By JAMES FALLOWS
MILLIONS of people now rent their movies the Netflix way. They fill out a wish list from the 50,000 titles on the company's Web site and receive the first few DVD's in the mail; when they mail each one back, the next one on the list is sent.
The Netflix model has been exhaustively analyzed for its disruptive, new-economy implications. What will it mean for video stores like Blockbuster, which has, in fact, started a similar service? What will it mean for movie studios and theaters? What does it show about "long " businesses -- ones that amalgamate many niche markets, like those for Dutch movies or classic musicals, into a single large audience?
But one other major implication has barely been mentioned: what this and similar Internet-based businesses mean for that stalwart of the old economy, the United States Postal Service.
Every day, some two million Netflix envelopes come and go as first-class mail. They are joined by millions of other shipments from online pharmacies, eBay vendors, Amazon.com and other businesses that did not exist before the Internet.
The eclipse of "snail mail" in the age of instant electronic communication has been predicted at least as often as the coming of the paperless office. But the consumption of paper keeps rising. (It has roughly doubled since 1980, with less use of newsprint and much more of ordinary office paper.) And so, with some nuances and internal changes, does the flow of material carried by mail. On average, an American household receives twice as many pieces of mail a day as it did in the 1970's.