lot of credit.

Six years ago, people were pointing at the Internet as the doom and gloom of the Postal Service, and in essence what weve found is the Internet has ended up being the channel that drives business for us, said James Cochrane, manager of package services at the Postal Service.

I don't really have anything to say about this. It just brought back fond memories of both my old industry and the general dotcom euphoria of the late 90s that predicted the post office would die a quick and well-deserved dinosaur's death. Those were the days.

Kevin Drum 1:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

Bookmark and Share
 
Comments

Lots of stuff got scanned and stored, but then it eventually all got printed out. Multiple times. And then copied and distributed. And then mailed.

Worse: it got written on a computer, then printed out, then faxed. (Then OCRed?)

The world has changed, though; I can nowadays communicate by email even with my handyman.

Posted by: Allen K. on August 2, 2006 at 2:27 AM | PERMALINK

In 2005, revenue from first-class mail like cards and letters, which still made up more than half the Postal Services total sales of $66.6 billion, dropped nearly 1 percent from 2004. But revenue from packages helped make up for much of that drop, rising 2.8 percent, to $8.6 billion, last year, as it handled nearly three billion packages.

The next billion dollar idea is in there, somewhere.

Store prices stay low, because big corporations can take advantage of economy of scale; instead of paying the post office to ship one widget, they fill a truck with thousands of them.

An individual buyer can somewhat take advantage of this, by 'special ordering' from a brick and mortar. If you do that at, say, Borders, you can frequently get an online price and pay no shipping.

Ultimately, though, there has to be a way to aggregate shipping from online businesses. I have no idea how it woul be done, but the present paradigm is just so wasteful....

Posted by: American Hawk on August 2, 2006 at 3:18 AM | PERMALINK

I think what really killed off the paperless office was the advent of the laser printer. Once you could get letter-quality printouts in under 10 seconds, there wasn't much incentive to avoid printing things out.

Posted by: David B. on August 2, 2006 at 3:23 AM | PERMALINK

they fill a truck with thousands of them.

And how do those widgets atually GET to the customers that want them? Which is the actual point.

Posted by: Calton Bolick on August 2, 2006 at 4:37 AM | PERMALINK

Paper is a massive data leak. It's clueless people who print out emails, and actually use their filing cabinets. The legal profession still might use printouts, but these days they're only used for spec and code reviews, and only because everyone doesn't have a laptop.

Posted by: bago on August 2, 2006 at 5:07 AM | PERMALINK

"the paperless office will take over at about the same time as the paperless bathroom,"

Can I get an "EEW"?

Posted by: Thlayli on August 2, 2006 at 5:49 AM | PERMALINK

He doesn't know how to use the three seashells (snicker)...

Posted by: Tom Marney on August 2, 2006 at 6:21 AM | PERMALINK

According to the USPS, standard mail (no longer third class mail or junk mail) grew by over 5 billion pieces in FY 2005. Huge revenue increase from advertising. Large growth in mailings from right wing conservative groups (haha, just kidding -- they raise most of their money on the golf course).

FYI, Before the dotcom industry hit its stride in the late 90s, commercial & government CD databases were supposed to be the savior of the world's forests. I remember well all the pitches for CD databases -- reducing government & company paperwork, how the pages stored on just one CD would keep hundreds of trees from the sawyer's blade . . .

Audio CDs and DVDs dominate the disc industry and most come with some form of paper inserts, packaging, instruction books . . . Furthermore, we throw millions of CDs away each day, filling our landfills with aluminum & non-biodegradable plastics & resins. So what's the net gain environmentally?

CDs, Lexis-Nexis & electronic storage generally have had an interesting impact on the construction industry -- floors of office buildings no longer needed extra reinforcement to support the weight of traditional book libraries and files. Maybe some resource savings there.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on August 2, 2006 at 6:23 AM | PERMALINK

You know, there's also the additional aspect of finding ways to store all the software created in the 80s and 90s, and all the hardware designed to read it. Aparrently, there are warehouses full of unsorted docs, discs, and computers in Washington DC, comprising every kind of intergov't communication, and there's no guarantee the material will ever even be looked at again.

Oh, and what about that electronic book? That really caught on, didn't it?

