Free As In Speech, Not As In Laundry

Free As In Speech, Not As In Laundry

Alem Snyder | Opinion

The laundry machines in all Caltech Undergraduate Housing have recently switched from an ID card-operated payment system to a smartphone app-based system. Previously, users of laundry machines could swipe their student card and the bill was charged to their bursar account. Bechtel Residence and Avery House have had this new system for a few years, but the decision was recently made to retrofit the existing North and South House washing machines with the WASH-Connect control panels.

The start mechanism requires downloading the WASH-Connect app, filling out some menial personal information, and enabling Bluetooth.

The user response has been mixed. Julia Ehlert (Residential Associate, Blacker) noted that it was helpful that the app notified the user when laundry was finished, but added that it was often wrong and that it was more convenient to use the student account.

An international student and resident of the South Hovses noted that the switch to the WASH-Connect system was not particularly tumultuous as they had previously used a similar system in Avery. However, they felt that it was inconvenient to pay for laundry as it required a US bank account if one wanted to avoid the fee associated with exchanging money.

Other students have expressed a more positive attitude. Ryan Rudes (‘27, Dabney) said “I support this” after his first time successfully using the app.

Many students have yet to download the app. The author has observed three persons download and set up the WASH-Connect app while observing the laundry rooms. When asked about the recent email from Housing, one student responded, “I think I remember getting an email,” and another said, “You think I read that sh**?”

The change to an electronic system produces two now evident issues. Firstly, some students had previously had their laundry costs covered in their financial aid. The Housing Office stated in an email to me: “in regards to students who may have had the cost of using the on-campus laundry machines covered through tuition assistance such as financial aid, we are currently looking into this with the Financial Aid Office.”

Secondly, as the laundry is now (mostly) dependent on the WASH-Connect software, what would happen if there was some failure or system malfunction? The housing office states that problems with the software or hardware should be filed as a facilities service request under the student housing portal.

The Housing Department sent a campus wide email of “High Importance” notifying students that “a set of coin operated laundry machines were installed.” This, however, came some time after the new laundry system had been installed, giving people with access to the app or otherwise no convenient way to do laundry for at least a week. In addition, this email was misleading, as the washing machines were simply the ones that had always been there and were already installed, and merely had their WASH Bluetooth controller removed. The email further claims that in the “South UG/SAC” laundry room machines with “WASH ID# […] Washer #30, Driers # 5 & # 6” are “coin operated” systems. Caltech laundry aficionados will notice that this claim is evidently false as many machines have been renumbered. Barring this light clerical error there is an additional falsehood. The statement indicating that Dryers #5 & #6 can be operated by quarters is a falsehood, as only one dryer in the SAC laundry room has had the Bluetooth interface removed.

But these changes are symptoms of a broader problem in society, In particular with consumer electronics.

We may have access to laundry machines at a rate slightly below market value, but at what cost? We are forced to have a Bluetooth enabled device (over which we have little control), use a proprietary app (which we cannot modify), and give our personal information to some unknown corporation (which, after being given, we know not its use). This issue of electronic devices is not one unique to those of the cleansing variety. It has become all too common for the devices most crucial to our everyday toils to be functionally out of our control. I cannot modify the closed-source WASH-Connect app to operate as I please. And this premise is common to the vast majority of applications and general software used by and downloaded onto personal electronic systems owned around the world.

The author, after spending some time in the SAC laundry room, would like to submit a fixit request for machines 8, 16, 17 (the new numbering). 8 makes a horrid screeching. 16 failed to start on one occasion. 17 shakes while running.