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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

USPO: Remember the Market!
October 2, 2011 - 8:00pm

I have two comments to make about today's New York Times article regarding the United States Post Office's (USPO) challenge to remain relevant. According to the article, USPO's deficient is large and growing. The alleged problem is "the Internet," with a focus on email verses "stamped" mail. My first comment is academic, the second is administrative.

Academic: Hasn't everyone read Lessig's Code by now? If not, then take an hour or so to skim through it, especially the chapter on the four factors that influence the Internet: technology, social norms, law and the market. Instead of pointing the finger redundantly at "technology," as the "problem," as this article does, how about identifying thriving private delivery businesses such as Fed Ex and UPS? It's not stamped mail verses email, silly rabbit, because don't you know that email is for old people? If along those lines one wants to call out Facebook or blog services, you would be on stronger ground. But the shift from the physical to cyberspace in the personal messaging misses the determining factor for why the USPO has faltered: its the connection between e-commerce and corporate delivery service that has made the bell toll for thee.

[I will reserve for a latter blog why it is that technology always assumes more than its share of "blame" in these discussions because critical eyes frequently gloss over the market factor. Two clues: first, these shiny things upon which we write can't help but attract our attention, and perhaps distract from economic issues; second, that darn ol' invisible hand remains invisible indeed. Unfortunate, because we miss so much understanding in the absence of elucidating the dynamics among and between all four factors -- but always including -- the economic one.]

Administrative: Okay, this one might be a stretch, but here it is anyway. Anyone who has stayed awake long enough to listen to me prattle on about an "administrative agency devoted to the Internet" will readily predict what I am about to say. If we had such an agency, we might be able to examine issues such as this one proactively and from a comprehensive perspective, instead always as a "one off" concern, to which we give inadequate cause and effect analysis, and as a result then plan government action and incentivize the market more effectively and efficiently." This point rests on plenty of assumptions: that the agency be given the scope and purview to address a broad range of issues defining the Internet not as a technology, but as a world-historical phenomenon that embraces the economic, social, political, legal and ideological. And that the people who serve in those administrative roles will have read Lessig before their appointment.


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