Posted by: Kenji on August 2, 2006 at 6:38 AM | PERMALINK

Personally, I have all my documents scanned. We do not have a filing cabinet in our home.

Have you been to the doctor lately? Records are almost all electronic now. On my last visit, my doctor had a scanner on his desk and a tablet pc under his arm.

Posted by: Mark on August 2, 2006 at 6:49 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, my doctor also just converted to an all-electronic office. He doesn't even call me anymore with the results of my tests -- he just leaves a message on a call-in voice mail system I dial into.

Ironically this electronification of our lives may increase the possibility our important health and financial records get into the wrong hands -- clever hackers, careless workers or the NSA may intentionally or unintentionally open up access to our files.

I miss the old days of break-ins at Ellsburg's psycyiatrist's office, or at the Watergate . . . makes a much more exciting story.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on August 2, 2006 at 7:10 AM | PERMALINK

You can reduce the paper if you stop printing out stuff. With digital photography, Ive increased the number of snaps I take by a factor of 10, but decreased the number of prints by the same factor. Snaps look better on a computer screen anyway.

Posted by: troglodyte on August 2, 2006 at 7:45 AM | PERMALINK

Ultimately, though, there has to be a way to aggregate shipping from online businesses. I have no idea how it woul be done, but the present paradigm is just so wasteful....

My goodness, a thoughtful, insightful, reasonable and cogent comment from American Hawk.

From the mouths of babes . . .

Posted by: Brautigan on August 2, 2006 at 8:41 AM | PERMALINK

CDs, Lexis-Nexis & electronic storage generally have had an interesting impact on the construction industry -- floors of office buildings no longer needed extra reinforcement to support the weight of traditional book libraries and files. Maybe some resource savings there.
I agree!!

Posted by: Jenna on August 2, 2006 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

Well, if the US Postal Service doesn't upgrade its services, its offices and its products, I can't imagine it can out-compete FedEx and UPS. Though I have issues w/ both of the commercial cos, at least their products are simple to understand, don't have 1000 different variations and their employees aren't as curt, rude and unhelpful as those in most USPS offices in Washington, DC.

Posted by: AdamDC on August 2, 2006 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

In my experience there are much fewer technical documents printed out. Much of the software comes with the documents on the CD and I doubt many people print out the entire User's Guide.

I've got to think there are savings in paper and shipping costs by supplying product documents on CD.

Posted by: Tripp on August 2, 2006 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

"I can't imagine it can out-compete FedEx and UPS."

The USPS handles more pieces of mail in one day than FedEx, UPS, and Airborne, combined, handle in an entire year. There's no comparison. Sure, FedEx does a better job of delivering something: they're charging $20 and USPS charges 35 cents.

I've encountered about as many rude USPS delivery guys as rude Postal Service employees. Anecdotal, I know, but in public opinion polls ranking customer service, USPS generally does pretty well.

Posted by: wally on August 2, 2006 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

wally,

I think you meant UPS instead of USPS, but I know what you mean.

One particular UPS driver who got under my skin would comment about every single package I got - "Hey, doing some gardening?," "Hey, a package from someone in Texas."

It ticked me off to the point of wanting to say "Yeah, that must be the crystal meth I ordered. Want some?"

Do I have to say that I've never ordered or used meth in my life, or can that be understood?

Posted by: Tripp on August 2, 2006 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

"Ultimately, though, there has to be a way to aggregate shipping from online businesses. I have no idea how it woul be done, but the present paradigm is just so wasteful...."

Careful... you are starting to sound positively liberal. What happened to the rugged individualism a rugged American Capitalist individual is supposed to ruggedly exemplify (individually). Consolidating is like giving up sovereignty and self-determination, and nothing good could /ever/ come of that.

Posted by: Mysticdog on August 2, 2006 at 10:34 AM | PERMALINK

The USPS beats FedEx and UPS handsdown. I have an online business, and I used to us UPS. Constant "surcharges" for residential deliveries, on top of already higher prices, to get packages to the customer 2-5 days longer than priority mail. Sure you can "track with UPS... until they lose it. Then it's lost just as surely as any other delivery service.

UPS suxxorz. USPS FTW!

