Opting Out of Poop

Most mornings I take my dog, Bumpkin, for a walk around our neighborhood. He’s well-trained and doesn’t poop or pee in the house, so by 7:45am, he’s usually ready to go! Houses in our neighborhood have front yards, and some have discreet — yet visible — signs such as this one:

Dog poop sign courtesy of https://www.dogpoopsigns.com/
Dog poop sign courtesy of https://www.dogpoopsigns.com/

Residents of these houses have chosen to explicitly opt out of allowing dogs to use their front lawns as toilets. Others (such as myself) don’t mind — as long as the dogs’ owners pick up after them. (Some houses have little signs that spell this out; mine doesn’t.)

There was a time — long before I lived here — when there were no signs on people’s lawns to indicate their willingness to allow pooping. At this time, the poopability status of front lawns was unspecified: You let your dog poop on someone’s lawn at your own risk, and the house’s residents might chastise you if they saw you. So the “don’t poop here” signs provide a valuable function in the environment.

However, these signs change the semantics of the neighborhood in an important way. The appearance of “don’t poop here” signs on some lawns explictly makes this a normative categorization facet of the environment. Before the signs, the poopability status of any given lawn was unknown. Now there are some lawns are explicitly marked “not here!” By implication, all the other lawns are ok. They don’t need to have a sign that says “yes, here it’s ok” — the absence of a “not here!” sign is enough to make it so.

Labeling some elements in an information environment with one of two binary choices (the answer to “poop ok here?” is either yes or no) will always imply the opposite choice as well, even if it hasn’t been explicitly spelled out. When labeling things, think about the dualities you’re (unwittingly?) introducing into the environment.