Saturday, February 21, 2009

Automatic Toilet Flushers

Since the dawn of the technological era, the marketing emphasis has been on "automatic"—automatic toasters, automatic clothes washers, automatic transmissions, etc.—that is, devices designed to reduce human labor and attention by performing routine and repetitive tasks without complaint. In fact, some of this contraptionology is highly USEFUL, allowing you to spend minutes on a mechanical chore that once took hours. There comes a point, however, where automation goes too far, when it starts to become a false substitute for human responsibility.

Take the automatic toilet flusher. It sounds like a good idea: As you approach the bowl or urinal, the device senses your presence, and as you draw away it graciously flushes the waste for you, no touch required. It seems like another brilliant labor-saving and health-preserving device, since the customer no longer has to exert pressure on the handle and contact any potential "germs" that might reside there.

Unfortunately, the net effect of these devices is to train the public not to flush toilets, so when they encounter an old manual device they decline to activate it. The automatic flushing of some well-heeled toilets results in the net unflushing of less heeled ones and probably a reduced rate of courteous flushing overall.

This is due to both trained sloth and overactive health consciousness engendered by the automatic devices. People who are used to automatic toilets may simply forget to flush manual ones, but they may also become squeamish about touching something someone else has touched, given the implied message that touching is bad.

The same problem applies to automatic light switches that turn on when you enter the room and turn off when you leave, thus training people to never turn off a light switch on their own. These devices don't necessarily improve our lives overall because they disengage us from fixing problems that our own actions create. They just add another layer of maintenance and technological complexity to our life with no net improvement to its quality.

The old manual devices were pretty reliable, performing their tasks for years with little complaint. The new products are less stable, require far more maintenance, and are more often found broken. In places where they seem to work flawlessly, like in hotels and airports, there is usually a well-funded maintenance structure in place to keep them that way. In "ordinary" restrooms, homes and public places, these automatic mechanisms are just another thing to go wrong.

And what about the "germs" supposedly contacted by manual use of these devices? Whatever a "germ" may be (since this is a marketing term, not a scientific one), they are everywhere and you can't avoid them. The paper money and coins you touch every day probably carry more potentially disease-causing agents than any toilet handle, but these agents rarely cause disease because the human immune system guards against it. In fact, the immune system needs regular contact with threats to keep it healthy and active.

There is an endless array of such supposedly "labor-saving" devices on the market, from automatic can openers to automatic kitty box strainers. Many of these products requires more effort to set up and maintain than any labor actually saved—plus they cost money and take up space! Sometimes, they are only used once or twice until their uselessness becomes clear then they are set aside in semi-permanent storage.

As useful as it may sometimes be, automation usually has the effect of isolating people from their environment and from the effects of their own actions. For example, when a toilet gets flushed, by any means, where does the waste go? Most people don't have a clue. It just "goes away." Therefore, they feel comfortable flushing anything down the john, knowing that it will somehow be taken care of.

The word "automatic" ought to be a warning sign. It could be a device that saves a trivial amount labor in the short term but invites substantial dysfunction over time.

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