Physical Messaging

A netizen’s guide to the postal service.

Physical Messaging

A netizen’s guide to the postal service.

These days, messaging is much easier than ever before. Apps and services like WhatsApp and Telegram allow you to send not just short texts, but also pictures, videos, and more. High-speed Internet and videoconferencing lets you to not just speak to people, but see them too.

With all these wonderful new technologies, there’s just one thing missing: the ability to send physical objects to your contacts.

3D printing is different. It lets you make models on the computer, send them across, and have them printed out as physical objects on the other end. But the modelling still has to be done on a computer — and very tedious work it is, too.

What I’m talking about here is being able to pick up something in front of you, make it into an attachment, and have it delivered — still as a real, solid object — to the person at the other end. That would be really cool, wouldn’t it?

Actually, the technology to do this already exists. In fact, it’s been around for a very long time. It’s just a bit slow, that’s all.

You can’t use your smartphone to send your objects across. That’s because making a device capable of sending these objects is a bit too expensive. Instead, the delivery service has many red receptacles set up around the place. You can just drop your object in to have it delivered.

The simplest kind of physical message you can send is a “post card”. Postcards are a bit like posts on social media, but they’re actually closer to private messages in the sense that they only go to one person. And, as their name suggests, they’re physical cards that you can actually touch and feel.

You can buy postcards by going to a “post office”, which sells all things related to physical messaging. Postcards are very easy to use. Just write or draw whatever you want on the blank space provided — it’s like using MyPaint on an iPad, except that you use pens and pencils instead of just your fingers.

After drawing, you can write your contact’s postal address in the form provided, and drop the card into the nearest postbox to upload it. A postal address is like an email address, except that it’s a bit longer and usually works even if it has some typos.

The actual delivery takes a bit of time. That’s because the post has to physically make its way across the postal network. Physical data takes longer to travel than digital data — it is more solid, after all. Luckily, the upload part takes barely a second, so you won’t have to wait around.

Postcards are nice. They’re short and sweet, and don’t take much longer than a longish tweet. But sometimes you might need a bit more. If you find your handwriting getting dense and small and cramped, maybe it’s time to switch to a bigger message.

If postcards are like tweets, inland letters — or ‘inlands’ for short — are like posts on Facebook. (They’re even blue!). An inland is a bit more expensive, but that’s because there’s more of it.

Inlands have space for a ‘From’ address as well as a ‘To’ one. That’s helpful, because if your messages doesn’t get delivered for some reason, it’ll at least get returned to you. Once you’re done with an inland, you can fold it up and seal it before posting. That makes inlands a bit more secure than postcards, against people trying to listen in on your conversation.

The thing with postcards is that they can be hacked even more easily than online messages. You just have to pick them up.

As you fold up your inland, you might be tempted to insert a few other things between the folds before sealing it. That’s not allowed (though it has been done). If you want to enclose many things together, then that’s the job for an envelope.

An envelope is like an email. You can put in as many attachments as you want, and send them all in one bunch. In fact, some envelopes look a lot like the Gmail icon (except that they don’t have so much red).

The nice thing about envelopes is that you can make them yourself. You can custom-make them in whatever shape or size you want. And, if you think that’s too much trouble, you can always go out and buy some.

The only requirements for envelopes is that they have to have their address written clearly enough for the post-office workers to read, and they should have space for a ‘stamp’.

The address part is easy: post-office workers are human, so they can usually read ordinary handwriting even if it’s a bit messy. You can also add a ‘From’ address if you like — that’s usually in a smaller font, in one corner of the envelope or at the back. As with email, you can either write your own address under ‘From’ or try masquerading as someone else.

And now you’re probably wondering what a “stamp” is. It’s basically a small token used to pay for the postal service, a bit like gold coins in Subway Surfer. Stamps can be bought at a post-office, and you use them by sticking them onto the envelope — usually on the top right corner. They come in different values, and the amount you need to put depends on the weight of the envelope. In India, the rate is ₹5 for every 20 grammes.

If that’s too hard to calculate, you can just take your letter to the post-office, where you can get the exact rate for your letter and even buy the stamps right there.

Or you can buy a phone like the Huawei Mate S, which can weigh objects just by having them placed on the screen. If enough people start using it, you’ll never have to calculate postage prices at all. There’ll be an app for that.

At this point, you may be wondering why there’s so much payment involved. Why do you have to pay for physical messages, when digital ones are virtually free?

One reason is that physical messages are harder to deliver. And the further their destinations are, the more work it takes to get them there. Physical messages are much heavier than digital ones, so they have to be carried in vans and lorries instead of thin twisted cables. Digital messages, especially when sent through optical-fibre cables, are very light.

But there’s also another reason the postal service needs payment: because digital messaging platforms get compensated in other ways.

When you send a message to someone using Hangouts or WeChat, it’s not the message that gets sent. The platforms also collect data about things like whom you chat with, how long your messages are, what kind of attachments you send, and what time of the day you’re most active. That data can then be sold to other companies, who use it to target you with advertisements, optimise election campaigning, or do studies to learn more about how people communicate.

So when you’re using “free” apps, you’re actually paying a different way: with your personal information. The postal service can’t or won’t do that sort of thing, so it asks for money instead. And don’t forget that, with the postal service, you don’t even have to pay for bandwidth.

When you take all those things into account, money seems a small price to pay.

Physical messaging may be a bit expensive for some things, but there are ways you can make it cheaper.

For printed material, you can use ‘Book Post’, which starts at only ₹4 and goes up more slowly. To qualify for Book Post, all the material you send has to be printed — no personal messages allowed.

Book Post envelopes are left un-sealed: normally, one flap is left open so the postal service can look inside and check that the content is indeed only printed. Remember to write “BOOK POST” prominently, above the address, so they know you’re using the cheaper service and haven’t just forgotten some stamps. And it’s usually uploaded at a post-office, not simply dropped into a post-box.

Despite its name, Book Post is not the cheapest way of sending actual book. For that, you can use Printed Books — and you don’t even need to make an envelope.

Just take a band of paper, and insert one end right into the middle of the book. Then, wrap it once around the book and paste it there. Write “PRINTED BOOKS” on top, along with the address, and, depending on the weight of your book, it could turn out even cheaper than an inland.

But the main point of the postal service is that it’s not restricted to books. It’s not restricted to anything.

Whatever you decide to send, the postal service can send it. If it’s too bulky and can’t fit into a postbox, you can give it at the post-office just like Book Post. These big packages are not called envelopes. They have another name: parcel. But the pricing works exactly the same.

Parcels are a generic container, so you can put in anything you want — just make sure it can survive the journey. And don’t get so carried away that you drop your smartphone in the package instead of sending a message with it.

Although, that’ll get delivered too.

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