NZ Post has been busy over the last year, sending out messages of PostCodes to the whole of New Zealand. We had, until recently, a system of Post Codes that were laughable in their pathetic simplicity. My NZ Post Code in 2000 was 6001, which I shared with approximately 100,000 other people. I don’t think that I ever heard of anyone living in 6002, although it is certainly possible. In 2008 however, NZ Post made the heroic move towards the future, announcing that we would all be getting individual Post Codes – which we would have to commit really seriously to memory, as a unique signifier of our address. At last, it seems, New Zealand is entering the modern age – the hi-tech dividing of our country into many logical paths and divisions, for the easy and simple delivery of vital bills and papers to our letter-boxes. In future, the use of Post Codes would be compulsory or our mail may never arrive!
It is not a new science – it exists in many (if not most) countries in the world, including the form of Zip codes in the USA, and Post Codes in the UK. Germany was the first country in the world to have Post Codes – in 1941, apparently, so maybe that exasperating German efficiency really is true; with the US following on more belatedly only in 1963. While the USA has a 5 digit number system, it seems most countries have settled on the same rather pathetic 4 digit numbering system that NZPost has – ie Australia, Austria, Belgium, etc but gradually seem to be working towards 6 digits. Romania and Russia have 6 digit numbers – even the Vatican has a 5 digit number: and the ever helpful Wikipedia tells me that only Andorra, Argentina, Brunei, Canada, Jamaica, Malta, Netherlands, UK, and Venezuela have Alphanumeric postcodes.
The alphanumeric Post Code system in Britain, devised by the Royal Mail and introduced in 1959 is a whole lot more accurate than a straight number system. Although it is only a 7 or 8-digit alphanumeric system, it is incredibly and all-powerfully encompassing, narrowing a postal search right down in some cases to just one part of one side of a single road. Some parts of the PostCode are self evident, such as EC1 for the City of London, or W1 for the West End, NW5 for North West London, etc. The other 4 numbers are fairly much alphanumeric gobbledegook that do the clever work of narrowing down the search to your house. My rough and ready calculation says that gives approx 45,697,600 alternative Post Codes – almost enough for one for every person in Britain, and certainly more than enough for one for every road in the country.
The relevance to us with all this casual rummage through the technological detritus of postal and telecomic history is that in New Zealand we also had a similar system in the past, where Wellington suburbs were labelled W1, W2, C1, C2, E1 etc – for instance, C1 was Courtenay Place precinct, and C2 was the rest of the Te Aro flat. Awaiting with baited breath, I was therefore most heartily pleased last year to receive my new Post Code: 6011. Still only 4 numbers long, but at least I had moved 10 digits up the evolutionary tree into sure technological sophistication. Proudly I clasped the large red number to my ample chest, and committed it firmly to memory. Excitedly, I contemplated the NZPost website, where they were running a Post Code competition, such was the momentum of this historic occasion. I’d like to say that in a James Bondish way, the piece of paper self-destructed, or perhaps even that in a Maxwell Smartish way, I had to eat it – but no, in a Maximus kind of way I merely put it in my top drawer and promptly forgot about it.
As did you too: for, in a sense of impending futility and lethargic release of breath, I realised that NZ Post in their infinite wisdom (or perhaps more likely: extremely finite wisdom) had stuck with the 4 digit system that other countries are slowly moving away from; and more than that: they had issued, once more, a huge swath of the city with exactly the same number. I have friends from Mt Victoria to Thorndon, all of whom have the exact same Post Code number of 6011. There are only really 6 postcodes for the whole of Wellington, and a max of 9,999 different post codes for the whole country. And what, pray tell, is really the point of all that?
Putting 6011 on your letter therefore becomes no more accurate than writing Wellington, and is only marginally more accurate than a monkey writing “South of Paekakariki” on the envelope with a large crayon. Our brilliantly clever postal maestros have kept with a system with a mere 9,999 different options – certainly less than the population or the number of roads in the country, and in its implementation, bizarrely, less accurate than the C1, C2 system Wellington already had some 60 years ago. A simple change of say, two of those four numerals to letters instead could have given them a range of some 67,600 different postcodes, and been firmly on the way to being of some use to someone, somewhere, in some way in some distant future. There is also a strong logic of tying a post code to a telephone area code, so that 04 and 4011 might both mean Wellington. But no, it was not to be. None of it was to happen.
As it is, the retention of a 4 digit number system, encompassing a vast swathe of the city, won’t really help your letters get anywhere any faster. The sorting office will still hand-read your scribbled scrawl. The brilliant machine code reading machines of NZ Post will continue to decode the 4 digit number and leave it at that. May as well leave it right off then, and continue as we have done for years, to rely on the cheery face and memory of the local posty to get the letters to the right letterbox on time.