Make mail more like email

Here’s a simple suggestion: why can’t physical mail addresses be more like email addresses?

Using a physical mailing address creates a big hassle every time I move. I have to contact all of my friends and family, the magazines I subscribe to, the online businesses I buy from, and the credit cards, banks, etc. that send me statements to let them all know that I’ve moved. This always takes a while and I invariably forget to tell everyone.

Contrast this with moving a website or email address to a new server. When I switch servers, I don’t have to notify everyone who emails me, reads my site, or links to my content that I’m moving. They use the address they’ve always used and the Domain Name System (DNS) automatically associates the domain name that people remember with the numerical IP address that computers use to communicate. I just have to tell one entity about the move (the DNS registry) and it takes care of the problem for everyone else.

It seems like computing technology is cheap enough now that our postal system should work the same way. Why should we have to remember cumbersome physical addresses and update all our contacts when we move? It would be a lot easier to simply use the equivalent of a domain name address and associate it in a database with a physical mailing location. Call it a Postal Name System (PNS). Everyone could have their own, easily memorized address to use for life. When people move, they just notify the PNS of the change and their postal name keeps functioning seamlessly, associating their postal address with their new physical location.

In other words, there’s no longer any reason why the physical locations where we live and work should have anything to do with the postal addresses people use to send us stuff.

This seems like it would be especially useful to businesses who now have to incur the costs of printing new stationery, business cards, signs, etc., when they move. People could also register multiple addresses and associate them with different physical locations. For example, someone starting a business out of their home could register an address that initially sends their work related mail there. Later, if the business expands to its own office, the address could be rerouted to the new location without having to print new materials or notify customers of the change.

Such a system might also be able to map email addresses on to postal addresses, if people choose that option. I’d love for friends to be able to just write on a letter, drop it in a mail box, and have it arrive at my house.

The US Postal Service already does something like this with mail forwarding. Its machines scan a written address, check to see if the person at that address has requested forwarding, and if he has slaps a label with the new address on the package. This is all translated into printed bar codes for machines to read. With this capability already in place, it seems like it would only need to be ramped up to accommodate a Postal Name System for associating addresses with physical locations.

ZIP codes were a very smart way of making mail delivery faster, but they have their roots in a system designed in 1943. Since then the use of postal codes has expanded but the way we address our mail hasn’t fundamentally changed. Perhaps that’s because we’re stuck with a postal monopoly, because this idea seems completely feasible with existing technology.


4 thoughts on “Make mail more like email”

  1. I agree. My initial thought was that addresses need to be on letters primarily for the final phase: when the postman puts it in the mailbox he needs to know which mailbox to put it in. However, you’re right that this could be remedied using the same technology as mail forwarding. Good call. Now who shall we contact to get the wheels in motion?

  2. This is a great idea. As for your question about the postal monopoly, do you find it curious that no other shipping company has implemented the same system? Say DHL had come out with this system from the start, offering everyone the ability to use their email address (or some other unique identifier) as their routing tag, but only if the items are shipped to them via DHL? I think that might really catch on.

  3. I do find it surprising that none of the independent companies are doing this yet. Perhaps it’s because of the networking effects. As by far the biggest carrier, the postal service would have an advantage in getting people started.

    FedEx has positioned itself really well in the business world. It would be cool to see them roll out something like this.

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