If you had to pick the most high tech environment we are in on a regular basis, a place that is perhaps a harbinger of what all rooms will eventually be like, you could do worse than a public restroom. More than your office, more than your car, more than your kitchen, this most pedestrian of places has been automated so as to offer full functionality without almost no actual physical contact. That said, it also shows the adjustments we have to make as we ask machines to recognize us and do our bidding.
Start with that sink. If you're lucky you hit the magic spot the first time and the water comes gushing out. If not, you lock the positions of your hands on the ends of your wrists, and slowly move several fractions north, south, east or west. You're looking for that specific place in space, that trigger point where the electric eye is focused. Often you'll hear a loud click and a mere spit will come out, as the spot is breached then passed through. Then you creep back the direction you came, or maybe alter the trajectory slightly, all with the simple goal of trying to get enough water to moisten your palms.
But that's only step one. Once you get a little bit of wetness, you have to repeat almost the same ballet to get some soap. Except in this case aim and timing come in as well. From where you are standing you have to calculate the gravitational coefficient vs the expected pump power as the soap comes squirting out. As often as not you hear the motor going off, only to have it squirt a globule of cleaner in front of or next to your hands. Eventually you get a drop or two, and return back to the faucet, there to once again try a Marcel Marceau routine called "Can you find the water?"
Were that the end of the performance it would have been enough. But the next act is equally confounding. Because if you're wet, you must get dry. Perhaps there is one of those small jet engines that activates when you put your hands under it, or the type that concentrates a super high powered air stream in a tiny slice. Either works fine, though your hearing is liable to suffer. But both are infinitely better than those dryers that might have worked at one time in the Eisenhower administration, but now barely blow warm air as if they are patients on the emphysema ward at Mt. Sinai.
Alternatively, many restrooms offer you the alternative of old fashion paper towels. However, the crank-out-as-much-as-you-need dispensers are going the way of the dodo, replaced by ones with one more red electronic sensor staring up at you. Again, as if you are Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" sorting the evidence by gesture, you wave your hands in space, conjuring up a piece of paper to be produced as needed. As to how much you'll get, well, it varies. If they want to be generous, out comes a long piece. If it's about saving money or trees, you get a pittance, forcing you to wait until the device resets so you wave again, maybe even a third time.
Making it work is one of those modern skills we've all had to acquire that our ancestors never had to deal with, like using a mouse or getting on an escalator. If there's any upside, I am firmly convinced it's become a human tell, something only our species can do. And so if there is ever an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse, and you're not sure if your buddy is one of them, lead them to the bathroom. If they can't get the water to work or a towel to spit out, run for your life.
Marc Wollin of Bedford often gives up on dryers and wipes his hands on his pants. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.