Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
I can still remember, all those years ago, the first time I encountered a motion-activated faucet. I was in a public bathroom, all geared up to wash my hands, but was suddenly struck dumb by the lack of knobs on the sink. What the?! No knobs? Could this sink be any more broken?
Then I noticed the cartoon instructions, and just like the picture suggested, I flapped my hands around under the faucet. The water magically started flowing.
As I washed up, I remember thinking, “Wow, what a ridiculous use of technology. Has it really come to this? It’s not enough that we have clean water coming right from a faucet, which is something that much of the planet doesn’t get to experience, but now we have to have it turn on for us, too? Is this truly progress or just a way of making us even more lazy and dependent on technology? We used to have to pump water from a well or carry it from the river, and now we don’t even have to turn a knob. I’m embarrassed to be part of this culture. An automatic sink? How much lower can we … sink?”
Yes, I thought all of that – I’m a thorough hand-washer.
I had the same reaction to motion-activated paper-towel dispensers, hot air dryers and toilet flushers. I recall resisting each new advance, decrying it as numbing and frivolous.
I was haunted by a vision of the future, and it was a funky chicken fest, with human beings eventually devolving into nothing more than organisms used for motion-activating all of the gadgets that surround us, the ones that are supposed to make our lives better. Really, what’s the big deal about pushing a button so I can turn on the hand dryer? And for that matter, why do we even need hand dryers? Can’t we just dry our hands on our pants like our ancestors?
A few years later …
At 5:30 a.m., I am the only customer in the Eagle airport. This is not an exaggeration – there is not a single other non-employee in the entire building. I walk up to the ticket counter, and there are four workers behind it doing nothing. Rather than check me in, they politely point me to the self-check-in kiosk.
No problem. I swipe my driver’s license, push all the necessary buttons and soon have my boarding pass in hand. It’s 5:35 by now.
The guy who’s behind me – the second customer in the airport – also gets pointed to a self-check counter. But he’s having a hard time of it. Three of the employees huddle around him, talking him through it step by step.
“OK, now punch in your ZIP code. OK, now push enter. Enter. ENTER! The red button. Enter. Good. Now select … ” they all say, more or less in unison. Part of me thinks, “Come on, just bring the guy up to the counter and check him in. Isn’t that your job?”
The other part of me thinks, “Better step it up, Gramps. This is the way we do things now. We swipe and punch and press enter. It’s the world we now live in. Learn to drive, or the steamroller of technology will flatten you into the asphalt of progress.” My metaphors are not at their best before sunrise.
Also, the guy was hardly a “Gramps.” He was younger than I was. Or maybe the same age. He was definitely younger than I felt. Everybody looks younger than you feel at 5:35 am.
Just last week …
I walk into a public restroom and stick my hands under the sink. Nothing. I wave them back and forth, to and fro, individually and together, trying to get some water to happen. Must be broken. I step to the right to give that faucet a try. Flap, flap, wiggle, wave. Nada. Then I notice the knob.
A knob? For real? Are you seriously going to tell me that I have to turn a knob to get the water to come out?
What are we, savages?
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