Tales from the Automated Men’s Room

There is a fully automated men’s room at my current contract.  I dread the future like like an oncoming train every time I go in there.

The toilets flush at unexpected times, or not at all. The urinals seem to function all right, I’ve never experienced a misfire once; but the process of washing your hands rarely goes without mishap.

You can wave your hands in front of what appears to be a motion sensor on the spout. I have absolutely no idea how to control the temperature of the water. One time I washed my hands and the water was warm– words cannot express my wonderment and joy. Cold is the norm. There is a little lever on the side of the spout near the sensor, but it seems to have as much to do with the temperature of the water as the current phase of the moon.

Placing a hand under the soap dispenser, you can hear a mechanical whirring much like one you can hear when you place a penny on one of those toy banks where a green claw rakes outward to scoop the coin into a maw one can only assume leads to a cache of other coins deposited in the past. Whether the sound is actually accompanied by the deposit of a small dollop of coconut-scented soap in your palm is another matter. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

Mussolini never promised to make the soap arrive on time, only the trains– fascism (the merger of the corporate with daily life) fails again.

Once you are lucky enough to be anointed with (anti-bacterial!) soap, your wash your hands. Maybe your hands are wet from attempting to trigger the water spout; but if they are not, you get to feel that ever-pleasant feeling of “dry washing” with soap– sticky and unyielding, like drying Elmer’s glue or peanut butter.

Your hands properly washed (using the ABC’s rule for how long to wash them), you start dong hand flourishes like a model on the Price is Right to get the water to run again. It squirts for a nanosecond or two, requiring you to spend at least a minute to rinse the soap off your hands. Once you no longer need more water to wash the soap away, the spout gushes forth with enough water to put Niagara Falls to shame, as you shake your head in puzzlement. You try to recall what ritual you performed to get the water to flow so copiously for next time, knowing that some random number generator embedded in the sink software has generated a new pattern for the next poor sap to have to follow. You are certain you can hear the distant laughter of some engineer who came up with this shit and gets paid for it.

But you’re not done yet. Oh no, my friend– you must now dry your hands.

Knowing from past experience that the paper towel dispenser coughs out a square of paper that is insufficient for mopping up the tears of a housefly, you shake your hands over the sink. You notice that other patrons have shaken their hands about the sink in the same preparation– there are puddles all about the sink and floor, a slipping hazard and eyesore. Progress!

You turn and approach the PT dispenser with the wariness of an old adversary. It knows your moves– it’s single, unblinking sensory eye giving no indication of whether there are any PTs to dispense or not.

You pass your hands over the eye left to right, right to left, in and out, out and in, top to bottom, bottom to top, diagonally– the machine is unresponsive. You whip out your best Kung Fu moves (Quai Chang Kain would be impressed, but the machine isn’t). New patrons enter the room, and you are embarrassed at being caught in an awkward hold position you saw on UFC.

So much PT dispenser, but in case it fails to render square of pulped tree, you can rely on the back up: a hand blow-drier. As you move toward it the PT dispenser mockingly spits out 3 inches of towel as reward for your pitiful efforts. It is thoroughly soaked as soon at you tear it from its lodgement.

Bow to the machine, mortal!

You fight a homicidal urge to rip the towel monster from it mountings and smash it to smithereens. Such behavior is unseemly among contract staff– immediate termination for destruction of valuable company property in the offing.

You head for the door, dreading with utter certainty the installation of a robotic arm that will extend from the urinal in the not too distant future that will bang your dick against the porcelain to dry it, wringing the last drops from it with a wringer much like your (great-) grandmother’s vintage 1935 washing machine and stuffing it unceremoniously into your drawers where it will most certainly get caught in your zipper (I’m prepared– I wear button fly jeans).

If brilliant minds dedicated to improving the process of bodily waste elimination in a sanitary fashion can’t get this right, we are doomed.

With such a simple set of tasks going so horribly wrong, just think of the complexities of an airplane autopilot. Imagine an airline pilot frantically toggling the switch as the passenger plane stubbornly plunges into the Atlantic (Air France, anyone?) or just plain disappears over South East Asia (hello, Air Malaysia!).

That car wash you like to frequent at the local filling station– should it go bonkers, would you and your dog Fluffy (who loves to bark at the splashing water) be found in the contraption days later– you lucky to be alive only because the attendant went out to check the soap levels, having long since devoured your loving pet and one of your feet out of near starvation?

It’s what I call the “robotic arm effect.” The machine does some task that 99% of the time works without a hitch; but every once in a while that old arm goes into twitch mode, welding a nearby factory worker into the frame of your specially ordered Ford Compensator which you discover only after that “new car smell” becomes something far more sinister and nauseating.

This is where technology goes awry– or more accurately, little-understood technology in the hands of mildly clever hairless apes goes awry. We are ever more feverishly complexificatorizing everything around us, believing that if we just sprinkle or squirt a little more technology on something, it will get better. We do this blindly, and sooner or later it is going to kill us all.

I’m no Luddite by any stretch of the imagination; but I see technology fail in alarming ways every day, and people’s ability to cope with such failures becoming becoming less and less. It’s rare for someone to take a step back and say, “wow, this is cool; but will it kill me?”

As I’ve ranted before, Siri is my poster child for bad technology. The same people who were fascinated with video laser-disks and digital watches back in the seventies think that Ray Kurzweil’s brainchild is really keen, when I think of it as a slobbering, half-deaf, goat-brained monstrosity that never hears what I say nor yields a decent answer even if I talk to it slowly and avoid calling it the C-word (give it a male voice, and I’ll stop that immediately).

I’m not saying that technology is bad, but whoever thinks of the net result it yields?

If evil is the lack of conscience, then innocence is lacking the capacity to understand consequence. Adam and Eve of mythical fame were innocent, so are your children (if they are lucky they will grow out of it).

Computers are the epitome of innocence. They follow the instructions given them without question.

I’m sure somewhere, some innocent computer has been given the capacity and ability to launch a series of events (nuclear missile launch, release of airborne Ebola from government research labs, “I’m all about that base” played on every audio device on the planet, etc.) that will turn the Earth into a very un-livable place. Someone will fire off the program that initiates such an immanentization of the eschatons and the friendly and helpful computer that hosts it will pop up a dialog much like this:


Note that “Yes” is the default option, and I am terrified of what the little X in the upper right is going to do.

My father, who worked for over 20 years in computer operations before going low tech and starting a rental business that “computers don’t make mistakes, the people who program them do.” More accurately: “computers don’t make mistakes, but the hairless apes who less than 10,000 years ago were still picking lice off each other for sustenance and are the very exemplars of laziness do.”

Programming is software, and there is no such thing as bug-free software. Take it from a guy who writes the stuff for a living.

The reason that it’s called a “release” every time someone makes a piece of software available to a wider audience is much akin to the evil mad scientist “releasing” his monster on an unsuspecting nearby village, just as those same villagers coming on up to the castle to take some revenge after the depredations of the EMS’s can be considered “end-user feedback.”

We are fucked no matter how you look at it.

2 thoughts on “Tales from the Automated Men’s Room

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