Smart Thrones

Given that this is the age of big data, geotracking, and location-based services, I wonder what The Cloud might tell us about the confluence of human biological needs and mobile behavior.

Specifically, what do people actually do with their smartphones when they’re doing their business?

I don’t mean this as a tasteless scatological jest. And while I normally post about moving seat time, this question about static seat time has been consuming me.

I mean, what do people literally, actually do now that you can remain totally connected during this universal moment of physiological, um, disconnection?

The answer would be interesting on so many levels. Behaviorally…psychologically…anthropologically…even commercially. Do we shop? Email? Google stuff? Tweet? What do we do?

Pre-smartphone (I should say, “pre-smart-throne”) human toilet behavior was fairly consistent, and pretty unremarkable. I know. I was there.

You’d stare at the tile. Maybe study the grout lines, looking for interesting or unusual patterns, occasionally accented by stray hairs. You’d sigh. Wait. Wonder if you’d just spotted a grout-Jesus. Look at the toilet paper roll either approvingly or with annoyance, depending on whether you’re a roll-forward or roll-backward type.

And that was pretty much it.

Of course, things were (and still are) a little different if you happened to be in a public bathroom, and there were other members of the species audibly present.

You might sniff or clear your throat to make your presence known, like a canine “marking” its territory. Maybe the intrusion of another human would trigger a burst of evolutionary altruism, and you’d courtesy-flush.

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Or, in a more primitive hard-coded way, you’d freeze like spooked, hunted prey, not breathing or moving until the coast was clear: There’s no one in this stall I swear no one really sitting here with their pants around their ankles oh please finish peeing please finish washing or whatever the hell you’re doing oh I think they’re leaving now c’mon door-sound c’mon door-sound c’mon door-sound FINALLY thank god thank god…kaBOOM!

One final pre-smart-throne observation. Before you could “check-in” half-naked from atop a water-filled porcelain bowl, bathrooms were actually restrooms. And going there entailed genuine moments of rest. They were a pause, a caesura in your busy day, when you stopped doing what you were doing and surrendered quietly and alone to biological imperative. Going to the “restroom” was like a soft-tissue sabbath.


But now, between Candy Crush (the real Game of Thrones?), gmail, and Twitter, the bathroom has become its own idiosyncratic locus of mobile experience. It’s still private “me-time” (i-time?), still restful (in the way that idly surfing Zappos for shoes you don’t need is) and it’s still governed by colonic imperative. But it’s now crackling with handheld activity.

Just through self-observation, I’ve determined that my iPhone has radically changed my relationship with biology.

For starters, I won’t even contemplate a visit to the bathroom (and just to be data-specific, a seated visit to the bathroom) without my iPhone. I’ve stopped in mid-stride and headed back to my desk or credenza for my device, even when nature’s call was ringing loudly.

What’s more, I believe that smartphones have added considerably to what corporate America (in its linguistically-Orwellian way) refers to as the “bio break.” I have no scientific basis for claiming this, but again, through self-observation (seat-tattoos) and several giant mental gaps in the space-time continuumJesus Christ! How the hell long have I been sitting here!?—I think that throne-time has greatly expanded.

So what has this motorbike-riding, blog-posting data point been doing with all that extra seat time? In the spirit of advancing science, I’ll admit that Twitter is my smart-throne time-suck of choice. Not tweeting; reading. The bathroom has become the primary news-gathering interval during my day (and to think people used to gather around water-coolers). Which I guess is appropriate, since so much of what passes as news today would be fairly and accurately described as, well, you-know-what.

This brings me to a final smart-throne issue, the one that has to do with fingers, bathrooms, Gorilla Glass, and coliform bacteria.

If you looked at your smartphone as a super-sized pathology slide that gets regularly pressed to your mouth and cheek, the whole “smart-throne” phenomenon takes on a rather sickening cast. Literally.

Yes, they’ve cultured and studied this. Yes, your gleaming gold-pagne iPhone 5S is is teeming with microbes. Yes, the whole home-button/fingerprint-scanner is like a little concave Escherichia swimming pool. Gizmodo summed it up quite snappily: Your Smartphone is Basically a Poopstick

Still, it smells like opportunity to me.

How can science make smart-throning safer and cleaner?

How can marketers and advertisers capitalize on this ever expanding, intensely-focused mobile interval in our days?

What digital services or apps might thrive in bathrooms, along with the bacteria?

And while we’re at it: what do you do while you do what you do?

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