When you think of Google, you probably think of Gmail and search. These two products are almost absurdly pervasive—if you don’t use the former, you surely use the latter. And if you use neither, you probably don’t have Internet access. (How are you even reading this?)Despite defining how we communicate and locate information in the virtual world, Google faces a real problem with how to do this for itself in the physical world—the amount of mail that circulates in its internal mailroom is absurd.
How do I know this?
Like any chump with a liberal arts degree, I was overeducated and underemployed when I arrived in New York City. I whiled away most of my days earning a paltry hourly wage at a temp agency, answering phones at a makeup company, and folding clothes behind the scenes at an apparel store. I was eking out a tenuous existence and slowly going nuts.
One day my luck changed. I scored a week-long assignment at Google’s Manhattan headquarters. Sure, it was a job delivering the mail, but I’d be well-paid—by one of the world’s definitive tech companies.
I was one of a three-person team responsible for delivering mail and packages to several hundred Googlers. After a shaky first day of training and many handfuls of snacks from the free food stations all over the building, I had my feet under me and spent the rest of the week as a mostly autonomous mailslinger.
Google’s mail system operates as follows. The mail is divided into bins by floor and then by quadrant of each floor. The two pros I worked with knew where to put each piece of mail with a quick glance at the recipient’s name. But I, the daft new guy, needed to look up every name. Your bin is loaded into a cart and you walk the floor, handing each Googler his mail. If he’s not at his desk, the mail goes in a mailbox in the hallway.
Sounds a little uninspired, right? This is the world’s leading tech company, responsible for self-driving cars and high tech computer glasses. Couldn’t it find a more innovative, efficient way to distribute the mail?
No, and here’s my theory why. As any object or system is developed and improved upon—anything at all—the potential for further improvement tapers off. Things tend toward their most optimised state—especially in the physical world.
It’s why personal computers still look very similar to how they looked years ago. It’s why freight trains still serve an essential purpose today despite seeming “old-fashioned.” With minor improvements in speed or energy consumption here and there, these things are very close to their perfect forms.
Google will keep tweaking Gmail, a malleable digital service still in its infancy. But physical mail, which literally dates back millennia, to the Persian empire?
At the end of the day, Google’s mail guy will still be carrying boxes of envelopes and packages down the hall, putting each missive in its appropriate slot.
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