Just like you can learn a lot about an animal by studying its poop, you can learn a lot about the culture of a place by looking at its bathrooms.
First: a vignette. Over the weekend, I took an Uber in San Francisco. The driver was a pleasant, humorous older man who dutifully sped us from point A to point B while lamenting that he couldn’t attend the previous night’s Prince concert and observing that “common sense isn’t all that common these days.” During the ride, I couldn’t help but feel a little bummed that in the next 5-10 years Uber will attempt to replace its human drivers with autonomous cars. Not only will we lose opportunities for tiny moments of connection, but the cars are going to get super gross on the inside. At least in America.
It’s the same reason our public bathrooms are gross. The problem is anonymity in public spaces.
You could go to the conference for the American Coalition of Mysophobics and Epidemiologists (ACME) and there’d still be a 50/50 chance the bathrooms would still look like a cross between Gollum’s lair and that shit-demon scene from Dogma.
It’s a cultural dilemma. The first time I went to a public restroom in a subway station in Tokyo, my jaw dropped: it was cleaner than most of the bathrooms at Stanford. Unfortunately, getting to a Tokyo train station is now the only way I can go to the bathroom.
Perhaps the contrast grows from a difference in how we respond to anonymity in independent cultures vs. interdependent cultures. That is, perhaps people who are less concerned about the judgments of others will treat a public space with less respect than those who feel more accountable to strangers.
Regardless of the cause, the phenomenon is robust. And this is why I worry for self-driving taxis in America. Once you remove the human driver, you will also remove a lot of people’s feelings of accountability and respect for the shared space they inhabit. Garbage will be the least of our problems. Autonomous public vehicles will become rolling infection vectors.
Ironically, the way we will combat this problem – at least in the short term – is to rehire a bunch of unemployed drivers as car-chaperones and backseat janitors.
The long term solution is obviously to develop empathy for robots. Which will be difficult because they took our jobs.