Tomorrow’s world: the demise of Fed-Ex

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2009

Fed Ex vanThose of you in the States may not be aware (or even care) that the staff of Royal Mail were recently engaged in wildcat strikes as a protest against the machinations of their management. Much as a lot of us have sympathies with their plight, it’s hard not to see them supplying the nails for the business’s coffin lid in the process; for example, in my guise as a music reviewer, the last two months have seen a sudden massed move by music PR outfits from mailing CDs to using file transfer services. It’s a sad story, really, the sort of thing I dare say someone will make a movie out of; by using the only method available to him to protect his job, the humble British postman is unwittingly hastening his own demise*.

But don’t feel too comfy over there, Statesiders, because Fed-Ex won’t last much longer in the grand scale of things. Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon points out that as old-school letters are trumped by email, Fed-Ex’s business shrinks down to authenticated documents and object transfers. The former won’t last much longer:

For whatever reason, the business/legal world insists that it needs a copy of a sheet of paper with ink from a pen that I actually touched.

So it gets sent by FedEx and the guy shows up at your door with the package and to prove it was received, you sign for it. On a touch pad. Electronically. I don’t think that the signed documents portion of FedEx’s business is long for this world.

That’ll leave Fed-Ex with what you might call “molecule moving” as its last major specialisation. And while the internet can’t dissolve that as quickly as data and authenticity, the writing is already on the wall, albeit faintly:

At some point, rapid prototyping and 3d printing becomes a mature technology. It leaves the design studios and then the factories and ends up, if not people’s houses, then at least as commonly distributed as print shops or 24 photo developers (which are themselves getting to be less and less common). Just-in-time fabbing.

So many of the things that we ship are mass-produced and interchangeable. Take a look around you and consider all the stuff you might move, were you planning to move. How much of it is stuff where an exact copy would be fine? How much of it is stuff where a factory-new copy would better than fine? How much crap do you ship because it’s easier/cheaper to just ship it than to get a new or better one?

Given that I’m moving house in about three weeks, I have a close and direct sympathy with what Maly is saying there – I’m not looking forward to disassembling my furniture and having it driven 270 miles in a van just so I can reassemble it at the other end. Molecular-level fabrication may seem that little bit too science fictional to believe right now, of course, but that’s what we thought about ubiquitous consumer-grade computing back in the early eighties… [image by Dano]

And by the way, if you like the cut of Mr Maly’s jib, keep your eyes peeled – there’ll be some interesting news in the next week or so here at Futurismic. 😉

[ * Please note that I have no wish to see postmen put out of work, and I’m not the sort of person who believes that unions or striking should be illegal. However, striking in this age of social media is observably self-defeating, and as much as corruption and mismanagement have exacerbated the problem, the business model that the Royal Mail has been operating under for so long is withering away as a result of circumstance and technological change as much as malice. Or to put it another way, playing King Canute is only going to get you wet feet. It’s a sad thing, but it’s also inevitable. ]

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4 Responses to “Tomorrow’s world: the demise of Fed-Ex”

  1. Dave says:

    Actually, most of the physical objects I get from the couriers are already inefficient information transfers: books, video games.

  2. Chad says:

    To me the most interesting thing about the post was the caveat at the end. The caveat almost comes across like an apology to the mafia. Your facts about the business the Royal Mail is in are all true. Unfortunately, facts are not what these people want to hear, so most won’t even notice the caveat.

    Unions are populated by people who fear and hate change. Thus, they will react emotionally, not logically, to the new environment.

    The same thing happened in the U.S. over the last 10-20 years, with the last holdouts at the auto unions finally got their wake up call during this economic disaster.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    In my experience, union members fear losing their jobs, which isn’t entirely unreasonable of them; I think your generalisation might apply better to the people who run the unions. All the cold rational logic in the world isn’t going to make it easier for someone to tell his family that the major income stream has gone, after all.

    My caveat wasn’t to appease the unions, it was to appease the workers themselves; I know a couple of postmen personally, and I can sympathise with the horrific mismanagement they’re operating under… so I can also sympathise with them reaching for the only bit of driftwood near their sinking ship. YMMV. 🙂

  4. Chad says:

    Though, I am sure there was mismanagement, no amount of great management, on either side, can save a dying industry. If the union members did operate rationally they would realize mail is going to be almost non-existent at some point. This rationality would allow them to begin looking for a new job/career before they are let go in the next few years.

    Just because my cousin is a U.S. Postal employee, does not mean I want his job artificially protected.

    I must say I do not wholly sympathize with them, as I have no desire to pay for useless jobs just so their lives aren’t disrupted (this is a general statement, as I do not live in the UK). It’s time we all woke up to reality.