There was a time in Barbados, just a few short generations ago, when writing letters was the main mode of communication with friends and relatives at home and abroad.
Most homes did not have telephones back then. Of course, we speak of landlines which were so few that phone numbers had five digits and Barbados used to share an 809 area code with other countries in the region. The advent of the exclusive 246 area code came later.
As for the ubiquitous cellphone, around which so much of modern life seems to revolve in our seemingly insatiable desire to stay connected, it was a figment of some creative mind waiting to see the light of the day. The same applied to the ubiquitous Internet.
Because the use of mail was so prevalent, the sight of a postman –– there were hardly any postwomen in those days –– riding through communities, especially in rural Barbados, either on a bicycle or on a Vespa scooter on weekday afternoons, made people excited.
The excitement stemmed from anticipation that he was possibly bringing a letter from a friend or relative in another part of Barbados, or better yet, from a relative overseas with a few British pounds, United States or Canadian dollars inside.
Occasionally, the postman brought a notice that a parcel of goodies from overseas was at the Post Office waiting to be collected.
Delivery of the mail was pretty swift in those days. If posted in the morning, a letter generally would be in the hands of a recipient elsewhere in Barbados later the same day. For neighbouring Caribbean countries, it took about two to three days.
Christmas used to be a particularly busy period, with postmen doing deliveries on Saturdays because of the high volume of letters and cards. Nowadays, when the postman or postwoman visits, what they are bringing is easily predictable. A bill from somewhere.
So that the recent admission by Postmaster General Nigel Cobham that letter writing is virtually dead is not altogether surprising. Since the rise in popularity of electronic or email, the writing has been on the wall for traditional or “snail” mail.
His acknowledgement, however, does signal the end of an era. For many Barbadians, though, the reality is enough to shed a silent tear because it represents the end of a nostalgic part of growing up. The experience of meeting people through corresponding with pen pals, going to the shop to buy writing paper, envelopes and postage stamps, licking the envelope to seal the letter and then the stamp as well before placing it in the neighbourhood’s mailbox.
Launching a new prescription delivery service at the General Post Office last week, Mr Cobham said increasing public reliance on information and communication technology had been having such a negative impact on the mail business that the volume of mail had been declining every year.
“As a consequence, the need to find alternative revenue streams has become critical,” he said. “The service we are launching here today is part of a serious thrust by the Post Office to diversify the range of products and services that we offer.”
Technological change is clearly threatening the demise of the traditional postal service not here in Barbados alone, but across the world. Against this challenging backdrop, we wish the local Post Office well in its quest to adapt to a changing environment. The road ahead, however, will be bumpy. In a world where people have developed expectations of almost instantaneous results, traditional mail can never compete with email. Email is instant; traditional mail takes time.
Besides, except for the cost of Internet service, email does not require paper, envelopes, postage stamps or a pen and ink. It supports efficiency which is an important factor in promoting competitiveness, especially by companies.
Increasingly now too, customers have the option of receiving their bills electronically and companies have been encouraging them to go this route. What this means is that sometime in the future, there will be a further decline in traditional business for the Post Office.
Naturally, this raises questions about long-term job security for postmen and postwomen. It is a possibility they should start bracing for. If the use of traditional mail services continues on the path of steady decline, redundancy could be the inevitable fate awaiting postmen and postwomen in the not too distant future.