Why do we still mail things to places instead of people?
September 10, 2019 2:30 PM   Subscribe

Each apartment I’ve lived in my address has changed. :( And when, for example, my aunt sends me a package four years after moving to my old address I’ll never see it. But with the contemporary computerized world why haven’t we changed that? I mean I figure you could just go to the post office and just get a “post number” that was unique to you for all time. And that number could be associated with your current address. Then people wanting to mail you will always put that “post number” on the package and regardless of where your living the package would arrive there! The problem of shipping to an old address would mostly be gone. I wouldn’t have to update my address on 500 DIFFERENT WEBSITES WHEN I MOVED!! Why hasn’t this change come to regular old snail mail? What am I missing?
posted by verytepid to Technology (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
How would the post office sort the mail? There could be a half dozen people in a house, each with a unique "post number".
posted by leaper at 3:01 PM on September 10 [6 favorites]


Because the post office doesn’t really know or care who lives at the places they deliver to. Your question assumes there is or could be some kind of national database of every resident (not just citizen, but all residents including minors) that they could consult every time a piece of mail is given to them.

Leaving aside the concerns of creating and maintaining such a database, as well as accounting for a mechanism to update your location, AND the human attention it would require to parse handwriting and also recognize variations — Jim Smith vs. James Smith vs. Jimmy Smith vs. Jimmy Smits vs. James Smith Jr. vs. James Smith II etc. — how on earth could they deal with all the edge cases, let alone the many many people who exactly share a name?

If you’re having package difficulties, redirect all your mail to a mailbox service that you pay to receive and forward everything.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 3:06 PM on September 10 [5 favorites]


This is functionally the equivalent of putting your Social Security number on your mail. I feel like people wouldn't want to do that....

Basically, any identifier that is unique to a person "for all time" is a setup for identity theft. That's exactly what happened with SSN.
posted by basalganglia at 3:08 PM on September 10 [20 favorites]


I personally would be uncomfortable with the USPS having a database of all entities (citizens, non-citizens, businesses, etc) in the USA with their associated addresses. I would view that as a violation of my privacy, and a significant security risk.
posted by saeculorum at 3:11 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Under your scheme, the government would have a central database of the current address of every single person. I can only imagine the ferocity of the opposition if this became mandatory.

There are shipping services other than the USPS. In order for any of those services to ship to you, they would have to have access to that database. Now the government is either the arbiter of who can or cannot run a shipping business, or they need to give out your current address to anyone who asks. And unless you can block specific consumers, once someone learned your permanent identifier, they would be able to find out your current address for all time. And if you allow people to change their permanent identifiers, then you've defeated the core purpose of the system.

Not to mention the practicalities, as leaper alludes to. Either the post office now needs to read the identifier and mark the physical address on the package, or your postal carrier needs to use a computer to figure out where to deliver every single mailpiece. And they can't memorize anything; since the point of the system is to allow the identifiers to dynamically point to new locations, every mailpeice must be checked against the database every single time.
posted by yuwtze at 3:12 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


Even in countries where everyone has to register their address centrally wherever they move (and this is very common, eg in European countries), people don't keep these 100% up to date. They delay, or forget or have other reasons. I feel like it would be maybe at least as likely for the database to have an outdated address for you now and then than for your family and friends to do so.
posted by lollusc at 3:15 PM on September 10


It may interest you to know that the USPS operates under a consistent mounting deficit, partly because they are obligated to fully fund all pensions each and every financial year — which no other government agency has to do — and because they are obligated to beg Congress every time they need a rate change, which carries other consequences.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 3:17 PM on September 10 [8 favorites]


Australia Post does a variant of this for parcels, you register to get a number and you can have things delivered to e.g. ‘parcel locker 12345 67890, Suburb, City, 1234’, registering for local post offices as you move house. Like a shared PO Box.

It still has to be linked to a residential address because that address verifies you as a person living at a location, though, instead of as a shady .biz URL.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:18 PM on September 10


I personally would be uncomfortable with the USPS having a database of all entities (citizens, non-citizens, businesses, etc) in the USA with their associated addresses

don't they functionally have this already? the USPS scans the front of EVERY piece of mail, digitizes the writing on it, saves it to a database and saves the picture of it too.

