* An Inquiry Into Apathy

And the design of toilet paper, war games, laundry baskets, and computers.

I just came from going to the bathroom here in my dorm, and once again the toilet paper was not installed properly. I’m sure that you’ve seen the kind of dispensers we use here. They are the kind that swing out when you squeeze the little metal release clip on the inside. When I went to the bathroom, both of the rolls of toilet paper had been used up, but neither had been replaced. Instead, there was a roll of toilet paper sitting on two empty cardboard tubes. And even that roll was almost empty which tells me that people have been putting up with this for quite a while. This amazes me. Of the nine people who use that bathroom, four are electrical engineering students, two are chemical engineering students, two are biology students, and one is a mechanical engineering student. Either they are stupid, which I find hard to believe, or they just don’t care. Perhaps stupid is too harsh of a word to use. How about saying that they lack common sense. There seems to be a great deal of that going around. What I’m going to discuss in this paper is essentially my observations, my feelings if you will, about people and how they act. IBM has big signs in its offices which simply say “THINK.” But people don’t seem to be thinking. I see people who don’t seem to care, who lack common sense, who don’t THINK, and who are apathetic. I’m not sure what conclusions I will draw from all this, but perhaps the conclusion isn’t as important as the thought process which takes me there. I want to write a book called “People are stupid and Other Observations.” The book is essentially humor, but it’s humor with a jagged edge. You may as well laugh as cry, and maybe more people will THINK if they first laugh. We’ll see. Anyway, it would go something like this:

Well, you have already proven my point. You bought this book. You must be stupid. I’m sitting here writing things about you, and you’re paying me money to hear them. Why bother? You probably already know half of the things I’m going to tell you. Or at least you’ll find yourself saying, “Yeah, that’s true. I never noticed that before.” That’s why I’m writing the book, and why you’re paying me.

Actually, that’s a pretty harsh first paragraph. Maybe I’ll wait until I get a publisher before I submit that part. I should point out here that I’m going to be very critical of design. There are very few everyday things which are designed well. I don’t want to get into an Andy Rooney type of dissertation, but I do want to point out some faulty design and try to understand WHY it wasn’t done better, i.e. did the designer care? Back to my book.

I used to work at a fast food place. I loved to watch the people and all the funny things they did. One time this kid came to me and asked, “Do you have any bags?” I looked at him for a second, looked down at the amazing stock of bags for a little longer second, looked back at him and replied, “Thousands.” “Could I HAVE one?” he asked. “Sure, here you go. Come again!” I don’t think he got the point. My manager was pretty funny. He understood some of my antics. Like the time this guy comes up, hits the counter, and in a loud voice says, “Medium coffee!” My manager was standing right behind me. “We have small, and we have large.” I replied. “Medium!” he repeated. I could hear my manager chuckle. “We have 6 ounces, and we have 10 ounces.” I explained. “8 OUNCES!” my manager said so that only I could hear. I gave the guy a large and charged him for a small. At least he’d be back.

I love this whole business about sizes. Restaurants have medium, large, and extra large drinks. Have you noticed this? I went out to eat last week, and the waitress asked me if I wanted a large or a small Coke. “What do you recommend?” I asked. She looked confused. I was serious! If she wanted to make the capitalistic choice for me, she should have recommended large. Anyway, she got confused, and my friends recommended large. It turned out to be Pepsi, and the glass was two thirds full of ice. Large Coke.

Another observation about sizes. When men and men’s magazines talk about penis size, there are three sizes: medium, large, and extra large. Just like soft drinks. When women and women’s magazines talk about tampon size, there are also three sizes: small, extra small, and petite. Either somebody is lying or nobody is really having sex. They’re just talking about it. It’s worth noting.

Let me get back to toilet paper. I should ask those people if they ever tried to replace the toilet paper or if they just did not care. I suspect a little of both because of a little survey I ran earlier in the year. I prefer the paper to roll over the top. It is closer to you, and you only use what you touch unlike when it is rolled under the bottom. Anyway, I prefer it over the top, but the cleaning woman always put it in the other way. That’s probably how she does it at her home. Well, at my old home, we did it the other way, and this is my home now. I asked everyone what they preferred. About three didn’t care, but of those who did, most preferred it over the top. I left a note for the cleaning woman, and now she does it my way. One time the paper was in “backwards,” and I tried to switch it, but because of the design, you could not remove the roll until it was empty. I guess they didn’t want people to steal full rolls of paper. Well, there is little danger of that in my dorm. The people can’t figure out how to remove old rolls.

