Mail Scare Perks Interest in Digital Communication

Even opening an envelope evokes fears in our post-Sept. 11 society. 

Last week, hazardous-materials teams swarmed government offices and news agencies were feared to have received anthrax-laced letters. Although the possibility is unlikely, fears have spread that these stamped weapons will infect average people's mail. 

But why open letters when your inbox is just double-click away? These days, people can put down the Cipro and log on to communicate. In fact, digital technology can practically eliminate the need for traditional mail. Rain, sleet or snow, your hard drive delivers. 

Greeting cards, bills, invitations and banking transactions are mail staples which can easily be managed over the Internet — and this latest terrorism tactic could push even Luddites further into the digital age. 

"People would rather get a computer virus right now than another kind," said Nathaniel Wice, online editor at ON magazine. 

Although it's too early to predict whether online shopping will see a noticeable spike this holiday season, Wice expects it to continue to build in popularity as it has over the last few years. 

"Part of America getting back to business is the continued growth of online commerce," he said, "and also it means you don't have to got to the mall." 

Laurel Cecila, director of marketing for PAYTRU$T Inc., said online billing management services can also provide peace of mind in these uncertain times. 

"We have received quite a few comments from our existing customers saying they feel so safe and reassured having our services, that it's one less thing that they have to worry about now, because all of their bills go to us," she said. 

Of course the U.S. Postal Service is asserting that it won't be deterred by bioterrorist threats and pranks. A postcard was mass-mailed this weekend to help educate the public about suspicious mail and what to do if a questionable letter or package ends up in your mailbox. 

"The postal service has delivered 20 billion pieces of mail since Sept. 11, so the chances of someone getting infected through mail is very slim," U.S. Postal Inspector Dan Halko said at a recent press conference. 

Nicholas Graham, spokesperson for America Online, said there has not been an unusual increase in e-mail traffic since the anthrax mailings started. 

"Traditionally the fall has been a very strong period of time for us in terms of members actively sending e-mails and instant messages," said Graham, "as they are going back to school and getting back to business." 

"We've always believed the postal service serves one medium and we serve another and we co-exist well," he added. 

But Paul Boutin, senior editor of Wired magazine, foresees businesses becoming more technologically communicative in light of these poisoned parcels. 

"In these particular situations, all of this mail was sent to someone's office, and that's usually how this type of thing is done," he said. "From a corporate point of view there's an obvious liability there. You don't want these things showing up, and you don't want people worrying about opening them." 

Boutin added that one downside to an all-digital society would be that personal communications could be more easily lost or forgotten. 

"There is a lot of context in a letter, the stationary, the handwriting, things that have been crossed-out," said Boutin. "We find letters in the attic that change the way we think about history." 

In this age of technology, when people communicate online, Boutin said, "We're thinking about how fast and quick we can connect and we don't think about how we can go back and get that communication later." 

It remains to be seen whether people will continue to keep braving old-fashioned envelopes and stamps in light of the recent anthrax scares. Nothing can replace a hand-written letter, but digital communication is poised to take over "snail mail" at a time when the mailbox could contain a new form of terrorism.