This is functionally the equivalent of putting your Social Security number on your mail. I feel like people wouldn't want to do that....

why does this have to be a forever number? having fraud problems? get a new number.
posted by Dr. Twist at 3:24 PM on September 10


It may interest you to know that the USPS operates under a consistent mounting deficit, partly because they are obligated to fully fund all pensions each and every financial year — which no other government agency has to do — and because they are obligated to beg Congress every time they need a rate change, which carries other consequences.

This is a lot of it. This is a problem money and technology could solve but the post office does not have much money and is spending a lot of it to maintain and manage technology they already have that will do things like manage address verification, payment options, changing postage costs and the like. Their tech is standardized among (almost) all the post offices in the US. A lot of the money they get comes from things that your average human might find a little noxious like bulk mail and the like. So they have to prioritize what they are able to do to things that will help them stay sustainable.

And even though your idea is good in a lot of ways, it mostly solves a problem for you, not a problem for the post office. Many people who want or desire this level of customization pay extra for the service and have a private mailbox which can do the same thing (or close to it) or have a job where they can get things delivered. This would also put the post office in the position of being responsible for people's ability (or, let's be honest, inability) to update their own record. Or, possibly, deal with things like fraud and privacy which I;m sure they'd love to not be involved with.
posted by jessamyn at 3:30 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


The problem is partially solved by P. O. boxes and completely solved by virtual private mailboxes. Why would they do anything?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:31 PM on September 10


why does this have to be a forever number? having fraud problems? get a new number.

If you change your number, and someone sends something to your old number, how is that different than someone sending it to your old address? Admittedly, people suffer fraud less often than they move, but the system proposed only works if there's no way for a number to become outdated.
posted by yuwtze at 3:36 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


This would be a nightmare for anyone trying to get away from harassing mail.
posted by current resident at 3:40 PM on September 10 [9 favorites]


Signing up for mail forwarding when you move is basically the same thing as this. Also there's supposed to already be a mechanism for if you get something sent to a wrong address which is "return to sender". Any system can only be effective if used properly and we have systems in place to handle these cases, people just don't use them, even though they've been around a long time. I can't imagine any other brand new system would actually get used properly.
posted by bleep at 4:43 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]


Additionally, a LOT of correcting can happen with postal mail addresses as they currently are. Leave off the apartment. Number? Your mail carrier might still get it to you. Transpose a ZIP Code, they can likely figure that out somewhere along the way. Misspell the city? There are enough context clues that many errors can be overcome. (That’s not to suggest that the system is perfect or that correctly addressed mail always gets delivered perfectly...much less incorrectly addressed mail pieces.)

If mail had just a number? Transpose two digits combined with a misspelling of your name?

Someone else is almost definitely getting your mail.
posted by bilabial at 4:51 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


As mentioned, you can actually do this yourself, but it costs money. Virtual mail services allow you to have an address that in turn forwards to an address of your choosing.

This is analogous to using something like Google Voice, where you can change the underlying phone number but have a permanent redirecting number.

USPS mail forwarding in theory does this for a short time, but in practice is terrible and rarely works in my experience.
posted by thefoxgod at 5:05 PM on September 10


According to FiveFhirtyEight, someone moved 11 times. That isn’t that much , also given that part of that time, you’re a minor and aren’t updating your address, your family is. It’s very complicated to register an address for delivery. Registering a PERSON would still need a delivery location rather than be handed directly to a human. (You can look into how complex it can be if you say, convert a home to two apartments.) If you have that many things tracking your address or people you can’t update, consider a static PO Box on those with forwarded mail if it doesn’t require your physical address legally (like a license.)
posted by Crystalinne at 5:05 PM on September 10


> But with the contemporary computerized world why haven’t we changed that?
Well, we have. In our contemporary computerized world, we've invented a new mail system that is tied to a person's identity rather than their physical location. It's called e-mail. ;-)

We keep the old legacy system around too, of course. You know how it is. Backwards compatibility and all that.

