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A Tale of Three Toilets

Back in the 90's there was a guy in the NeXT community whose sig file was "documentation is a sign of failure." I've thought a lot about that phrase over the years and I both agree and disagree with it today. Let's consider three different toilets:

The first toilet – like the one next to my office in Phnom Penh – is as simple as it gets. There is a bowl with a seat and lid. No cistern, no flushing mechanism. There is a large cistern of water beside it, in my case a large plastic trash can. You use a large scoop to pour water into the bowl to flush. There is nothing to break, and no knowledge is needed to use it. This toilet needs no documentation or tutorials. It takes a few tries to get the hang of how to pour the water to get a whirlpool flush effect but you have to figure out how things work on your own.

The second toilet – which is ubiquitous across much of the world is the same as the first but it has a cistern at the back with a mechanism inside that automatically refills the cistern and releases water into the bowl to create the whirlpool flush when a button or lever is pressed. It's the Apple computer of toilets – it just works – but you are limited in what you can do with it to a simple point and grunt interface.

I say limits because by incorporating the cistern with the toilet bowl the cistern can't be used for other things. With a large external cistern, the water can be used to take a shower, wash clothes, dishes and clean the floor (important if you live on a farm where people are constantly tracking in mud!). And equally as important, water will be available for more than one flush even during reasonably brief interruptions in the town water supply.

The third toilet is the all singing, all dancing, talking Japanese toilet. These are marvels of technology. They have a Star Trek like control panel on one side. I always imagine that this is the toilet you might find on the Kobayashi Maru. These toilets have heated seats which are great, especially during chilly Japanese winters in buildings with no central heating. The toilets combine the features of a bidet and a toilet. Many of these toilets also speak in a very cute cheerful female voice – which is problematic if one is feeling sick or hung over. When you press a button you can hear a variety of motors doing all sorts of things like extending water nozzles which spray your private parts in warm water (yes it has a water heater). The problem is that if you don't have at least a grade-school reading level in Japanese there is no way of knowing what any of these controls do. It's not even clear how to simply flush the toilet.

My first encounter with one of these toilets was over twenty years ago in a very posh coffee shop in Osaka shortly after I had moved there. I did my business and then was completely stumped as to how to get the damned thing to flush. I bent over and tried to decipher the labels on the control panel but most of it was in Hiragana and some Kanji. I knew most of the kanji but I had learned them in Chinese – when I lived in Hong Kong – and they didn't make a lot of sense to me.

I finally decided to just press buttons at random. The first seemed to heat the seat, the second – I swear – vibrated the seat. The third button resulting in a loud humming buzz. I bent down to look closer and saw a thin metal tube extending down into the bowel. I leaned a little closer and bam! Warm water shot out under pressure right into my face. I jumped up to my feet and the water hit the crotch of my pants and then the water stopped and the tube retracted. There was water everywhere, on me and the floor. I didn't know what to do, and not flushing the toilet in Japan would be unthinkable. I finally braved pushing another button and the toilet flushed.

I dried myself as best as I could before returning to my table. When the Japanese women I had come with saw me she looked up in alarm and said, "what happened!" I was still in a bit of shock and blurted out, "the toilet attacked me!" She laughed so hard everyone in the coffee shop stared at us. Ten years later, she was still telling that story to people…

This third toilet is a bit like professional software applications such as Emacs or the 3D modeling and animation application Blender. For these applications, documentation is not a failure. It is the opposite of the "it just works" interface. Without very good built in documentation and tutorials these applications would be a failure. The problem is that such applications are now the exception rather than the rule. Most people in the West have spent their entire lives without ever encountering the first or the third toilets and have lost the ability to figure things out on their own or even how to find where documentation and tutorials are.

You may have noticed that there are YouTube videos for the most astonishingly simple things you can imagine. Do a search for "how to peel an orange" or "how to boil an egg." Many people don't even try to figure out anything on their own any longer and if there isn't a video telling them how to do it they simply give up.

I find this more than a little sad. When we dumb down the way we interact with the world and mediate all experiences through simplified interfaces that require no learning curve, we limit what we can do, and even think. We're stuck with what the designers want, which more often than not, isn't much. When technology becomes sufficiently advanced, Arthur C. Clark wrote, it effectively becomes indistinguishable from magic. But if you look at it in another way, magic is simply a black box which doesn't allow you to understand how something works. When you know how something works it is no longer magic, it becomes science.

We are loosing our ability to understand and interact with the world around us critically and creatively. It leaves us passive, stupid and unable to cope with things when they break. We need more type one and type three toilets in our lives.