I seem to be getting a little off track here. I generally will not criticize something unless I have a better idea. More people should adopt this theory. Take the press for instance. But then there would be very little press. I’m not saying I have all of the answers, but I generally do try to THINK about things. Let me get away from design for a minute. I’ll be back because I love that subject. My friend pointed out to me that I should have been an architect so that I could design things better. I’ll get back to that too, but now, some other observations.

I’m going to be in the Air Force, and as you may know, we have sort of a rivalry with the Navy. Here’s what I have to say about the Navy. When the Pentagon plays simulated war games, one of their rules is that it’s no fair to sink an aircraft carrier. I’m sure the enemy would never think of that. After all, it’s not fair. So I joined the Air Force.

The Air Force pays for my tuition, medical insurance, and my books. However, each term when I go to buy my books at the Coop, about 25% of the shelves have the little card attached which says “book ordered late by professor.” Now, I understand that professors are busy with research and other things before the term starts, but students are also busy with research and work. Somehow, we always manage to remember to register for classes and to buy our books. Or at least we try to buy them.

I shouldn’t be so quick to assume that is the professor’s fault. It could very well be the Coop’s fault. They have such poor service, and people in this country seem to have accepted poor service as the standard simply because so many companies offer nothing more. That is why books like “In Search of Excellence” succeed, and all they really talk about is common sense things like treating the customer right. “Yeah, I never thought about that.”

This brings me back to caring. How do you make people care about what they are doing. I have to buy several laundry baskets a year because they keep ripping. They are cheap, but you simply cannot buy a good laundry basket. It seems that we have accepted poor quality and design along with poor service. The shelves in my closet are too close to the bar so that when you try to hang up a plastic hanger, you have to turn the hanger at an angle. Next year I’m going to raise up my shelf. Most cars rust out within five years of purchase. I have a ’69 Olds which is in mint condition. I don’t plan to ever buy a car built after this date. Most calculators have on and off buttons when a power button would do just as well. Wheelchairs don’t fit through revolving doors. Pants always wear out at the knee first; socks at the heels. The list goes on and on. Poor design is everywhere.

If you have ever seen the musical “Working” by Studs Terkel, you would understand that people need to have something to feel good about, something to point to and say, “That’s mine.” Perhaps laundry baskets and shelves are not well designed because there is no need to design them well. People have already accepted mediocrity on the consumer side, and on the producer side, there is no incentive to make it better. Strive for more than just a laundry basket; strive for the best laundry basket. There are hundreds of things out there that could be done better, and other countries are aware of this and are beating us to it.

Maybe education is the answer, or, better yet, awareness. I think that there is too much pressure on kids to go to college. I have seen many kids (and adults too) who feel that they have to go to college, that they would be a “failure” if they chose not to. Well, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, there are a great deal of unemployed doctors out there, and not enough good shelf builders. I guess people are interested in making money, but they are not aware about what is wrong with this country and how they could fix it. Look around you. Pick something and make it better. Care. Don’t just go for the money. I suppose I could give this book away, but that would be stupid because I would not make any money.

If I ever get really rich, I’m going to satisfy some of my pet peeves. Like closets. I hate closets and hangars. If I were really rich, I would have one huge room full of just chairs, and I would drape all my clothes over the chairs. Except for the walls which would be covered with doorknobs for hanging my coats on.

I just remembered something. Escalators are a good design because they work even when they are broken unlike electric can openers or electric knives. Ben Franklin had a lot of good ideas, but how many of them are around today?

I wonder if Ben Franklin would have liked computers. Computers are great for some things like typing this paper, for example. But I’ll tell you something, people made a lot of money in the late 1970s and early 1980s telling people that they needed computers for their business and for their home. I just saw a pizza place looking for a “computer whiz kid” to help them with installing a computer system. Computer programming is about problem solving. It’s about math and physics and not much more than that. Anyone can learn to program just like anyone can learn to bake. But not everyone can solve the problem, and not everyone can write the recipes. These pizza people want to know the ingredients to a recipe that hasn’t been written yet! No matter how many cookbooks they look through, they are not going to find the recipe. In other words, they need to solve the problem, not to buy the computer. I could probably show them a few things about managing and organizing that would solve their problem better than any computer would. In fact, I am thinking about writing another book called “How To Be More Productive Without Computers.” It might sell, but in the meantime there are a whole bunch of people interested in convincing these people that this computer or that computer will solve their problem. And they’ll be sure to tell them how many years it will take to have the investment pay for itself. It’s about math and physics, and, in this case, economics. They’re never going to find that elusive recipe.

