Friday, May 18, 2012

On automatic sinks and towel dispensors

The shift to motion sensor- based sinks and paper-towel roll dispensers makes me nervous. On the one hand I recognize the usefulness of the paper towel machine controlling how much paper towel you get at once to help keep the wet-handed individual from ripping off half the roll to dry off his barely moistened fingertips.On the same hand I recognize the sanitary implications. Of the list of all the places to have extra handles, public restrooms aren't anywhere on it.  On the other hand, the nervous one, the motion-sensor based interaction puts the user at the mercy, as it were, of the motion sensor screen, or the towel-dispensor's batteries. Once those batteries die, you're not getting any more paper. If the motion-sensor screen goes, no more water. Also, the lack of a hot/cold handle means that the sensor is choosing your water temperature for you and if you don't like it, you can lump it. Or not wash your hands. Or just carry around hand sanitizer. The marketplace corollary is the self-check out stations in supermarkets and other stores. Though I usually use a card, instead of cash, the times that I do actually use cash, there are specific requirements for those bills in order to be acceptable by the "bill acceptor" as the disembodied voice calls it. The bills need to be crisp, pointed the right way and inserted at the proper time. I've had several instances where trying to feed a particularly aged and crumpled dollar bill into the aforementioned acceptor has failed even though if the dollar bill was handed to a cashier, it would be treated as acceptable currency.
Its is the homogenization or strict guidelines that these type of encounters require that makes me nervous. It's sort of the logical conclusion of the Industrial Revolution. Starting with Henry Ford and the assembly line and moving to Taylor and the Gilbraiths with motion study (the best way to do work) whose work paved the way for robots who can do the same exact repetitive task for hours without tiring or making a mistake. We are moving from having our work performed by robots/automated processes to being expected to make certain of our actions robotic in order to interact with everyday systems. Driving is different because while you can drive like a fool, following the laws of the road make sure you, and other around you, don't die. The automated systems we interact with are programmed to  expect an exact, precise input (crisp dollar bills) which is an additional expectation to just having cash. Now there is a requirement for a particular type of cash (crisp, precise and not run through a cycle of laundry). The cash feeder has no compassion, or use, for the crumpled up, taped dollar bill.While the towel dispenser and faucet are more forgiving, the attitude of expectation is what makes me nervous. I'm used to sticking my hands underneath the interface and getting output.What happens when that input (sticking my hands out) fails? Either a specialist fixes the screen or you get a new faucet, chucking the old one (which is a whole other level of obsolescence-planned or otherwise).
What I'm nervous about is the casual acceptance of interfaces to help us accomplish our work without thinking about the consequences of using/incorporating those interfaces into daily life. I've got nothing against self-check out stations. But the fact that the machine treats different types of currency differently than a person does/would, matters and should not be ignored.

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