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Needed And Unneeded Technology

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

– Henry Ford

Today’s topic is not nearly as far from the usual blog posts here as it might seem at first glance. The surface topic of the day is “wet umbrellas” but the real topic is “what is the appropriate technology to use?” Starting at the surface, on a rainy day, when it can be reasonably expected that many people entering a large office building will be carrying umbrellas, how do you keep the lobby floor dry? The picture above, taken this past weekend, shows one answer, which I first saw (or perhaps first noticed) a couple of months ago.

Despite the fancy name “Eco Umbrella Dryer”, this is a basically shag rug that you rub your furled umbrella on to get rid of excess water. The rug is held in a tall and narrow U shape by the metal sides. The instruction picture makes it look like you walk past and swipe, but the instruction text says to “brush your umbrella back and forth 3-4 times” which would, in my opinion, entail standing still next to the dryer. I have little doubt that it works – umbrellas are made from cloth or plastic treated to repel water, so the shag should do a decent job picking up the water – but I’m curious as to its existence. Prior to the sudden (to me) appearance of these things, the same building had an umbrella bag dispenser at each entrance. This was slightly more advanced technology and much more advanced industrial design: the dispenser had a slotted cylindrical hole that allowed you to slide your naked furled umbrella in the top and then pull it out the front wrapped in a bag. The inner workings of the dispenser would then position a new bag around the hole, ready for the next umbrella.

I assume that the logic behind replacing the bag dispensers with the shag rug was some combination of (a) getting rid of the plastic-bag waste, (2) being seen to be getting rid of the plastic-bag waste, and (3) getting rid of the need to buy bag refills. None of those is a bad reason, although number 2 is a little shaky, but they don’t address the question of why anything is needed at all. There used to be nothing. People entering either shook the water off their umbrellas outside and thus got rid of most of the water or they dripped on the floor. Also, people like me, who usually don’t use umbrellas, still bring water in on our coats and shoes.

I’m not minimizing the potential slip hazard of a wet floor, particularly in buildings with polished stone flooring in the lobby. But the floors will get wet regardless of the umbrella issue, and most buildings deal with this by having some kind of mats put down temporarily on rainy days. And somehow we survived the pre-bag-dispenser era, which constituted the vast bulk of the roughly 4000 years since umbrellas were first invented.

In summary, there are three competing methods of dealing with wet umbrellas: (1) a bag dispenser, (2) a shag rug, (3) a combination of social engineering to get people to shake the water off their umbrellas before they enter a building and putting down mats, and (4) just putting down mats and expecting people to be careless. The first option is clearly the worst, creating plastic waste and undermined by any umbrella-welder who ignores the dispenser. The second option is less wasteful but also easily ignored. The fourth option takes the decision out of the hands of the umbrella-owners and puts it with the building staff. The third option requires cooperation and also, not coincidently, has the best result.

I wonder if the near-universal spread of self-opening umbrellas in recent years has undermined the old habit of rapidly opening and closing an umbrella to shake the water off. Regardless, the first two options seem like massive and poorly-aimed overkill for the problem. Not every problem is going to be solved with design of new technology.