Saturday, June 04, 2011

You Can't Touch This

I put my hands out. Nothing. I pulled them back, then tried again. Still nothing. I moved them up, then down, right then left. Nada. Then just as I was giving up and pulling them back to move to another location, on it popped. I flailed forward like I was jerked by a string, trying to get in on the action. But no sooner did I get there, it stopped, and I was left high and dry.

Yet another automatic faucet had questioned my existence.

We've all become used to technology taking over our offices, our cars, our leisure time. When we check out, our purchases are scanned, tracked and analyzed, so that even before we walk out the door we are handed coupons selected just for us for our next visit. And our phones don't just allow us to make calls, but get us where we need to go, amuse us in our off hours and allow us to snap a picture of the bar code tag while in the store and determine that, yes, that garden hose is available for $1 less across town.

There are perhaps just two areas where technology plays a supporting rather than a leading roll. In the kitchen, it still takes a human standing over a pan or pot to stir, sauté or fry up your next meal. Sure, there are plenty of hi-tech helpers, from microwave ovens to computer controlled mixers to digital thermometers. But at the end of the day it still takes a skilled eye to determine that exact moment when the French toast should be flipped to get that golden hue.

Then there's the bathroom. At home, for most it's still a defiantly low tech environment. It might sport an electronic toothbrush or a waterproof radio. But unless you've installed a high tech toilet from Japan, the only power needed is for the lights and your hairdryer, and neither of those is absolutely necessary unless you're getting ready for the prom.

That's in stark contrast with the commercial restroom. At its most basic, all you need is a commode and a sink. A faucet, a soap dispenser and some paper towels, and you're good to... well... go. But over the last several decades every one of those elements has become automated. With the exception of the stall door... and there are numerous patents on file for automatic operation of those... it's now physically possible to walk into a restroom, do your business and walk out without touching anything but yourself.

That is, if it all works as designed. That's because these self flushing, auto water starting, auto soap squirting and auto towel dispensing devices usually rely on some kind of motion sensor. All well and good when that eye is clean and clear. But needless to say there is a fair amount of "stuff" (we'll just leave it at that) kicked up in said environment. And since some of that stuff settles on the sensor, it's the equivalent of wearing glasses that are coated with gunk... it's just plain hard to see. And so you wind of in the situation I was in:  patrons waving madly at the faucet or soap dispenser or towel unroller, trying to get it to acknowledge them and spring into action.

Of course, this all presumes that all these devices are checking for is your presence. Is it possible they have been programmed with other criteria? Is it like the famous Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, judging you on criteria you can't possibly discern, and passing judgment on your worthiness for its favors? "You CAN'T be serious wearing that tie with that shirt. No soap for you!"

But if all they are looking to confirm is a human presence, then we might one day consider them our last line of defense. Against what, you might ask? Well, if popular entertainment is any guide, one day we are likely to be infiltrated by zombies, vampires or extraterrestrials. Were that to happen, and you couldn't tell those left behind from those who have been infected, here's what I would suggest. Mention to your hardy band of survivors that you all might want to stop whatever you're doing for a second to freshen up, and head to the rest room. Start to wash up, but watch closely those in your party. If someone sticks their hands out and gets nary a drop, they're likely not real humans: blow their head off before they can take you down.

Or you could also just tell them to try another faucet.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves those Airblade dryers made from small jet engines. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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