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.
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.
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.
Andre Radan 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.
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