Whose self does the self-flushing toilet flush?

The public restroom, never a pleasant place, has in recent years become a dystopia. It presents us with a preview, in microcosm, of our automated future. Motion detectors and other sensors register our presence, read our intentions, and, on our behalf, turn on the lights, flush the toilets, open the taps, squirt out the liquid soap, and dispense towelettes for drying. There is a weird tension between the primitiveness of the bodily functions being executed in the contemporary restroom and the sophistication of the technology facilitating the execution. The pee and the poop, if I may be indelicate, seem out of place in the very place designed to accommodate them. Nowhere so much as in a public restroom does one wish one were a robot.

Yet, as Ian Bogost reminds us, in an illuminating Atlantic piece, the inconvenient truth about the automated public restroom is that nothing works worth a crap. Whatever it is that has been automated here bears no resemblance to even the most rudimentary of human skills. The automated toilet flushes prematurely, often repeatedly, while we are still seated upon it, and then, once we’ve reassumed an erect posture and want nothing more than to exit the stall, it refuses to flush at all. The automated soap dispenser either doesn’t work or spits soap on our trousers. The automated faucet either doesn’t work or sprays out such a gusher that the water bounces off the sink and soaks our shirt. The automated towel dispenser hands us a strip of ugly brown paper that would be too small to dry the hands of a hamster.

We reassure ourselves, as we leave the restroom damp and shamefaced, that the entire experience, however miserable in raw human terms, has been carefully engineered to maximize efficiency and save precious resources. Our discomfort is simply the price we have to pay for advanced technology that is “green” and “smart.” But, as Bogost also reminds us, this is an illusion. Thanks to what’s called “phantom flushing,” sensor-flush toilets end up using nearly 50 percent more water than do manual-flush toilets, according to one real-world study. The reality is probably equally perverse with sensor-controlled faucets, soap dispensers, and paper-towel dispensers, which demand that the user activate them repeatedly in order to get the required amount in the required place.

Bogost argues that the automated restroom has been designed not to save resources but rather to reduce labor costs: “When a toilet flushes incessantly, or when a faucet shuts off on its own, or when a towel dispenser discharges only six inches of paper when a hand waves under it, it reduces the need for human workers to oversee, clean, and supply the restroom.” I would bet that even here the desired benefit is illusory. Automated restrooms, with their wasteful ways and wayward sprays, seem to me to be at least as filthy as manually operated restrooms, requiring at least as much janitorial labor. And the greater complexity of the fixtures means more breakdowns and more repairs, increasing maintenance labor. In short, the automated restroom fails on pretty much every measure. Yet we accept it as good and necessary because it fits the prevailing paradigm of progress, in which technological advances are viewed as social advances.

In seeing society through its bathrooms, Bogost is working in the tradition of the great Siegfried Giedion, who devoted a hundred-page chapter of Mechanization Takes Command (1948) to the industrialization and democratization of the bathroom.

The bath and its purposes have different meanings for different ages. The manner in which a civilization integrates bathing within its life, as well as the type of bathing it prefers, yields searching insight into the inner nature of the period.

Bogost sums up the broader meaning of the automated restroom this way: “Technology’s role has begun to shift, from serving human users to pushing them out of the way so that the technologized world can service its own ends. And so, with increasing frequency, technology will exist not to serve human goals, but to facilitate its own expansion.” This is the WALL-E effect. As we become more dependent on automation, we become less likely to develop the skills and common sense required to perform even the most basic of tasks in the world, and hence we become even more dependent on automation (and on the companies orchestrating the automation) and less able to judge whether the automation is even any good. In this fashion, the “self” migrates, along with its agency, from the person to the device.