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11.3.06

Sid Meier's Automatic Faucet

This is a fairly trivial issue, but it does raise an interesting point about technology. David Schraub sarcastically cries "structural racism!" upon reading the following anecdote about the racial implications of early automatic faucet technology:

Hands-free toilets and faucets are certainly smarter now than when they first came on the market. Pete DeMarco told me that when automatic fixtures first got popular in the early 1990s, they had difficulty detecting dark colors, which tended to absorb the laser light instead of reflecting it back to the sensor. DeMarco remembers washing his hands in O'Hare Airport next to an African-American gentleman. DeMarco's faucet worked; the black man's didn't. The black guy then went to DeMarco's faucet, which he had just seen working seconds before; it didn't work. This time DeMarco spoke up, telling him to turn his hands palm side up. The faucet worked.


I commented:

I actually don't think it's *too* far-fetched to make an argument about structural racism here. No choice of technology (e.g. laser-operated automatic faucets -- instead of, say, pedal-operated ones*) is inevitable. Presumably the people who designed the faucets were white, and so when they were thinking of ways they could make an automatic faucet, they thought of things that would work for white hands. Then they went and tested them with a bunch of white people, and came to the conclusion that they worked just fine, and then went ahead and installed them all over the place. Structural racism led to a mostly-white R&D establishment, which in turn led to black people's needs being overlooked in the design of technology.


Obviously the particular problem of racially discriminatory faucets is a relatively insignificant one, especially since technology quickly improved and can now detect the blackest hands just fine. The larger point, though, is to be careful to avoid the Sid Meier view of technology. Meier is famous for his anthropologically questionable but hugely entertaining "Civilization" series of games. In Civilization, there's a pre-defined technology tree. All civilizations in the game advance up the same tree, making the same advances at the same junctures. One can move faster or slower, but the same developments lead to the same further developments.

It's tempting to think of the real world as working like Civilization -- assuming that anyone who put their mind to, for example, inventing an automatic faucet would have come up with the same basic plan. Anthropology teaches us otherwise. There's been some great work done by one anthropologist -- sadly I read the article long ago and don't remember the name -- about the contrast between Inca and European technology. It's often assumed that the Inca simply lagged behind Europe in the technological race. But in fact the Inca were, among other things, master metallurgists. But instead of focusing on using metal to make things harder and sharper (as did the Europeans, and everyone in Civilization), they pursued metal's properties of malleability and ductility. Beyond metals, the Inca made great strides in fiber-based technology -- from quipus to rope bridges to padded armor and slingshots for their armies. Responding to different social arrangements, the Inca made different choices about what kind of technology to develop (technology which, of course, then impacted those social arrangements). One could as easily take the Inca accomplishments as normative and see Europe as lagging woefully behind.

Taking the Sid Meier view, therefore, diffuses blame. The power and responsibility of the inventors and R&D institutions, as well as the larger society that makes demands on them and gives them resources, are hidden behind the supposed inevitability of technological choices. No, a faucet can't be racist -- but that shouldn't stop us from asking why a facuet that happens to work better for white people was invented.

* Which would be racially neutral but make things difficult for, say, people in wheelchairs and with other mobility problems.

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