The seventh edition of inter·mission, discussing relationships and implications of an infrastructure shifting from physical to digital. Download PDF.
Note from the Editors
When was the last time you wrote a friend a letter? Or received one? Or even hand-delivered a package to the Post Office? Would you ever choose to receive a paper check in the mail if Direct Deposit (or better yet, Venmo) were an option?
Worth $9,500,000, the 1856 British Guiana 1-cent Magenta is the world’s most valuable stamp.1 Should we consider it a relegation or acension, that the once common and utilitarian stamp is now an antique worth more than a 10th of the annual revenue of the postal service? 2 Their practicality ever dwindling, letters
and stamps become commemorative icons - we’ve outsped Thurn and Taxis and the Trystero, leaving older generations to contemplate Pynchons postal futures.3
‘Postbox’ acknowledges the ever-shrinking functional distance between worlds that were once far apart, with one-click access to every product, service and idea being the essence of the way we live. Yet, in a strange way, the more knowledge we gain about the world, the less aware we become of the complex networks tying it all together.
As a group that relies heavily on print to achieve our mission, we at inter·punct find ourselves examining what we can do to stay relevant post-postbox. How can the timeless pursuit of knowledge, discourse and architecture adapt in an increasingly intangible world where the physicality of the mailbox and associated
manual processes are being abandoned for digital tools and methodologies? What is the relevance of the postbox, if any, in 2019?
“The game’s on, you’re not leaving your couch”, yet another email from GrubHub promises. Undoubtedly, the world and everything it has to offer is literally at our fingertips. But what do we lose in the journey?
The Future Post as Civic Commons
The postal service is one of the few American institutions, public or private, in which communities are treated equally. Connecting 150 million households almost every day, the postal network has been America’s central nervous system binding the nation together for over two centuries — ever since Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general in 1775. Winifred Gallagher argues that the postal services created America as “the incubator of our uniquely lively, disputatious culture of innovative ideas and uncensored opinions.”1
Despite today’s ubiquitous connectivity, the postal mailbox remains the most reliable and trustworthy portal to the world. Here there are no hidden privacy policies or personal data breaches. But the postal domain is rapidly changing and under tremendous pressure to reinvent itself. The Internet reduced first-class mail volume significantly, but also increased that of packages by 50 percent between 2010 and 2015, making the postal service a cornerstone of America’s e-commerce marketplace. Unlike other federal services and infrastructures, the post assumes financial self-sufficiency and does not benefit from tax subsidies, but is meanwhile constrained by a universal service obligation and congressional oversight. Accordingly, any debate about future postal services takes place in the context of much broader questions about the value of government itself. While some voices advocate for its privatization, the postal question does not divide along traditional party lines. Particularly in rural (and often red) areas, the social benefits of the postal service seem to outweigh prioritizing cost-efficiency. Thus, beyond its logistic operation, the post assumes an important civic role at the gain of local neighborhood communities: the mail carrier as a neighborhood watch, or the postal service’s role in re-establishing contact with populations after natural disasters. No wonder that of the 3,700 unprofitable facilities the postmaster general proposed shutting down in 2011, only about 140 were actually terminated. Thus, even a short consideration of the post office’s role in community foregrounds the difficulty of setting postal policy for the nation as a whole. Urban and rural Americans, the young and the old, residents and businesses, the healthy and the disabled, the well-off and the disadvantaged—all have different expectations of the post.
But despite the post’s ubiquitous physical presence and distribution capability, there is no meaningful process to engage with local place-based revitalization, economic development or smart city initiatives. In the context of recent postal reform legislation which stipulates priority for more state and local partners—as well as the ability to consider non-traditional partnerships which augment core-postal services, the time is right to bridge a place and postal divide. Here, designers’ capacity to combine systemic thinking with the specificities of an urban milieu promise to open up new perspectives for saving the post. How can the core service and function of the Postal Service better align with the needs of the places where they are located? How can postal networks and underutilized postal facilities be envisioned as civic community hubs? How and where can facilities and distribution infrastructure adapt and even be repurposed and contribute to building community resilience?
These questions are at the heart of a Spring 2019 elective course in social innovation, “From Postal Networks to Community Places,” to explore possible synergies between the postal domain and community needs. Co-taught by Stefan Gruber, Kristin Hughes and Andrew Butcher, the course draws students from diverse disciplines including architecture, urban design, design, human computer interaction and public policy. Building on research Andrew pursued in a systems capstone project at the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy last spring, the course introduces a place-making perspective and human-centered design approach to reimagining the future post.
