My toilet was leaking. That is to say, it was making a flush-like sound, on its own, every ten minutes or so. You would hear the toilet's water turn on, and the tank would seemingly start to refill. Pause. Wait ten minutes, and repeat.
If your own schedule didn’t align with the previous ghost flush, a second pull of the lever would be required, because the tank would be magically empty. So, while the repeated hiss from the bathroom didn’t inspire action immediately, the pointless waste of water drove me to a home repair.
Frankly, this is not an uncommon issue for a 25-year-old toilet. A quick glance under the hood, and the culprit was, predictably, the flapper. The flapper is the rubber gasket that releases the water from the tank into the bowl when the handle is pressed, and mine had deteriorated just enough to allow a slow drip, drip, drip of water into the bowl.
Luckily for me, and most of us, flappers are inexpensive and easy to replace. Not a single tool is needed. Just turn off the water supply, and exchange. Today, my toilet flushes on cue and is satisfyingly quiet when left to its own devices.
Residential toilets are truly amazing in their simplicity. Alongside pressurized water for indoor plumbing (though not 100% necessary as the tank can be manually refilled), toilets function almost exclusively on the physics of gravity. As the water leaves the bowl, the “S” shaped drain encourages the siphoning of the water, and prevents unwanted gasses from coming up from the sewer line. Without any motorized or electronic parts, they are easily repaired or replaced, and continue to work in blackouts, brownouts, or blizzards.
And most of us would agree, despite our occasional distaste for having to touch a toilet handle outside our own homes, the physical feedback response of a toilet flush provides a confident conclusion to our most awkward animalistic moments.
Truthfully, I hadn’t given any of this much thought until Ian Bogost’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Nothing Works Anymore.” Mr. Bogost laments the slow but steady onslaught technology is making in our lives, starting (in his essay) with the self-flushing toilet. Designed to alleviate our aversion to handling the handle in public restrooms, the result has been that “Toilets flush three times instead of one.” And while our fear of touching the handle may be relieved, we rightfully fear the toilet may now act without our consent:
What adult hasn’t suffered the pneumatic public toilet’s whirlwind underneath them? Or again when attempting to exit the stall?
As Mr. Bogost also points out, the real goal is to reduce “the need for human workers to oversee, clean, and supply the restroom.” It is not us being serviced, but a corporate entity who clearly wishes we did not need to use a restroom, at all.
And from our side, we are quickly losing our ability to know our own choice in the tools we choose, or how we use them. Nicholas Carr has already responded to this same article, stating:
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.
While I’m not sure public self-flushing toilets signal the loss of our own agency (though it may be soon lost to other choices), I fully agree that today’s society rarely weighs technology’s usefulness against its novelty. And we may face losing a battle when it comes to public toilet options, we can still choose our comforts of home.
One of my favorite books on domestic product choice is Barbara Flanagan’s Smart Home. In the introduction, Ms. Flanagan provides a list of questions to ask before making a purchase for the home. Number three is “Can I fix it myself with common tools and parts?” For most of us, the self-flushing toilet does not come close to making the cut. We quickly give away supposed convenience for a loss of self-reliance (and all its intrinsic benefits).
Of course, touch-less toilets are only a small part of a fully automated “smart” home. We have touch-less sinks, self-programming thermostats, automated lighting systems (with self dimming color-changing lights), robot vacuums, and computer-operated sprinkler systems – all of which are controlled by the remote control we call our phone. In the pursuit of saved time, most of these devices are intended to save us the need to act, touch, or think about the uninspired ordinary. But what if we discover that life is the joy of moving, feeling and pondering the commonplace? And what if we simultaneously realize these contraptions were never really designed to help us at all, but only to report our preferred indolence back to the omniscient cloud? Personally, I’m quite happy with my new $8 flapper.