Why Nothing Works Anymore
Technology has its own purposes.
By IAN BOGOST
Feb 23 2017
“No… it’s a magic potty,” my daughter used to lament, age 3 or so, before refusing to use a public restroom stall with an automatic-flush toilet. As a small person, she was accustomed to the infrared sensor detecting erratic motion at the top of her head and violently flushing beneath her. Better, in her mind, just to delay relief than to subject herself to the magic potty’s dark dealings.
It’s hardly just a problem for small people. What adult hasn’t suffered the pneumatic public toilet’s whirlwind underneath them? Or again when attempting to exit the stall? So many ordinary objects and experiences have become technologized—made dependent on computers, sensors, and other apparatuses meant to improve them—that they have also ceased to work in their usual manner. It’s common to think of such defects as matters of bad design. That’s true, in part. But technology is also more precarious than it once was. Unstable, and unpredictable. At least from the perspective of human users. From the vantage point of technology, if it can be said to have a vantage point, it’s evolving separately from human use.
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“Precarity” has become a popular way to refer to economic and labor conditions that force people—and particularly low-income service workers—into uncertainty. Temporary labor and flexwork offer examples. That includes hourly service work in which schedules are adjusted ad-hoc and just-in-time, so that workers don’t know when or how often they might be working. For low-wage food service and retail workers, for instance, that uncertainty makes budgeting and time-management difficult. Arranging for transit and childcare is difficult, and even more costly, for people who don’t know when—or if—they’ll be working.
Such conditions are not new. As union-supported blue-collar labor declined in the 20th century, the service economy took over its mantle absent its benefits. But the information economy further accelerated precarity. For one part, it consolidated existing businesses and made efficiency its primary concern. For another, economic downturns like the 2008 global recession facilitated austerity measures both deliberate and accidental. Immaterial labor also rose—everything from the unpaid, unseen work of women in and out of the workplace, to creative work done on-spec or for exposure, to the invisible work everyone does to construct the data infrastructure that technology companies like Google and Facebook sell to advertisers.
But as it has expanded, economic precarity has birthed other forms of instability and unpredictability—among them the dubious utility of ordinary objects and equipment.
The contemporary public restroom offers an example. Infrared-sensor flush toilets, fixtures, and towel-dispensers are sometimes endorsed on ecological grounds—they are said to save resources by regulating them. But thanks to their overzealous sensors, these toilets increase water or paper consumption substantially. Toilets flush three times instead of one. Faucets open at full-blast. Towel dispensers mete out papers so miserly that people take more than they need. Instead of saving resources, these apparatuses mostly save labor and management costs. When a toilet flushes incessantly, or when a faucet shuts off on its own, or when a towel dispenser discharges only six inches of paper when a hand waves under it, it reduces the need for human workers to oversee, clean, and supply the restroom.
Given its connection to the hollowing-out of labor in the name of efficiency, automation is most often lamented for its inhumanity, a common grievance of bureaucracy. Take the interactive voice response (IVR) telephone system. When calling a bank or a retailer or a utility for service, the IVR robot offers recordings and automated service options to reduce the need for customer service agents—or to discourage customers from seeking them in the first place.
Once decoupled from their economic motivations, devices like automatic-flush toilets acclimate their users to apparatuses that don’t serve users well in order that they might serve other actors, among them corporations and the sphere of technology itself. In so doing, they make that uncertainty feel normal.