Sunday, December 18, 2016
Next they'll leave you a mop and a bucket
We're used to clicking on buttons online. Sending emails, ordering products, answering questions.
And we're used to the on-line world intruding upon what is still thought of as Real Life—we all carry a smart phone and pull it out at idle moments and gape at it, as if we're expecting to find the answer to our unease there.
But suddenly finding the on-line world's feedback buttons in tangible reality; this seemed something new. In a men's room in Navy Pier. The choices, in case you can't read the photo, are, if "The restroom is clean and properly supplied," press the green button. If "The restroom needs supplies," press the yellow button and, should "The restroom needs cleaning," press red.
Initially charmed by novelty and the let's-pitch-in-and-put-on-a-show quality of the thing, and by the fact the new bathroom, with its cool grey tiles, was indeed clean and supplied, I pressed the green button.
Not realizing, first, that I was undoing the whole washing-hands thing by touching the green button. And second that I was also being dragooned into unpaid janitorial service.
Right now, the economic model is that an employee is hired to clean the restrooms, and part of that job is determining when the rest rooms need to be cleaned and re-stocked. This button system, cute though it may be, is like scanning your purchases at CVS or the Huffington Post gulling its readers to write the posts they then read. The first step into a new way where mops and buckets and rags and cleaner are stacked in the corner and if customers want a clean john at Navy Pier, they clean it themselves.
The devices, by the way, are called "Smiley Boxes," are powered by batteries, and use low power radio waves to communicate with a central location. They're the creation of a Swiss firm called FeedbackNow, 16 years old with hundreds of customers. They're part of "The Internet of Things," keys that tell you where they are, refrigerators that order milk when it runs low, that sort of thing.
There is something charming to that notion as well, a reminder that we are not atomized individuals, but part of a greater system and we can help out. If I had to summarize the cause of Donald Trump's advent in one sentence, I'd say, "Americans forgot they're all part of the same society." Thus they look to their own narrow interests, frame every problem as a matter of maximizing their own convenience and the rest can go hang.
But who are we helping by providing feedback to keep the bathrooms clean? Not the dwindling number of janitors. These buttons frame the bathroom problem this way: how can we know when the toilet paper is out without having an actual employee check?
The problem could be framed a different way. For instance: how can bathrooms be kept clean while employing the maximum number of people? Stated that way, we could look to how they do it in certain European countries, where you'd expect some elderly pensioner to be sitting stoically on a chair in the corner of the bathroom, keeping an eye on things, collecting centimes on a plate. Not the glamorous retired life we see in financial planning commercials, but it would solve a lot of problems for the idle, lonely elderly while raising the general condition of bathrooms. We could have clean bathrooms because every hour somebody on salary with health insurance and a pension comes by and cleans it.
Sadly, we don't seem to frame our problems in how to create the best advantage for the greatest number, but how to do what is necessary as cheaply as possible to that even more money can flow to fewer and fewer lucky individuals. And we see how well that is working.