Snow reveals obsolescence

In the snow, it's harder to deliver the printed paper or the mail, or to return a DVD. Online, not so much.

Crosscut archive image.

Sledding at Gasworks Park on Jan. 17

In the snow, it's harder to deliver the printed paper or the mail, or to return a DVD. Online, not so much.

In addition to some of the best sledding in years at Gasworks Park, the Big Snow of 2012 brought home the precariousness and imminent obsolescence of three things I’ve taken for granted for much of my life.

Early Monday, in the icy lull between the weekend snow and its more potent follow-up, I noticed that The Seattle Times had not yet arrived at the neighborhood coffee shop though it was nigh on 6 a.m. I checked the local headlines on my laptop as I always do, and then watched as the dark blue newspaper van jockeyed into a slippery parking spot in front of the shop and a man hefted two bundles of paper through the front door. A few days later on snowy Wednesday, my mother-in-law (who doesn’t own a laptop and still actually reads the paper paper) reported that her home delivery Seattle Times had never showed up.

Just after dinner Wednesday evening, when the bulk of the heavy snow had fallen in my neighborhood, we still had two DVDs we’d rented Sunday night Chronicles of Narnia, already watched by the kids; and Midnight in Paris, still in its box, unwatched) that were due back at the video store a few miles away at 7 p.m. I called to ask if they’d be lax on late charges because of the weather, but all I got was a recorded message saying that they’d closed early on account of the snow. So, when it was quiet later, we watched Midnight in Paris on my laptop.  It was an unexpected bonus!

Late Thursday morning, as more snow had begun to fall again, I looked out the window for the second or third time and finally saw the unfamiliar footprints on the porch that I’d been waiting for. I checked the mailbox and found a catalog for some company I now can’t remember, along with an important tax document.

It’s nothing new to predict the demise of the print newspaper, the neighborhood video store, and even the United States Postal Service.  But something about the timing of this particular snowstorm made it glaringly obvious how all of these institutions are likely to undergo radical shifts if not completely disappear much faster than I’d ever imagined.

I already get all my print news online and watch something like 80 percent of my movies online (the newest and the best movies are never on Netflix when you want them, it seems). And I love the Postal Service and still get excited when used books and greeting cards arrive by mail, but nearly everything else is sent back and forth or transacted online, large items are usually shipped by private carrier, and that tax document could have been emailed as a PDF. I don’t need any more catalogs by mail, thank you.

The unknown factor is how long people of my mother-in-law’s generation will represent a market that’s large enough to support print newspapers and rent-in-person DVDs, and whether or not a business model can develop to support everything going online. The Postal Service, as a government agency, has its own unique set of defenders and detractors outside of the market economy that makes its lifespan even harder to predict, but it’s surely destined for major restructuring.

As the snow melts away this time, the familiar muted January Seattle landscape will look the same. But the truth is, a lot has changed.


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