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A More Critical Approach to Our Toilets and Technologies
Donnie Maclurcan   Feb 23, 2011   Ethical Technology  

As with most mainstream technologies, pop culture in the West no doubt views the toilet as a useful invention. Effective in its disposal of human waste, the greatest stink created by this set-diameter bowl is the occasional need for a good scrub or available plumber.

But if we look a little deeper, the toilet proves a prime example for dispelling the dangerous mainstream assumption: that technology is inherently beneficial or, at worst, value-neutral.


Radan
This article was co-written with Andre Radan, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Sydney, where he majored in History. Of particular interest to Andre throughout his life has been the relationship between humankind and our environment. To understand how this relationship impacts and controls the way society has developed and is developing is the driving force through almost all his research.




As with all technologies, the toilet embodies and carries the biases of the contexts in which it was created. Such bias can extend to matters of history, geography, environment, health, gender, religion and culture.

The toilet’s creators, for example, considered the sitting position culturally superior and more dignified than the -primitive’ squatting position. The components of your toilet probably were built by exploited workforces in unhealthy conditions, in multiple workplaces many thousands of miles away. The energy used in your toilet’s production, distribution, and installation resulted in significant greenhouse gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere.

Toilet

In its -seated’ as opposed to -squat’ form, we increase our risk of constipation, bowel disease, and colon cancer and alienate women from a natural posture relevant to birthing. With each flush, prodigious amounts of useful phosphorous in our urine is wasted away. Forests have been cleared for the paper we use when going to the loo. And most toilets can be seen as reinforcing the ideologically-laden notion of -white’ as purity.

Yet, despite these subtle, inbuilt biases, the Enlightenment-driven belief in the ideological neutrality of science and its subsequent physical-form manifestations would appear to grow, daily, compounded by our increasing distance from the creation of the technologies we use. Through corporate and government spin, this physical distance is then married with -objective’ distance; we are tricked into thinking that technologies can only have negative impacts if they are misused or misappropriated - always by others.

Questioning carbon emissions tied to usage remains the only semblance of a value-based critique. This void feeds ubiquitous user-passivity, undermining attempts to redress broader power inequities because few of us recognise and accept that we can be both fighting for change, yet simultaneously preserving gross inequities through our submission to technocracy.

A more critical approach to technologies means the opportunity to explore and rectify societal bias in its many forms. It is time we take a good, hard look at technologies like our toilet and ask, “What really lies beneath?”

Donnie Maclurcan is an Honorary Research Fellow with the Institute for Nanoscale Technology at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is a passionate advocate for paths to global prosperity that do not rely on economic growth.



COMMENTS

While I agree the sitting position may not be ideal, asian squat toilets have the same problem of wasting human by products-as-fertilizer so its best not to conflate the two issues.

More importantly, Asia, more recently than the West, was in the business of using night soil to fertilise crops. With growing human populations, peak oil and limited supply of wild or grazing land, this may be the best solution for growing vegetarian food to feed people, but it comes at the high price of increased levels of water and food borne pathogens. Disease epidemics become more likely. This is a fact, and its why humans developed more hygienic waste removal systems like flush toilets and sewerage plumbing. In Sydney, this waste is expelled, after treatment, several kilometres out to sea. Perhaps it fertilises the ocean? I’m not sure that’s ever been studied. I know of at least one researcher that is studying the safe and affective use of human waste as fertiliser in a modern context (in the Netherlands) but its a big big hurdle, both scientific and aesthetic, to make humans as comfortable with the type of closer, sustainable relationships to their waste as they had in the past. Disease prevention is what its all about in modern technological societies, and currently when it comes to balancing short terms gains (disease prevention) against long term gains (the health of the planet), short term wins.

most toilets can be seen as reinforcing the ideologically-laden notion of ‘white’ as purity.

I used to have a green one. Now that I think of it, perhaps it was meant to reinforce the environmentalist notion of green as purity?

Forests have been cleared for the paper we use when going to the loo.

Now this is a great business idea! First e-books, then e-toilet paper!

I am comforted by the thought that we will all have e-butts sometime soon.

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