The other day I was thinking about the changes in the dissemination of information and news that have occurred in my lifetime. Sunday was my birthday and, as has been the case for the better part of the last four decades, I received a birthday card in the mail from my mother and my aunt. These were actual birthday cards–not virtual cards or Facebook birthday greetings. I could hold them in my hand, open them, and read them. They were delivered by a mail carrier working for the United States Post Office.
I am grateful for all of my Facebook friends who wished me a happy birthday on Sunday, but I also wondered how many more of these cards, delivered by a mail carrier, I will receive during the rest of my lifetime.
I thought about my birthday cards again after reading Wayne Curtis’s essay “Flash!: Information at the Speed of Foot.” He begins with a very entertaining story about a mail carrier named Martha Cherry:
16 years ago a mail carrier with the cheerful name of Martha Cherry was fired. She was 49-years-old, and had been with the U.S. Postal Service for 18 years, delivering mail by foot in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in Westchester County.
Cherry was let go after her superiors determined that she walked too slowly. “You were observed on June 9, 1997, to walk at a rate of 66 paces per minute with a stride of less than one foot,” the condemning report charged, adding the detail that her “leading foot did not pass the toe of [her] trailing foot by more than one inch.” The upshot? She took 13 minutes longer than necessary to walk her route.
The flap was, essentially, over whether mail — that is, information — should move at three miles per hour or three-and-a-half miles per hour. And it all seems tremendously quaint now — post offices are being shuttered almost daily, regular Saturday mail delivery may cease next August, and the postal service is hemorrhaging staggering amounts of money — last year it posted a deficit of $16 billion. Mail moving a half-mile per hour slower was not responsible for this.
Curtis goes on the discuss the role that walking has played in the history of information. He concludes:
Information today moves at the speed of light. And while we thrill at the idea of boosting our home data connections to 60 MBPS, I don’t think it would be a bad thing if more of us embraced slow information, and continued to convey it by foot. This would have the benefit of allowing information time to cool down as it traveled, making it less scalding upon arrival, while granting us sufficient time to digest what we’ve learned.
The postal carrier is one the great figures in our national development, like the Minute Men or the Doughboys. But they are increasingly an anachronism, soldiers on the front lines with bayonets rather than lasers.
So, as the post office continues its gradual slide into irrelevancy, I’d like to propose a memorial to Martha Cherry, the mail carrier with the one-foot stride. Perhaps a nice bronze statue. She represents not only what’s sure to be a fading sight along our streets and boulevards in the years ahead, but recalls an era when information moved with an appealing lack of urgency, and a time when information was conveyed by superheroes.
I think I will go out and take walk.