Another Perspective

Trouble in the Toilet

Some plumbing shouldn’t be subject to automation.

By 2.8.04

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LOS ANGELES -- The other day I finally broke down and joined the Information Revolution, circa 1987: I bought a paper-shredder.

There is just no other way to process the barrage of credit card offers, subscription trials and obscure Internet scams, all of which seem to include precisely enough sensitive information about my financial privates to enable your average dumpster diver to buy a mid-sized Cayman Island.

Meanwhile, as the Paperless Office I've been hearing about for decades utterly fails to materialize in my pulp-cluttered writing room, technology has leapfrogged in the one area where it couldn't be less welcome: the Paperless Bathroom.

The men out there, especially, know what I'm talking about: scalding automatic hand-dryers that start and stop at random, sensory activated faucets that only dispense water once you've thrust both elbows in the sink, hopped on one foot and chanted "Bloody Mary" three times -- and not a single humble paper towel in sight.

Did the guy before you spill water all over the counter, leaving no place to set down your newspaper? Tough! Want to wash your hands quickly, without standing like a demented supplicant to the Alien Faucet God? Stop urinating!

This is a tyranny we have let tread on us for far too long, and it's created a tangible health hazard, too. That pimply-faced teen at Del Taco has a hard enough time getting your drive-thru order within the same food group. Think he can divine the mysteries of 21st century hand-washing?

The automation grows more rapacious by the day. Besides robot-operated water and heat, we are now subject to the condescending cruelty of automatic flushing. Was our manual track record really so poor?

I've studied this trend for several years now, and I can confirm that at least one out of every four sensory-triggered urinal-flushers in America suffers from a kind of aquatic Tourette's Syndrome, sending cascades of water both downward and outward at intervals that CalTech's finest couldn't predict. Woe to the end-user standing prone in front of a gusher; it can take hours to remove the phony appearance of incontinence, and that's one hell of an awkward position to assume in front of a wall-mounted blow drier.

The EZ Flush system has also migrated to the stalls, and for reasons utterly beyond my grasp, these seem to be most frequently situated in supposed classier washroom environments. In January, I found myself in a four-star InterContinental Hotel where not only did the automatic stall-flush fail to perform its critical function, the automatic lights failed as well, thereby throwing the entire room into a blackout at the worst possible moment.

I realize this is not a particularly pleasant subject to read about with your morning coffee and bagel, but that's precisely the kind of shame-faced Protestant silence that the Robot Toilet Mafia has relied upon while foisting their terrible utopia upon the rest of us.

Who are these wet-sink profiteers, these nanny-bathroom n'er-do-wells? Companies like the Mundelein, Illinois-based Technical Concepts, proselytizers of the "touch-free" bathroom. "The increasingly germ-conscious public wants touch-free devices that promote better hygiene and sanitation," Technical Concepts CEO George Patrick Murphy wrote in a press release last year.

He continued: "Automatic soap dispensing systems provides just the right amount of soap for an efficacious washing. AutoFlush products and AutoClean systems for toilets and urinals reduce maintenance costs by preventing stains and damage from uric acid and calcium deposits. Everyone benefits from these and other features, from facility owners to building service contractors to consuming customers using the restrooms" (emphases added).

See what the canny CEO is up to? He's tempting hoteliers and other porcelain gatekeepers with promises of low maintenance costs, while depending on us "consuming customers" to continue accepting our humiliation in silence. At this rate we'll be finger-printed and optical-scanned before entering any restroom, and perhaps even instructed on whether we can go number 1 or 2, by the end of the decade.

That's why we need to start fighting back now, to take our great country's bathrooms back from the evil profiteering robot aliens. Next time you're in an automated InterContinental restroom, don't let the "touch-free" zealots get you down. Walk to front desk, ask for the manager, and demand to pee "with dignity," or else.

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About the Author

Matt Welch is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.