Homewood’s recently closed post office on Brushton Avenue and its adjacent Larimer-East Liberty and Wilkinsburg facilities serve as case studies for anchoring broader speculations about the postal domain in the reality of challenging urban neighborhoods. Thus, the course combines an introduction to the postal domain with methods of community engagement and fieldwork in order to identify where postal and community needs may converge. What if the future post helped alleviate the lack of access to affordable and healthy food by collaborating with food banks? What if mail carriers would offer a daily touch point for single senior citizen living alone? And what if the 300,000 postal vehicles that cover the entirety of the nation’s expansive street network every single day were equipped with sensors and collected data on air quality or potholes, in order to render our cities smarter without surrendering control to corporate greed? The opportunities include almost every aspect addressed in urban resiliency strategies such as Pittsburgh’s OnePGH plan. At the end of the semester a postal forum will bring together postal and place-making experts to discuss the viability of the students’ radical imaginations.
1. Gallagher, Winifred. How the Post Office Created America : a History New York: Penguin Press, 2016.
Kelly Li + Eric Zhu
The promise of free two-day shipping is seductive. In a few minutes, we can have something we vaguely want delivered to our doorsteps just two mornings later — a gift for myself! It’s effortless and gratifying.
Tim Wu, professor of law at Columbia, raises a concern in a NY Times op-ed that convenience has beat out other virtues to become the true American value. As our addiction with Amazon makes clear, “convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I ‘prefer.’) Easy is better, easiest is best.”1
Wu’s problematic and our vague suspicion of the “tyranny of convenience” are the newest in a long thread of critical thought dating to Marx that questions the control over our freedom by abstract forces. In his Grundrisse, Marx writes that the nature and necessity of capital is to extend its market through “greater annihilation of space by time.”2 Indeed the frictions of space have vanished with the possibility of instant fulfillment. The entire process — from the seamless 1-click interface to the surprise at your doorstep — is one that exists so consumers can expect extreme convenience.
I recently ordered a lamp. Months ago, that lamp started as crude oil that was extracted, refined, blended, and melted into plastic pellets. Those pellets were exported to a Chinese factory, remelted, molded, and assembled into a lamp, where it was then boxed, shipped across the ocean again, and stored. Last week, I spent a few minutes browsing in an app and ordered the lamp. It was then “processed” (by humans) at a “fulfillment center” and delivered via UPS to my doorstep in the iconic cardboard box.
Amazon is a two-sided market, and we only see the side of convenience and price. The post is the last remnant of our physical relation to the complex processes of production and transnational distribution — the rest is invisible to us. This creates strong network effects and positive feedback loops: “The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon,” as Wu puts it.3 The more we consume, the more businesses like Amazon grow, and the more we correspondingly create material impacts on the world. We’ve made an implicit social contract with Amazon — convenience in exchange for what’s behind the curtain: the dignity of labor and the resilience of our planet.
The story doesn’t end with the delivery though. We like to think that if we could just recycle more, we could negate the material gluttony of the products we’re using. But the extraction and processing is still continuing, while most of what we “recycle” isn’t actually recycled; it’s usually too dirty or non-homogenous and is subsequently thrown away. Furthermore, what previously could be salvaged was often shipped to China, to be used for more manufacturing. In 2017 however, China implemented the National Sword Policy and has increasingly restricted the quality and quantity of acceptable recyclables. Suddenly, western industrialized countries are being confronted with the fact that they can no longer ship away their material waste. They have to learn how to actually deal with their own responsibilities.
Landfills are forgotten spaces until we start to feel the effects of contaminated water and food, once toxins seep into the soil and groundwater. Some people are feeling the effects already, but most of us are so buffered and removed from them that we don’t really understand the cost.
But the issue isn’t just about trash, or manufacturing, or even Amazon. It’s about a whole global system of expectations. What can we possibly change in a world built upon the paradigm of convenience? Within such complex systems, no clear solutions could ever exist, but we posit leverage points to identify and pursue the most effective vectors for change.4 One of the most insinuous things about convenience is the abstraction we have from the effect of our actions — the length of time between the click and the contamination could be years or decades. How do we change that interaction to bring about an effective feedback loop that makes our consumer behavior more responsible to its consequences? The structure of the information flow is such that we are completely obscured from the efforts that goes into a product before it arrives. How do we humanize and understand the labor that goes behind every stitch in our clothing, and every assembled screw in our machines? Whether it’s at the level of complex material organizations, structures of information flows, or systems operating within the paradigm of convenience, there is much room for improvement for how we as a society understand and interact with these systems at large. We can choose to reduce our experience to a click, or we can take a look behind the curtain at the true costs.
