Cardboard Consciousness

The sentient boxI guess it was bound to happen. Every day, so many parcels make their way through skies and highways that we no longer pay it any mind. They're just cardboard boxes, mostly, and who cares that the baggage hold is unheated, unpressurized, and altogether inhospitable? Not us. And if our packages languish in the trailers of cross-country diesel rigs for days on end, what is that to us? Nothing, that's what. The truth is we simply don't care about our parcels' feelings, and that's bad. Really, I'm guilty of this flippant disregard myself, and it took UPS to show me the error of my ways. Our packages, according to United Parcel Service, are sentient beings.

The revelation occurred last week, while watching the progress of a holiday package on its journey across the states. It had departed New York on Tuesday via UPS' two-day air service, so there was ample time to reach its destination before Christmas. Periodically, I would log in to United Parcel Service's Web site and enter my package's tracking number, thereby discovering its last known location. Everything was going along splendidly until Wednesday, which happened to be the day my parcel was on its way through Colorado. Wednesday, of course, was the day of the Big Colorado Blizzard, which paralyzed much of the state for two days, and even longer in some places. It seems my package had blundered into the Denver area just as airport operations were grinding to a halt.

Thursday morning brought the full extent of the fiasco into focus. I entered the tracking number, clicked the button, and waited while the UPS system located my parcel. The results were disturbing, to say the least. The parcel had been scanned at o'dark-thirty, but there in bold type was the revelation that not only was my package delayed due to adverse weather conditions, but it was sentient, and possibly suffering.

Your package has experienced an exception.

I sat in stunned disbelief for a moment, trying to make sense of the words. I didn't want to believe it, but the evidence was unassailable. Clearly, my package was having some sort of experience, although the exact nature of it wasn't immediately clear. Something exceptional in any case. I imagined my package alone on the tundra, a single tear frozen in place by the wind-driven snow. After hurling myself against the wall, I decided to call UPS' customer service number.

The automated voice-response system wanted the tracking number, which I provided in the best robotic voice I could muster under the circumstances. The computer simply repeated the information I was already staring at on my own screen, so I said "customer service" in the hope of speaking with a human. The tone of the robot's voice had become noticeably strident when it informed me that customer-service agents had no information beyond what had already been provided, and therefore what did I really want to do? I repeated the aberrant request, after which the line went abruptly silent as I was ejected into the next-available-representative queue.

The human also wanted my tracking number, but it didn't help. She only reaffirmed the package's last known location, and assured me that Colorado's UPS workers were doing all they could to ensure delivery before Christmas came and went. She mentioned the possibility that, in an effort to speed the process, parcels in that area might not be scanned anymore. This led me to ponder the idea that my package was, in fact, speeding toward its intended destination; it just hadn't checked in to inform anyone of its good fortune.

Of course, it might also have meant that UPS operations in that part of Colorado had effectively ceased; it might have meant they threw up their hands in despair over the utter futility of the thing. According to Denver media, the airport became a hostel for the many holiday travelers stranded there for two days, or more. I saw a photo of two men sleeping—or at least attempting to sleep—in an airport baggage cart, and then there were the four-hour boarding lines after they finally got the runways cleared. I saw the snow-depth reports, too.

So here it's Tuesday again, the same day my sentient package left New York a week before. Had I understood the futility of the situation I might have opted for mule train, or other similarly reliable shipping method. But at this point all I can do is wait for UPS' glad e-tidings of successful parcel delivery, hopefully before 2007 comes around. And should those tidings fail to arrive, well . . . perhaps some lucky individual in Norway, Egypt, or Australia has received an unexpected surprise. If that happens to be you, try to treat it as you'd like to be treated yourself. After all, cardboard boxes have feelings, too.



  1. Anonymous8:21 AM UTC

    "Your package has experienced an exception." That is priceless! I keep looking at that sentence, trying to take in the full extent of its significance. That sentence is like a portal to an alternate reality, where what we would call the space-time continuum is actually the tape-twine continuum.

  2. Anonymous6:26 PM UTC

    An ironic choice of words. I have a theory: Such a sentence, used in such a context, can't have been constructed by any rational human mind. This leaves two possibilities, the first being a human mind operating outside the traditional bounds of human perception (i.e. an alternate reality), and the second a nonhuman intelligence attempting -- with limited success -- to operate within the human framework.

    Either possibility would explain UPS' apparently incomprehensible decision to take a couple days off, in stark contrast to the unprecedented efforts of their competitors (see bottom of Denver Post article on the subject at in the aftermath of the Big Storm.

    In other words, their decision is only incomprehensible to the average human mind. Whether it's an AI at the helm or an entity having a more metaphysical explanation, I'm comforted by the certain knowledge that it was the right thing to do, even though I'm unable to understand why.

  3. Anonymous5:53 AM UTC

    Craig, I didn't mean to use your comment as a springboard for more ranting over the UPS fiasco. Sorry about that.

  4. Anonymous8:07 AM UTC

    You've hit the nail on the head: that sentence can't have been constructed by a rational human mind. I love your suggestion of an AI at the helm of UPS, or perhaps even "an entity having a more metaphysical explanation." Marvelous food for the imagination!