L. Neil Smith's
Number 330, July 31, 2005

"For THIS we survived Auschwitz?"

2000 Flushes
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

Am I the only one who wonders what bathrooms will look like in the future?

I've watched a lot of forward-looking science fiction movies. Maybe even a few too many in my time. But of all the ones I've seen, I've only seen one memorable reference to futuristic bathrooms. That was in 1993's Demolition Man, when Sylvester Stallone wakes up from suspended animation and learns that, in the future, people use "three seashells" instead of toilet paper. That's it. That's the extent to which Hollywood has envisioned the evolution of bathroom behavior. Three lousy seashells. To me, this makes no sense.

There are billions of people on this planet. Many of them will never drive a flying car, but every single one of them will go to the bathroom at least once a day, every day, till the day that they die. Are we supposed to believe this somehow changes in the future? Do people stop using bathrooms altogether or something? Don't get me wrong: I'm not ruling that out. Someday, people will probably hook themselves up to waste-disposal systems while they're sleeping (unless, of course, the porcelain lobby puts a stop to it). But that's not what these Sci-Fi movies are getting at by failing to show us the bathrooms of the future. If it was, they'd at least show us the waste-disposal machine.

The truth is, you don't see many bathrooms in any movie genre—science fiction or otherwise. And you probably don't need me to tell you why that is. I mean, let's face it: Bathroom scenes wouldn't really advance most plotlines (Dumb and Dumber notwithstanding). So I'm not going to sit here and tell you movies should bring up bathrooms more often. They probably shouldn't. Bringing up bathrooms is inappropriate in most theatrical genres. I just happen to think science fiction isn't one of them.

People don't give bathrooms nearly enough credit for their contributions to society. Whenever people start to talk about the greatest inventions of all time, the conversation inevitably turns to the light bulb, the telephone, the printing press—even the Internet. And these are important, world-changing inventions, make no mistake. But surely the same can be said for indoor plumbing. Without it, would there be cities on the scale of those we see today? Would there be 110-story skyscrapers if we still had to go outside to use the john? I don't think so. And that's just scratching the surface. Indoor plumbing has also had a positive affect on human health.

The fact of the matter is, bathrooms have been on the cutting edge of technology for years. And although few people talk about it, they remain hotbeds of future innovation. Take public restrooms, for instance. True, some of these places are filthy pigsties. But lots of times, walking into a public restroom is like wandering through the World's Fair. It's pretty incredible. You never know what you're going to see, but there's a fifty-fifty chance something there will impress you. You'll see toilets and sinks that work on sensors, for instance. You'll see that somebody, somewhere, has dreamed up a new way of drying your hands or dispensing soap. One time, at O'Hare, I saw a device that automatically covered the toilet seat with a new plastic sheath every time someone flushed. What a crazy, incredible contraption. Who thought of this? Does he realize how substantial a contribution he's made?

I recently walked into a bathroom that turned its own lights on as I opened the door. This actually made me stop and marvel for a moment. The basic idea here is nothing new; refrigerators have been doing the same thing for years. But there was something different about this. It took on almost a human quality. The way the room scrambled to turn the lights on, you'd think I walked past its desk and caught it playing solitaire—like I'd caught it sleeping on the job.

After a while, I got to thinking: How does the bathroom know when nobody's in it? Does it count who's coming and going, somehow? That's the logical explanation. But what if someone who's leaving holds the door open for someone coming in? Wouldn't that throw the count off? And if so, then what?

Obviously, there are answers to each of these questions. But those answers are secondary to the overall point. Think about what we're looking at here. This bathroom is more than a bathroom. It's an intelligent life form. An artificially intelligent life form, mind you, but an intelligent life form nonetheless. Maybe it's not as impressive as Deep Blue playing Garry Kasparov. Perhaps that's a matter of perspective. But this has way more utility than a man vs. machine chess game. It means something. It's a glimpse of the future.

Someday, hopefully in our lifetimes, whole houses will operate in this way. You'll never have to turn the lights on again. Your house will be like an extension of your person. It will know when your world needs a little brightening up.

Maybe this creeps you out a little. I don't know. But, personally, I look forward to it. So many movies paint portraits of the future as a dark, unfortunate place, where technology turns on humans and threatens to destroy them. To me, though, Terminator was never about a robot revolution. It was about job security—like self-checkouts taking over for grocery store clerks. And if that's the worst the future has to offer, I think we can work around it. Human advancement is a good thing.

Or would you prefer still using an outhouse?

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for The Aquarian and other publications. He can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.


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