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From innovation to inconvenience

Mar 30, 2014 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

Once I ran to the mailbox hoping for a letter; today it's all junk

For much of mankind's existence the swiftest method of relaying a message was either a fast horse or a fast ship. Until the invention and implementation of the railroad just two centuries ago, sending or receiving a message was an impressive technological feat, and often an arduous one.

Communicating was so important that none other than Founding Father Benjamin Franklin dedicated his prodigious intellect to refining the fledgling colonial postal service when he was appointed postmaster in 1753.

Franklin visited every post office, approximately 75 in all, allowed local control to set postal rates depending on distance, and allowed newspapers to be sent through the mail.

Jump ahead a century, and you find a patent being filed on Valentine's Day 1876 that was the wonder of its age and remains so in the modern era. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone that morning. Within 10 years 150,000 Americans owned telephones. The device has become a ubiquitous symbol of modern existence.

Leap ahead another century or so, and you find Ray Tomlinson sending the first e-mail just before Christmas in 1971.

These three innovations are among the most influential in terms of communications in the history of mankind. You can add radio, television and the Internet for more broad-based delivery of messaging but the original intimacy of the letter, telephone call and e-mail message brought long-distance communication to the common man and, in the process, shrank the world.

If these innovations are so great, why do I delete more than 95 percent of the e-mails I receive?

Why do I toss the entire junky contents of my mail box directly into the trash on most days?

A why do I choose not to answer the phone when it identifies a "private caller," 800 number or something more direct such as MOD (March of Dimes) or "goo" a phonetic pronunciation of GWU, or George Washington University, where I earned my master of science degree?

It seems that the wonders of communication have been hijacked by the purveyors of long-range marketing. Madison Avenue executives have found a way to pry open the door to your private residence, and they're not about to leave anytime soon.

When Sue and I moved to Riverton from Lusk in 1983, we lived in a small two-bedroom apartment behind the current Sears store.

One evening a 20-something knocked at our door and tried to sell me some paintings. He explained that he was working his way through college by selling art door to door. Hmmm... not a behavior you tend to find in an undergraduate, but I humored him.

As he finished his delivery I said, "No, I'm not interested but I have raffle tickets I'd like to sell you."

My answer was legitimate, I was coaching sophomore basketball at Riverton and we had a team fundraiser in process. The kid was shocked. He quickly gathered his artwork and just as swiftly left the premises. I guess he didn't believe in raffles.

If only we could rid our existence of telemarketers, junk mail and useless e-mails just as easily.

I've imagined inventing a solar-powered device you could attach to your rural mailbox that operated a shredder just below the box itself. Because most of the glossy mailers, pleas for charity, and once-in-a-lifetime offers end up in the trash anyway, why not shred them into usable fire starter or mulch?

The mail has become a cesspool of cheap advertising with a few bills interspersed within so you have to take the time to check each piece.

When was the last time you received something other than a bill or government check that was worthwhile in your mailbox?

The phone is even worse. Friends and family rarely use our land line to contact us. We get most of the calls we want to receive on our cell phones.

Occasionally we get legitimate calls from people trying to contact us, but these are growing very infrequent.

We donate to a lot of charities. If you donate, odds are you've experienced some of these charities rewarding your generosity by selling your name and contact information to other agencies. The practice is ever so anonymous, and most deny doing it, but how would these other groups find ways to annoy you at home if they didn't? If someone donates to one charity, there is an exponentially greater chance that this person will donate to another one as compared to someone who never donates at all.

So our mailbox is full of pleas from left-handed, one-eyed law enforcement retirement funds, veterans of the Spanish American War and Save the Penguins, while our phone rings with heartbreaking stories from the Asteroid Prevention Society and MAAF (Mothers Against Anything Fun).

This wasn't exactly what Franklin, Bell and Tomlinson had in mind when they brought their innovations to the mainstream.

It makes you wonder just how effective this type of advertising is when most people just delete it, toss it or don't answer it without any thought at all. I guess there's always that one guy who might answer.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator.

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