3. Tim Wu, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” Ney York Times, February 16, 2018 4. Donella Meadows, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”.
My friend is addicted to Candy Crush. The same friend who sent me a Venmo request for the dollar I once borrowed, also spent $132 on new lives, extra moves, and triped candies — virtual ones. Her daily life blurs in the background behind the saturated display of the game, and her chronology of events is derived from the Candy Crush level she was on at that point in time. Admittedly, she’s pretty good, having invested immense amounts time and effort to arrive at level 930, but once she swipes out of the game, the “color bombs” and extra moves so critical to her in that virtual world now mean nothing, and her diminishing funds remain as the only tangible real-world impact. Once the game is over, Candy Crush’s purchased features are useless in the real world.
We have swiped out of the outdated world of the post box.
The constructed world in which post boxes were once relevant has almost fully crumbled down. The postbox, the ancient architecture of communication, is now a mere blue box on the street; it has been replaced with the new reality of digital communication. The methods through which we communicate have modernized to be digitized, quick, and instantaneous. Even the age-old Chinese culture of elders giving their children red envelopes has been compressed into a Wechat feature that allows you to wire red envelope money with just a few taps on a screen. It seems as if society has lost its interpersonal touch, flattening memories into JPEGs, and experiencing all of life through a screen.
The effects of this all-consuming digitization on architecture are impossible to ignore. When walking through Times Square in NYC or the streets of Shanghai, our visions are polluted by consumerist flashy digital ads that shield the architecture from view. In 2018, the white sails of the Sydney Opera House reflected back the Everest horse race advertisement, the mirror of commercialism, and the prime minister called the country’s most recognizable piece of architecture “the biggest billboard Sydney has.” While there is opposition to this devaluation of architecture to protect culture and history, digitization is inevitable. With the reality that life is unfavorable, maybe even impossible, for the average person to function without digital means, architecture needs to evolve towards the same reality in order to keep up with modernity.
Is architecture the next post box?
Much like how the definition of communication has been redefined from the postbox to Instagram DMs, the definition of architecture is transforming as well. Architecture has consistently been seen as stagnant and permanent, a visible bookmark in the pages of time, but now is evolving to be more temporary and flexible. Architecture has started to become responsive to people, and not just vice versa. Maybe virtual reality can imitate a spatial experience, but creating a spatial experience is not the sole purpose or impact of architecture. Times Square eeks to awe society with its sensationalism, but diminishes people to the audience of a spectacle, rather than elevating them as actors participating within the architecture. Architecture is not solely about expression of culture or thought, but also a liaison between us and the greater narrative of our society.
However, unlike the postbox which was just plain outdated, digitization can supplement architecture rather than completely replace it. If architecture has historically been a reflection of contemporary culture, then maybe “digital architecture” is a reflection, rather than the loss, of ours. The integration of a digital medium alters the nature of a spatial experience by orienting the way we interpret what we see, and this could be exploited as an advantage towards how the framework of architecture is constructed both during the design process and at the resultant. Baudelaire has “remarked that every age has its own gait, glance and gesture,” and therefore we should capitalize on the language of our era to “[distill] from it the mysterious element of beauty that it may contain.”1 The modern man cannot function in the body and garb of the past, and similarly we should not inhibit architecture by viewing it through an outdated lens.
1. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (1863), 24.
Staring at the white sheet of paper in front of me — the state of tabula rasa feels like the moment before a performance — one that has been practiced and yet induces a unplaceable nervousness every time, in this case the performance of a pen scrawling lines across an increasingly less blank page, somewhat but not entirely directed by my hand… I’m uneasy about the naked honesty with which my words are displayed, the transparency of my handwriting allowing the reader to see a character of the words and of myself which I would prefer to mask with Helvetica or Work Sans. My mistakes can’t be chocked up to typos, a sin absolved with a simple “sent from my iphone” tag. The possibility of irrevocable failure imbued in the nature of ink creates an emotional connection to the process and product absent in digital methods of creating information. The pressure for perfection is put evenly on the entire process, not only on the end result — you have one shot to get the entire sequence right. Then the ritual trek to the postbox, letting your creation fall out of your hands into an abyss that provides no immediate response, gratification, or insurance of guaranteed reception. I miss the pressure, the tension, and the insecurity… constant comfort and ease eliminates a degree of creative energy and personal connection. I think I’ll try to embrace the fears and write more of you.