postal system

Postal is defined as pertaining to the post and relating to the carriage of the mails.  A postal system can be defined primarily as the medium that makes it possible for any person to send a letter, packet, or parcel to any addressee–in the same country or abroad–in the expectation that it will be conveyed according to certain established standards of regularity, speed, and security.  A secondary definition of the term can be the institution–almost invariably under the control of a government or quasi-government agency.  A postal system can also be viewed as an extension not only of the human sensorium (see senses), but also of the body itself as the item (mail and various other media) is mediated by a postal system–which replaces the body–through the transporting materials over an extended distance systematically via a structure of various transfer points between the sender and receiver.  Unlike media such as drums, smoke signals, lantern beacons, or semaphores systems, which mediated messages over relatively short distances, the evolution of postal systems is directly connected and contingent upon the historical development of the other media–particularly writing and some type of lightweight medium for its placement (i.e. paper)–it can also be argued that the medium of the wheel is equally important its development; however the early message-relay postal system relied on the horse as the medium of transport.  Most importantly, its development can be traced to human need or desire to communicate information over greater distances and time, then for instance, face-to-face communication through the medium of spoken language (prior to the invention of the telephone).

The post has quite an extensive history dating back to the Roman and Persian Empires as well as some Asian societies that used courier-type services.  The messengers carried written or memorized messages–from sender to receiver–and returned with the reply from receiver.  In these societies, couriers also traveled along planned routes usually to retrieve information regarding military affairs or trade from distant areas.  It is important to note that the Roman and later the Byzantine Empires were only able to expand and control large expanses of the territory through the existence of several media–a system of roads, a mode of transport, and the combined media of writing and paper–thus, a very rudimentary postal system (the imperial post used by the Roman government provides an excellent example) operated within these far-flung empires.

In Europe, similar postal systems were established by the ruling aristocracy, merchants, and other business concerns.  The term post referred literally to upright posts used as a medium for displaying public notices and messages.  The term was also applied to the points of transfer (stands or stations) within the postal system as well as to men with horses stationed at various distances along post-roads; the duty of these men was to ride or forward to the next stage (post-stage) with the king’s ‘packet’ (usually confidential or sensitive information) between kingdoms or capitals as well as the letters of other persons.  These early postmen also furnished changes of horses for riders to ‘thorough posts’ or express messengers riding post.  Posts were laid (to lay posts) to establish a chain of by which the speedy forwarding of dispatches could travel.

Posts were originally laid temporarily when communication was required with a distant point.  These posts were later established permanently on certain routes (c. 17 th century) and the men (or posts) were called postmasters, predecessors to the present-day postmasters in charge of local post offices, receiving and dispatching local mails.  These early postmasters (circa. 16 th and 17 th centuries) also provided post-horses to travelers as well as conducting the daily business of at the posting establishment.  Even these early posts were organized into a well-ordered system for the relying of various media.

Similarly, a postal system serves as a medium between the sender and receiver as well as a medium containing intermediate points between sender and receiver.  This system of intermediate points of transfer seem to have changed little from the 16 th and 17 th century to the present day.  The issue of temporality becomes an issue in the transport of the materials through a postal system.  In early the post much like today’s overnight delivery, express messengers transported the mails more rapidly than the standard post, thus the timeliness of receiving mail was also important to 16 th and 17 th century users of the post. During this period government control over postal systems allowed any citizen to post a message for a fee, or postage, which was verified by a postage stamp.
A postal system as a medium also incorporates new media in an effort to maintain a certain level of efficiency.  An example of this is the evolution of the postal system in the United States as the country expanded westward.  In the late-19th century the revival of the courier services of ancient times is evident in the Pony Express, which delivered the post throughout the remote territories of the west.  Over time, the postal system utilized rail and air transport, thus delivery by accelerating its distance and speed–and thus a collapsing of time and space.

While the essential operation and purpose of a postal system has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries, the late-20 th century development of electronic mail as a crucial medium of business and personal communication has accelerated the delivery of information exponentially.  Although originally limited solely to the the medium of written text, mail now includes visual and audio media.  Moreover, as with previous developments of postal systems, the digital medium of email allows information to be delivered greater distances with greater speed, thus the mediation of information over time and space has been greatly minimized–the world has become smaller.  The overall technical process of an electronic mail system is practically identical to that of the standard ‘analog‘ postal system (the U.S. Postal Service, for example). The systems operation is usually based on ‘post office protocol’ or POP with servers that perform the function of the postmaster; however, there is one essential difference–the human medium of the letter carrier has been eliminated from the delivery process and replaced by the digital transmissions of the digital postal system.

The social impact of email (or electronic post) on American society is immeasurable.  It can be argued that a reemergence of the art of writing has ensued as email has replaced the telephone conversation (the long distance call in particular) and in many ways ‘analog’ postal systems (inter-office mail, for instance).  However, one common complaint about this digital postal system, which reminiscent of most technological advances, was thought to decrease the amount of time spent opening and reading analog mail in addition to wasted paper–due to its supposed reduction as a result of email–has only resulted in the increased usage use each of these media ( time and paper) as the mail of this electronic post exists only in a virtual state until it is printed on paper–which undoubtedly many email messages are–to provide the message ‘concrete’ form (i.e. hard copy).  Moreover, as the proliferation of other media become intertwined with one another, the amount of email encountered by receivers from innumerable senders (this also includes unsolicited email in the form of ‘SPAM’) increases, thus requiring a greater usage of time reading and responding to email than might have been the case prior to this technological innovation.

It is quite ironic that this technological innovation initially designed to ‘liberate’ the sender/receiver–through the diminution of space and time of practically instantaneous communication–has made many senders/receivers virtually reliant upon it.  This fact can be evinced by the ability–if desired–of the user to receive and send email from infinite locations contingent only upon the availability of some type of mediating device (i.e. computer, cellular phone, etc.) allowing the receipt and transmission of messages–thus mobility has also been enhanced by this ‘non-localized’ media.  Interestingly, the far-reaching social impact of email–particularly in the United States–also raises issues surrounding race and class with regard to the groups who are without access to this media technology (i.e. email, internet, etc.) due to a lack of monetary or educational resources needed to have access to this increasingly essential digital media technology–as a result, a “digital divide” exists between those with access to digital technology–such as email–and those without.  Subsequently, it seems that akin to many other advances in technology email often causes more problems than it solves.

Bryan Dunston
Winter 2002

WORKS CITED

Britannica Online. 30 Jan 2002.

McLuhan, Marshall.  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  Boston: MIT Press, 1994.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. 28 Jan 2001.

Williams, Raymond.  Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.