You’ve got (snail) mail!

Lately I have been thinking about how society makes advances with technology. Our perception is often that the most developed countries make advances first, with the global South following in the footsteps of the North. But something as simple as the post system in the Netherlands has made me think otherwise.

Beeld Ton Toemen

It is a widespread assumption in South Africa that as a country, we are behind the advancements and developments of so-called ‘developed’ countries. Of course, we have some of the world’s leading academic and scientific minds, but the average person assumes things like the latest household technology will take some time to reach us ‘developing’ countries. For instance, home systems like Alexa or Google Home are not widespread in South Africa, nor are they really accessible. I thought this was typical of knowledge and wealth distribution in the global North and South.

The post system in the Netherlands has made me question this. I am genuinely surprised to receive important documents via physical post. In South Africa, a developing country in the global South, everything is online and digital. Taxes, registration, address management, banking and all government communication is done online and pretty instantly. We may not always have electricity, but we still get the electric bill online.

And yet in the Netherlands, I’ve waited a week to get a physical letter from the municipality to get a DigiD. To open my bank account, I waited for three separate letters to arrive over two weeks. It’s bizarre, because I assumed the Netherlands would be beyond snail mail and more digitally savvy than I could imagine. If South Africa works digitally, I almost expected Europe to be using holographs and other sci-fi level tech already. But that’s the assumption of ‘advanced Europe’ that I grew up with.

Interestingly, this difference in mail systems seems to be due to necessity. The postal system in South Africa hasn’t worked properly in my living memory. It’s generally a gamble to see if you’ll ever receive something that was posted. I assume the Netherlands still relies on physical mail because it works, and people get their mail. That makes sense, and I’m always impressed to get my post. But it’s also an odd method to hold on to when platforms like DigiD exist. We have an online identity, and yet we wait for the letter in the post for most things official.

This makes me wonder about other technological and digital advancements. Perhaps, instead of the South being behind the North, the real delay is in perception. I’d be interested to see how else the global South assumes it is behind or delayed, but in reality is just different. I’d also like to understand why we assume we are behind in some way, and how this impacts global identities and power shifts. But that’s a topic for another day.

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