Posted by: Mysticdog on August 2, 2006 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

I have, however, managed to scan in, OCR, bring into a word processor, and edit a book without printing anything out. In fact, I don't think I'll have a hard copy until it actually gets 'published.'

I find that 'printing' it into pdf works as an alternative to physically printing it.

Posted by: mecki on August 2, 2006 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

> I think what really killed off the
> paperless office was the advent of the
> laser printer.

Well, perhaps also the fact that the video screen is an utterly abysmal replacement for ink-on-paper. I suspect blog commenting alone has knocked 5 years off my time of usable eyesight.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on August 2, 2006 at 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

Although I'm a big FedEx fan, I absolutely loathe UPS. Their delivery people are fine, but their overall customer service policies are terrible. I don't know if this is true everywhere, but, in my neck of the woods their office isn't open on Saturdays -- not even for limited hours. God forbid they don't mangage to get a package to you during the week; you'll have to wait all weekend. Whenever I order something online, my heart sinks should I find out FedEx isn't an option, and the vendor uses UPS. I absolutely hate 'em.

Posted by: 99 on August 2, 2006 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK
Ultimately, though, there has to be a way to aggregate shipping from online businesses. I have no idea how it woul be done, but the present paradigm is just so wasteful....

Isn't the point of the USPS/UPS/FedEx/etc. that, except for the first and last few miles, they aggregate shipping, as opposed to, say, a point-to-point courier service, with part of the premium for faster delivery options being that it reduces the ability of the shipper to efficiently aggregate shipments from and to different customers?

Posted by: cmdicely on August 2, 2006 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

One of the conditions of the USPS's monopoly is that they commit to delivering the mail to everyone's residence each day. So their business is closely tied to demographics -- the country's population is constantly growing and shifting. We would expect numbers of pieces delivered to grow with the population over time.

Tracking & predicting address changes is a real challenge for the USPS -- something Fedex, UPS & DHL don't have to deal with as much since their business is driven by consumer demand --

Posted by: pj in jesusland on August 2, 2006 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

> racking & predicting address changes is a real
> challenge for the USPS -- something Fedex, UPS &
> DHL don't have to deal with as much since their
> business is driven by consumer demand -

Uh, no, they don't have to deal with address changes because they download the Postal Service address database daily at nominal cost to themselves (but higher cost to the US taxpayer!).

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on August 2, 2006 at 11:35 AM | PERMALINK

The big problem for the post office, which is NOT going to go away, is that the post office only has a monopoly on first class mail.

UPS, FexEx, DHL etc., are going to beat the crap out of the post office on packages.

The post office is going to go bankrupt. If they need to raise rates on first class mail and each increase reduces the volumne then they will spiral into a black hole.

I don't see any other possibility.

Of course, I have been very wrong before.

Posted by: Neil Hecht on August 2, 2006 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

Well, I agree with 北京机票-北京酒店. :)

It seems to me two cross-purposed events are occuring - it's become easier to pay bills online - I don't mail any bill payments anymore, really; while online ordering means 2-4 packages a month from Amazon, J Crew, Polo, etc.

Which, may, I think, make for a better use of the Post office's time. Although, perhaps it makes things more complicated (more individual home deliveries vs. mass deliveries of envelopes to banks and businesses)?

Posted by: weboy on August 2, 2006 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK
The big problem for the post office, which is NOT going to go away, is that the post office only has a monopoly on first class mail.

UPS, FexEx, DHL etc., are going to beat the crap out of the post office on packages.

The post office is going to go bankrupt. If they need to raise rates on first class mail and each increase reduces the volumne then they will spiral into a black hole.

I don't see any other possibility.

Express Mail (next-day delivery, even on Sundays) is cheaper than UPS or FedEx. Priority Mail for packages is generally cheaper than regular UPS or FedEx shipping and faster than ground shipping.

And, if you've ever had to deal with the nightmare of picking up a UPS or FedEx package that they didn't deliver, you realize how much nicer it is to just go to the post office.

Posted by: Yuda on August 2, 2006 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

Neil,

Other than strictly ideology, why do you say the Post Office *must* lose to UPS and Fedex?

