UPDATE: This project had a fantastic ending. After several months in the men’s bathroom raising eyebrows, making staff chuckle and the water guy look forward to refill day, the ladies met a fitting end. Near the end of the madness of the Spring Show in May, a group of thirteen-year-old boys discovered the ladies and went into a kind of frenzy, tearing them out of their plastic housings and stuffing them under their shirts. I could not have hoped for better.
Make a system. Do it with three of your classmates. Go.
Matt, Marco, Sarah, and I met two nights ago to talk about systems. The conversation started with fully formed systems. Matt brought up a number of ideas for creating interesting interactions within the class—ropes on pulleys, melting snowballs packed with India ink—which I objected to on the grounds that “neatness” does not a system make. Having just read an article that noted that only humans can provide feedback in a technological system, I countered with the possibility of creating a system that devolves into chaos unless constantly tended, like audio feedback or juggling. Not so popular either. Marco mentioned food and and mobiles, to which Sarah added balancing. We discarded games outright (too tip of the brain). We were briefly enthusiastic about using the whole Floor in some way—laying a string-based communication system along all the cable trays or bouncing a laser beam from room to room using a series of mirrors—but Matt had already done that (and it was awesome, by the way, so still a solid idea).
Discouraged by our seeming lack of progress, we tried teleology. What purpose could a hypothetical communication system of our creation serve at ITP that was not already the province of an existing system?
Marco mentioned the water bubbler in the front hall. We have two water bubblers at ITP. One is in the front hall; the other is across from the bathrooms at the far end of the back hall that leads to Red’s office. The extra jugs are stored in the men’s room, stacked floor to ceiling on their sides in crates along the wall. If the bubbler in front of the bathrooms runs out, no problem, some passing man can easily be co-opted into going into the bathroom to grab a full jug or some free-thinking woman can make a quick incursion when the coast is clear. The bubbler in the front hall, however, often goes empty several days before someone finally lugs a full jug all the way across the Floor. What if we created a way of communicating that the jug in the front hall needed replacing to the bathroom? We discussed wireless radios, string, a siren, and abandoned the idea for more talk of melting, inky ice.
I remembered going to see Eric Maskin talk right after he’d won the Nobel Prize for his work on mechanism design theory, a system that allows two or more parties to reach an agreement that accomplishes a desired outcome even when their priorities and goals are unstated. The simplest example is the mom with two kids and one piece of cake: she wants them to split it without complaining, they each want the bigger piece. One mechanism that gives everybody what s/he wants is to have one child cut the cake and the other choose which piece he wants. I mentioned this story. Everyone nodded tiredly. We reluctantly returned to the water jugs as our frontrunner, and then we had our breakthrough.
A SYSTEM, SYSTEMICALLY PROBLEMATIZED
Trying to hammer out the technical details of signaling an empty jug across the Floor, we realized we didn’t need a technological solution, we needed an incentive! We could hide money behind some of the jugs so when they are pulled out, a dollar bill drops down. No, too venal, and besides, who’s going to pay? We could attach messages or riddles or candy or some other small reward. Then Sarah brought up the crucial point that the jugs are in the men’s room, thus only men will receive the incentive. That made us jump. Porn! Matt drew us all close together and whispered, “Juggs! Juggs behind the jugs!” thereby tying the conceptual knot into a tidy little bow.
I’m not joking when I say that this is one of my favorite projects so far this year. We’ve created a system that with its very existence calls attention to itself as well as lots of other systems. By choosing pornography as our reward for altruism, we’re calling attention to and extending the male stereotypes that played a role in the decision to store water jugs exclusively in the men’s room. Men can lift, men are brawny, men like boobs. On top of that system flows its opposite, a current of political correctness that will find such assumptions offensive or, less contentiously, single out a few ITP men at random to dispel any illusions of brawn. Pornographic portrayals of women also raise questions within religious and political contexts, and placed as they are in a charged semi-private space, one also wonders about their social implications. Should any discussion ensue, it will take place over a variety of communication channels, exposing our decision-making and accountability systems.
Besides facilitating discussion of itself, this system is also notable because despite its crudeness, it works. It has a clear purpose, a mechanism that coordinates several distinct components, and an agnosticism for other systems that while important to our community are not essential in this particular case. Changing a water jug requires only one person. It doesn’t matter if our pornographic incentive discourages 119 people from having anything to do with the water jugs if there’s 1 that can’t help but think of breasts every time he passes the bubbler. In a community that includes roughly 120 men, it seems safe to assume that a good portion like to look at women’s breasts and that a few are true enthusiasts. So even if we alienate a portion of the community that might otherwise occasionally change a jug, by creating one or two water jug fanatics we ensure that there is always water to drink in the front hall.