(Sorry if this sounds like I'm poking fun. Unlike some others upthread, I actually think your idea is a good one, and maybe it will exist someday. My purpose is just to suggest a different angle from which one can think about this.)
posted by Syllepsis at 8:17 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


I don't think I see this mentioned anywhere, not sure why. Maybe I skipped over it? Anyway... Some delivery cost depends on destination so that would mean the sender had better be 100% certain of destination before sending, or take every piece to the post office line, which would be crazy.
posted by cacao at 8:26 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


don't they functionally have this already? the USPS scans the front of EVERY piece of mail, digitizes the writing on it, saves it to a database and saves the picture of it too.

You don't have to have a name on a piece of mail. It's perfectly fine to address it to occupant and leave off return address. The USPS will know when and how much mail is going to an address but not senders or name of receivers.

If mail had just a number? Transpose two digits combined with a misspelling of your name? Someone else is almost definitely getting your mail.

In a sane system the number wouldn't be a plain number. It would look more like a alpha numeric postal code with a pattern of letters and numbers and would incorporate one or more check digits. EG: A#AC A#AC A#AC where A is a case insensitive letter (probably skipping I and L), # is a number from 0-9, and C is a check digit calculated from the preceding three numbers/letters. You could add an additional check digit for the entire sequence to double the verification.
posted by Mitheral at 9:58 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


I love this idea. As mentioned above, you could personally achieve this via a mail forwarder, where all your mail/packages are sent to one place. They are kept up to date on your location and forward everything to you. RVers and other itinerate people sometimes use these services but I don't think it's super cheap or quick.

This is functionally the equivalent of putting your Social Security number on your mail. I feel like people wouldn't want to do that....

Basically, any identifier that is unique to a person "for all time" is a setup for identity theft. That's exactly what happened with SSN.


This idea sounds much more like a phone number or email address than an SSN. It wouldn't have to be for all time. You could change it if you wanted to, but getting ahold of me isn't dependent on knowing where I live. I've moved 13 times in the last 15 years and never had to change my phone number. Wasn't always that way. My first email addresses were geographically dependent (via local ISP and university). Hotmail and Gmail changed that.

This would be a nightmare for anyone trying to get away from harassing mail.

Nah. If some creep is sending gross mail, you get a new number. Granted you'd have approximately the same hassle as anyone who moves today, but how do you get away from gross mail now? The good news is the creep wouldn't necessarily know where you live, or be able to mail you even if he did.

I like this idea even more than when I started reading the comments.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 9:47 AM on September 11


Naw, this stupid idea doesn't work for my use case. I have more than one house. Sometimes I am at one house that is not the one I live at most of the time doing maintenance or whatever, and I need something, say a tile repair kit from amazon, and I am going to have it sent next-day delivery to the house where I need to use it and where I happen to be at for the weekend, and not the house three states away that my regular mail goes to. A unique alphanumeric identifier with built-in checksums that is difficult for people to remember is not going to help when I want something sent to a particular location, and not to the address currently associated with my identity. My narrow use-case is not serviced by this massive disruption to the worldwide postal system; just because your narrow use-case is, is not an argument for upending everything.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 11:08 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


The forever number would be a parallel to the current system because you still need to send mail to businesses with multiple locations. So if you wanted to send something to a specific physical location rather than just wherever a person is located one could still send items to a physical address.

Also it's pretty easy to remember your postal code. There is something about the pattern of letter number letter number that makes for easy retention. Maybe it's just me but after a move I almost always commit my postal code to memory before my phone number.

Especially considering it would be something, in theory anyways, that you'd commit to memory as a child.
posted by Mitheral at 11:21 AM on September 11


At the moment, if an address is slightly wrong, or slightly misread, chances are it still ends up somewhere near where it’s supposed to go. The receiving household may even know which neighbour it’s supposed to go to, and deliver it.

If items are sent to person-focused unique IDs then any slight error means the item could end up anywhere in the country (assuming this system is only country-wide and not world-wide).
posted by fabius at 12:24 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


That's why the check digits; incorrectly addressed items would be kicked back to sender before they went anywhere as being invalid.

A real problem though is an error in the database pairing forever address numbers would immediately propagate to every single person send you mail. Hope the error correcting mechanism isn't too byzantine.
posted by Mitheral at 1:12 PM on September 11


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