So my friend suggested that I should be an architect. I have often said that I would like to be an architect. In fact, when I was a little kid, I used to redesign my house just for fun. I remember one time that I redesigned our house in such a way that it involved moving the stairs. My brother tried to tell me that I was nuts and that my parents would never go along with it, but I didn’t listen. I just kept designing, convinced that my way was better. I had a better idea.

I said earlier that a lot of you would probably be saying things like “Yeah, I never thought of that.” This is probably true in many cases. But I also bet that when it comes to doing your job, you have an idea about how it could be done better. Again, Studs Terkel’s “Working” comes to mind. A lot of people have better ideas, but they are never heard. There is no incentive to make it better, and then apathy sets in. In Japan, the workers meet to discuss ideas about how to make things better. This idea is also stressed in “In Search of Excellence.” People are important. They are more than just a tool. They are thinking resources.

But people can get away with not changing things. Workers can get away with suggesting no improvements. Employers can get away with making no improvements. And then, out of the blue, some other company, usually foreign, does it better. Then we find ourselves in the embarrassing position of imposing import tariffs on these goods. I think we would benefit more from studying their methods and forcing our own companies to change, not to be so apathetic. I like the bumper sticker that says “Buy the Best Product.”

I am interested in effecting change in this country. There are many things wrong with it as I have suggested earlier. It seems to me that the only way to effect change is to work with the system until you are in a position of authority so that you can change the system. The trick is to write down all the things you didn’t like about the system before you get to the top. Otherwise, you forget most of it because you are used to the system. Just like the workers are used to their job and the public is used to the product. Sound familiar?

So what are we to do in the meantime? I mean, not everyone can or will rise to a position in business or government such that they can effect change. I aspire to these goals, but in the meantime, work with the system. VOTE! Any system is very intolerant of people who want the benefits without working with the system. This is why your boss will not tolerate your putting in for time you simply did not work. It is also why the government does not and did not put up with mass protests. Take the 1960s for example. The so called hippies were not working with the system. Not only did they want exemption from fighting for their country in a war, they wanted the war to be over. Perhaps they should have asked the NVA. After all, it’s not fair to fight. The only sensible thing to do is to vote. We have a system that is built so that changes can be made, unlike some totalitarian dictatorships where revolution is practically necessary for survival. Whenever people start complaining about Reagan, I always ask them if they voted in the last election. Few did. I did. Apathy.

I want to mention one more thing about architecture. You may wonder why I am majoring in electrical engineering if I want to be an architect. Well, my theory is this. People need to feel good about who they are and what they do. I majored in EE because the Air Force needed electrical engineers. My sophomore year, I received a pilot scholarship which meant that I could major in anything I wanted to, including architecture. I chose to stick with engineering because I want to make it through. It is interesting but not consuming. In other words, I have other things that make me feel good about myself, things at which I excel, such as music, theatre, and ROTC. I am also aware of the MIT re-emerging phenomena. That is, even if I were to be an engineer, it would not be hard to feel good about myself because I will no longer be on the bottom half of the top 2%, I will be in the 98th percentile in the real world. MIT is not the real world. At any rate, I do plan to take some architecture courses. In the meantime, I am studying engineering and preparing to be a pilot. I hope this paper will help me to remember some of the things I didn’t like about the system when I working to the top of it. I feel good about myself. I THINK. I care. I am not apathetic. I have hope that I can do something about the rest of the world. (To be continued.)

[This article was written while Erik J. Heels was a student at MIT for the course 9.68 Affect: Biological, Psychological, and Social Aspects of Feelings; taught by Stephan L. Chorover (http://web.mit.edu/bcs/people/chorover.shtml. It was reprinted here, for no apparent reason, sometime before Erik’s 40th birthday.]