The ash cloud over Europe will kill airmail and with it paper documents around the world. It will hasten the decline and death of postal delivery that I foresaw here. It will have an equally profound and permanent impact on other sectors of the economy and society. But let’s just look at the post office.
Right now, it is impossible to get a document to or around Europe with speed. People can’t fly. Mail can’t fly. Even when the air clears, there’ll be diminished faith in the ability of the post office — not to mention FedEx, DHL, and UPS — to make speedy delivery of documents. Any company or agency with an ounce of strategic sense is creating a plan now to convert to digital. It is speedier (instant!) and more certain (guaranteed) and cheaper (free) and even earns green points (no dead trees, no fuel, no fumes). What’s not to love?
On top of that, Google just announced Cloud Print, which will enable Sally in Chicago to print directly to Sarah in London’s printer. This does us the favor of getting rid of the hassle of printer drivers (once compatible printers are built). As Leo Laporte realized on the latest This Week in Google, it also portends the end of that other great hassle: the fax machine (and with it, all tired metaphors about the value of fax networks). With Google Docs and Google Print, who needs the post office or the FedEx bill or the fax machine? We’ll have Iceland to thank for this.
Of course, this shift necessitates other changes. Lawyers will have to accept electronic documents and signatures, for example. Big notebooks of meeting materials will be sent via Google Docs. Designs will be seen on screen if you want to see them soon. I don’t know how much financial documents like checks are still transported rather than scanned but it’s now possible to deposit a check with a picture and then tear it up. What other paper dependencies can fall by the wayside? If they can, they will. Digital=speed. Atoms=slow.
You might ask why the disruption in Europe dictates this change in companies elsewhere. That’s because too many companies are international and once Acme Inc. makes the change for the Munich office, it will need to do likewise for Minneapolis. The long-predicted, never-seen paperless office still doesn’t quite arrive, but we will have offices with less paper.
So what does this do to the post office? In Europe, it’s going to be deadly expensive. The first-class mail that supports postal services around the world will be bound to shrink. Prices will then have to rise, forcing demand to shrink more.
Meanwhile, without air freight — or with the risk of it disappearing for days, weeks, months, even more — more goods will have to be moved by train and truck, raising demand there and thus raising prices of ground transport for the mail.
What to do about it? As I suggested in my post-postal post, we should imagine a nation in which everyone is connected to the broadband net with the devices necessary to use it: a computer (or lite equivalent). Indeed, the U.K. should have put all its effort into that quest rather than into its horrid Digital Economy bill.
Broadband for all would not only smooth the post-ash transition for businesses and citizens, it would open up so many more opportunities in entrepreneurship, innovation, and education. But that requires our institutions to think an inch past their noses.
Once first-class mail fails in one country and continent, it will domino in other nations because — as we’ve learned from patently obvious AP stories — we’re all interconnected now. So it won’t matter that we aren’t under the ash cloud in the U.S. Its impact will spread here.
When first-class mail declines, the horrendous losses at our U.S. postal service will accelerate, forcing decisions that the government — as is its habit — would like to put off for a few years. There will be less first-class profit to subsidize the delivery of media (another nail in the coffin of magazines) and advertising (another reason to jump to digital) and parcels (opening up more opportunities for private competitors).
The delivery industry could be disrupted as profoundly but much more quickly than media. I’d sell stock in FedEx. If I thought the postal service would collapse, I’d buy it in UPS. I’m not sure about Amazon. You might think that Cisco would be a big winner but I’ll bet on Skype and hope it goes public soon. Of course, short every airline. That sound you hear is dominos falling.
The cloud spreads.
One can make similar predictions about other industries.
* Tourism: Too obvious. I was planning to take my family to Europe this summer. Holding off on booking those tickets.
* Conventions: Also obvious. I’ve been talking to many events lately via Skype. We’ll see more of that.
* Airlines: Screwed even more than they are now.
* Hotels: Itchy.
* Food: Perishable food will be risky to ship to Europe. The local food movement will rejoice. Poor Chilean strawberry farmers not so much. People like me who loathe winter veggies will have to suck it up. Restaurant and grocery prices will rise.
* Oil: Demand will decline. I leave it to others to tell me the geopolitical impact and opportunity.
* Education. Will international student enrollment suffer?
* Defense. The shutdown of Europe’s airspace is already affecting America’s troops in Afghanistan. Want to launch a coup? Pretty good time.
* Globalization. Will companies be less willing to buy companies halfway around the world if they risk not getting there to manage them?
This is all rank speculation, of course. The cloud could disappear this week and be forgotten, a tale for T-shirts (damn, I wish I’d bought mine). But the next time it comes — and this scientist argues with thinner, lighter ice layers, we stand a chance of seeing more eruptions — then there’ll be no excuse for not planning for the worst.
The truth is, this future is coming anyway and, like news and media, every industry and institution should be remaking themselves for it already. The unpronounceable volcano didn’t bring it. The internet did. The ash merely accelerated some the change we’re already seeing; it gives us another reason to go digital and that digital transformation is what’s disrupting the world.
That’s how a cloud will force us into the cloud.