Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Motion-Activated Paper Towel Dispenser Suck

I first saw the device on the left two years ago, when I was interning for a newspaper. I remember watching my boss wave his hand uselessly back and forth in front of it and cursing. "Goddam thing!" he said. "It never gives you enough paper. I'm trying to dry my hands. Cheadle, why won't it let me dry my hands? This is America, isn't it!"

"I don't know sir," I said, because that's the kind of thing you say when you're an intern. "Yes sir, this is America, last time I checked."

"If this is America, why the hell can't I get enough paper towel?"

Good question.

The way motion-activated paper towel dispensers work, for those of you who are lucky enough not to have encountered them, is you wave your hand in front of a red light and either a paper towel comes out or nothing happens at all. These machines have become increasingly popular, so presumably this system is considered more efficient than using "hand crank" towel dispensers, which practically guarantee that you get enough paper towel.

These machines wouldn't be so frustrating if they filled some need--if we were having trouble with our old-fashioned paper towel dispensers, if there was a public outcry against having to turn a crank after washing our hands. But there wasn't. There is no reason for this thing to exist. It costs money to replace the old machines, it costs money to make sure the dispenser has electricity, it costs money to repair them when they break (I assume they break more often than regular dispensers). This guy says they aren't even ergonomic.

So I scoured the internet, searching for a reason these things continued to squat uselessly on our shared bathroom walls. I found this. It says that with the hand crank model "forces the customer to touch the crank with wet or dirty hands." And we wouldn't want that. After all, paper towel dispenser hand cranks are notorious cesspools of germs. What could be more disgusting than a hand crank that has been touched by another human being that has just washed their hands? You might as well shoot yourself in the head before using a hand crank paper towel dispenser.

I strongly suspect that the above link is actually a plant by the motion-activated paper towel dispenser lobby, which is more powerful than we realize. Why? The last line: "When a customer waves a hand beneath the dispenser, it ejects the perfect sized paper towel" (italics mine) . No one who has used these contraptions would say such a thing. The paper towel is too small, unless you have a genetic abnormality that makes your hands unusually tiny, like this woman I saw on the subway one time. Tell my old boss that the paper towel is the "perfect size" and he'll wring your neck with hands are still wet from the bathroom.

But there's some good news I came across while combing the internet for this entry: you can buy your very own motion-activated paper towel dispenser! Yes, you can have the thrill of waving your hand under a red light without having to go to a public restroom! How much for the latest golden egg the magic goose of Modern Technology has laid? Why, only 250 dollars, or 300 if you want the infinitely more sleek stainless steel model.

This is America, all right.

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