Personally I've gotten better service from the Post Office. They are open on Saturday, and they have a walk-in area for determining postage and mailing packages after hours. It takes credit cards, weighs the package, and prints out the proper postage label for the zipcode or country sent to.

And I know someone who was having a scooter (a small motorcycle) shipped via UPS which they lost! Yup. He had a confirmation number but they misplaced a frigging small motorcycle. Sheesh.

Posted by: Tripp on August 2, 2006 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

It's a no-brainer - the USPS will continue to thrive as long as they continue to offer reasonable service at a price less than their competitors. Everytime I order something on-line, whether tickets, CDs, or books, I find that the USPS cost for shipping is the lowest available and opt for that. Unless I absolutely, positively have to have it overnight, why would I do otherwise? Then the USPS has the added advantage of the seller now having my physical address and adding me to their bulk mailing lists; more business for USPS. The USPS stumbles into a lot, of not most, business opportunities like this, but they manage to hang on by doing what they do very well. It's easy to knock them for occassional bad service and long lobby lines, but really, nobody else does what they do on the scale they do, and certainly not as economically for the consumer as they do.

PS - I didn't mean to make this sound like an ad for USPS, it just came out that way. I worked there for almost 18 years and my observation has always been that they do so well not because they are well managed, but despite being poorly managed.

Posted by: oldgreenguy on August 2, 2006 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

I'd just like to extend a genial F-U to DHL, FedEx and UPS. Especially DHL you uptight lazy lying scumbags (very bad personal experience 2 weeks ago).

USPS is the way to go for EVERYTHING. Still the best after all these years.

Posted by: MNPundit on August 2, 2006 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

"the paperless office will take over at about the same time as the paperless bathroom,"

I think it takes a while---and I mean a while (a generation?)---to get used to reading digital text/papers/articles. I'm an academic, in the 30s, and most of the people I know older than me will print out everything.

I, myself, only print out articles occasionally, and if I do it's because I can't bring a laptop with me whereever I'm going (and---for environmental reasons---will print double-sided, two pages per side). And younger academics (/students) are much more like me.

Reading is not just looking at a bunch of words on a flat surface: People develop reading habits that are linked to their reading medium. Some people like to follow the text with a pen, some write comments at the sides, some like to sit in a smoky bar, etc, etc.

So you can imagine for a generation used to reading text on paper, the digital revolution brought to them a whole new supply of material to read, but didn't force them to change their habits. Younger generations, thankfully, are learning new habits fit for a new world (man, that sounds corny). So while I think paperless office is a pipe-dream, I can imagine the usage of paper going down (especially in this environmentally conscious age).

Posted by: mitch on August 2, 2006 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

>the fact that the video screen is an utterly abysmal replacement for ink-on-paper.

This is so true, and it's my only excuse for the following total misbehavior for a guy who is otherwise an Enviro-Nazi:

Cleaning up the office (home or otherwise) in the old days used to be a matter of working thru all the crap, and properly shelving/sorting/filing the stuff that was of some worth.

Now I just throw *everything* away because I can just print out another copy when I need to work with the information therein.

And the cycle repeats...

Posted by: doesn't matter on August 2, 2006 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

>it's become easier to pay bills online

True, but this is a huge peeve of mine:

Freaking Quicken/My Bank (I don't know who is at fault) won't let me post a payment less than 7 days ahead. It used to be 4 back in the '90s when I started using online pay, you'd have expected it to drop but it went the other way.

Given the credit-card companies careful efforts to send me my statement as late as possible, and my refusal to sit down with the bills until Saturday, often 7 days is cutting it real, real close.

So I put it in the mail, affix a stamp, and see my transaction complete sometimes the next day, always by the third day.

How fucked up is that? I can pay a bill more quickly by initiating the transfer a physical piece of paper to St Louis or Atlanta than I can implement an electronic transaction on the Internet? What the fuck?

