by Joe M. McDermott
“The colony needs janitors more than it needs another engineer.”Wind, “Long Day Lake” [in our July/August issue, on sale now!]
It’s hard to imagine the future without janitors. Currently, this politically invisible group holds more power than any other group I know, and no one acknowledges it, and certainly collective action would lead to a shutdown of modern society. There is no way to run a hospital without a janitor. There is no way to run a school without a janitor. There is no way to run a government building without a janitor. In the future, someone will clean the toilets. Currently, I have a robot vacuum cleaner and a robot mop. I love the work they do, and there are things they do better than me. For example, the robot vacuum cleaner runs little brushes that reach into the corners of the baseboards, which I don’t do very well when I’m sweeping and vacuuming. The robot mop is mostly a disappointment. I run it, but it seems to be more of a light mop than a thorough cleaning, and the liquid that it uses often clogs and doesn’t shoot out. Even the robot vacuum cleaner, to be honest, is disappointing. The device gets stuck under the couch with great regularity. It cannot discern when something it rolls over is trash or a book my son (who is three) left on the floor. I find myself the supervisor of robots, pulling them out of little corners and jams that seem like they should be obvious things to avoid. Undoubtedly, the technology will improve. Soon, the couches may roll themselves out of the way to make room for a thorough floor cleaning, and I hope the walls and baseboards may paint themselves when they get grotty, and the dishwasher will actually wash the dishes successfully, instead of just throwing water at the dishes and failing to do anything meaningful or cleansing. Even then, the machines won’t work all the time, and people will roll up their sleeves and get to work. I find that I vacuum just as much as I did before, and I certainly cannot rely on the current generation of robot mops to keep up with my son and dog and kitchen.
The tools janitors use are well-established, durable, and proven things that will no doubt continue into the future. It’s hard to imagine a better tool for the job than a broom and dustpan. There was a time before brooms were invented. I assume brooms evolved from some kind of a rake that was used to pull dead leaves and debris off the crops in the garden, or perhaps a birch branch of some sort of naturally-occurring broom was put to use in the home to sweep out the dust and accumulated unpleasantries. How dustpans came about is a real mystery, to me, and casual internet research offers no meaningful clues. It’s a tool so present in the background of our lives, all over the world, that it’s hard even to see it as a piece of technology. On Mars, when we get there, they will certainly have brooms, toilet brushes, mops. The spray bottle, another ubiquitous tool, is much younger. The internet tells me that Dr. Jean Monteneir invented the modern plastic spray bottle in 1947 for a deodorant that could easily be spritzed with one hand. The quality of plastic was critical for this, as earlier attempts at spray bottles relied on a very brittle plastic that could not handle the job, in full. Really, a very modern plastic is the base material of spray bottles. I would love to reduce my use of plastic at home, as it is often non-renewable and problematic for environmental health, but the plastic spray bottle machine works so well. We have forgotten how to clean windows and mirrors without them, as a species, and the loss of plastic would mean the invention of some brand new tool or product to clean the windows and mirrors, no doubt. Perhaps we would return to the rubber and glass atomizers from which spray bottles seemed to evolve. Again, there was a time before trashcans with bags in them. There was a time before trashcans. There was a time before toilet brushes. It’s impossible to imagine a future, now, without these critical tools that have so little room for improvement since they work so well, as is, all over the world.
If the janitors stopped? Nothing of our current way of life could be saved. It is an honorable and honest job, and the disdain with which janitorial work is viewed in much of our society needs a real realignment.
One of the most important questions in urban design, and likely spaceship design though I defer to experts on the subject, is this one: Where will the poop go? If people are in a space, they are pooping. The regulations on pipes and public sanitation are very strict, and absolutely necessary at continuing human life on earth in dense urban spaces. And, equally important is this: How will we clean the bathrooms where the poop goes? We sort of already know the answer to this question, of course. It’s going to be a person, or a robot. Humans and machines will lay the pipes to move the poop far away from living places, where the poop can be turned into something clean through all sorts of processes that people who study the subject can talk about at length. I wonder that we are going to move to a world with more robots doing the work people don’t want to do, leaving the humans as repair technicians and supervisors of machines. Factories have moved in this direction, and the unglamorous work of cleaning toilets would be nice to automate for large institutions, I suppose. Though, I suspect I will be cleaning my own toilets for the rest of my natural life, at home. Robotics technology is always improving. Of course, the human cleaning workers are very good at their work, efficient, have many tools specialized for their use, and work for a fair market rate. The economics of replacing janitors with machines, at scale, seems like it won’t happen for a very long time. Perhaps someday, it will. Until then, I prefer to respect the work of janitors. I will measure you as a human if you do not know the names of the janitors who clean your facilities, and greet them with eye contact and genuine goodwill. I will hold it against you. I have never been wrong on this score, as my knowledge of the people who don’t do that deepened.
My son, who is three, taught me a very important lesson about the machines that clean. He calls our robot vacuum cleaner by its brand name. He waves at it. When it beeps because it is stuck, it causes him to go into a near-panic because it needs our help. He races to me to get me to come help. He is so excited to push the button when the robot is beeping, to try to help it. To him, it moves independently in his home. It responds to stimuli. How is this different from any other simple living organism? I grew up in Star Wars’ universe. It was omnipresent in my childhood in the early eighties, with toys and bedsheets and constant rewatching and rewatching. As a middle child, the odd one out, I identified strongly with Luke Skywalker, who was the middle child between world-weary Han, and the little sister that bossed them all around as mine did my older brother and me. As I grew up in that imaginary world, I realized that I identified more and more with the robots. In fact, much of the best material in the Star Wars universe expands upon the strange role these robots play. They are an invisible hand, the janitors and repair workers, the infrastructure that moves the whole futuristic society, and the easiest way to tell a good guy from a bad guy in the Star Wars world is watching how they treat the droids. Do they speak to them respectfully? Do they repair them kindly? Do they wipe their memory often or not at all? Are they made to do terrible things for sport or entertainment? How do we treat the robots that keep our buildings clean, our lights on, our operating rooms safe? For now, the robots that are going to be working with our janitors more and more, are sort of pathetic things, that bump about the place, get stuck under furniture, and have limited discernment. But, my son will tell you that when deebot is stuck and beeping, it is a very important situation, and we have to help the vacuum right away, because the machine is beeping, and it needs our help.
The world needs janitors. It is an honest, and mission critical job. It is the invisible hand of the economic engines of the world, keeping us safe, keeping our buildings safe and habitable, and making our operating tables and office parks the clean, uncluttered spaces we require to thrive. The world needs janitors more than it needs another engineer, is how Wind puts it, in “Long Day Lake.” Certainly, the future needs engineers. But, if engineering stopped right now, and nothing was ever designed, it wouldn’t end society, as we know it, overnight. If the janitors stopped? Nothing of our current way of life could be saved. It is an honorable and honest job, and the disdain with which janitorial work is viewed in much of our society needs a real realignment. I long for more stories about the future of these critical, socially invisible people, and others like them.