Posted by: doesn't matter on August 2, 2006 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Gotta disagree with some of you on the USPS vs. UPS/FedEx issue. I work in logistics for a company that receives 50-100 boxes a day and ships 100-300. From our perspective, US Mail is almost always slower, more expensive, and less convenient, in part because they won't pick up packages same day (and our daily mail visit is at 11:30, while UPS/FedEx come at 6:00 PM). USPS's new online mail system is just starting to match where UPS & FedEx were 5 years ago. I can also log into UPS & FedEx's websites and see every package in transit to us, regardless who shipped it or what account it's on. From the perspective of individuals receiving packages, the mail might be better, but for businesses shipping, no way.

Posted by: hillary on August 2, 2006 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

doesn't matter -

You need a new bank. My credit union will let me order a payment tonight that will go out first thing tomorrow, whether they pay it electronically or by mail. If it's electronic, the credit card company will get it tomorrow, but won't post it till the next day, though.

Posted by: freelunch on August 2, 2006 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

As an individual, it is cheaper to send things via the post office.

I can get huge discounts from work from FedEx.

I sent something to Japan FedEx economy and it got there in 4 days. The post office would have charged more money and taken 2 to 4 weeks.

I sent something from coast to coast. FedEx got it there in 3 days for half the price that the Post Office would have charged.

Right now, the little guy does better with the post office but the big guy, where most of the money is, does far better with FedEx or UPS or ....

As the post office loses more and more money on first class mail and as Fedex gives discounts to smaller businesses then the spiral will get worse.

Posted by: Neil Hecht on August 2, 2006 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a LitSup guy at a law firm, and I think a big reason we're not at the paperless office is, well, old partners. There's a bunch of 60+ aged senior partners at my firm who blow back everything and want nothing to do with a database, and for the most part neither do their 60+ secretaries.

I think there's just a point where people are comfortable with the way they're doing something and they don't want to scrap it and learn something new (this is probably the sole reason fax machines still survive). When todays junior associates become tomorrow's senior partners, I think you'll see a much greater acceptance of technology-based solutions.

Inefficiencies aren't going to go away, however, because people are morons. Case in point, I was getting large stacks of paper from 23 year old paralegals to be put into our database (we need single page TIFFs). I realized a week ago that they weren't getting these documents in as paper, they were getting them as PDFs, printing them out, and then sending them to me so I could send them to be scanned to TIFF. Sigh..

Posted by: Cain on August 2, 2006 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

Neil,

as Fedex gives discounts to smaller businesses

Is that a guarantee? Why would Fedex do that?

Posted by: Tripp on August 2, 2006 at 5:13 PM | PERMALINK

Tripp-

It's pretty much industry standard for shipping companies (small parcel to full-truck+) to give volume discounts. It makes sense, a lot of their fixed costs (like sending a driver every day) go down per package when a company's doing more business. FedEx has been integrating their different operations (and reducing fixed costs) and has started going after customers more aggressively, and will need discounts to woo people away from other sources.

Posted by: Hillary on August 2, 2006 at 5:52 PM | PERMALINK

With printer inks being one of the great rip offs and storage being so cheap, I find less and less use for hard copies, printing to .pdf and .txt mostly. Takes a good logical file layout so you can find the zillions of files and religious backup so you don't lose stuff, but with cd burners, free online storage, redendant old computers and laptops I am at this point confidents that hard copies are in general unnecessary for me.

the fact that the video screen is an utterly abysmal replacement for ink-on-paper.

I like reading Project Gutenberg books using the ybook reader from http://www.spacejock.com/yBook.html . Formats them nicely from .zip or .txt, two pages across, and you just click a page to advance to the next page.


Posted by: Myron on August 2, 2006 at 11:05 PM | PERMALINK

I used to work in the document imaging industry, and aside from a general cynicism about our industry's future ("the paperless office will take over at about the same time as the paperless bathroom," went the usual joke), the most pervasive irony was the dawning realization that imaging and other digital automation actually increased the amount of paper used in offices.

Well, of course. Digital technology made it easier to print out a number of copies of the same document. You didn't have to have armies of secretaries pounding away at their Remington typewriters to do that. Push a button, and the laser printer does the work.

Posted by: raj on August 3, 2006 at 7:05 AM | PERMALINK

Great post. Ver helpfull.

I have alot of good information like this on my site.
Check it out when you get a chance!

Http://www.axxsis.com

Posted by: Axxsis on August 5, 2006 at 8:08 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly