In Defense of Texting on the Toilet

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 20 2014 2:03 PM

In Defense of Texting on the Toilet

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The toilet: not just for newspapers anymore.

Photo by SEBASTIAN WILLNOW/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, I texted a colleague from the bathroom and then denied it.

I’d written a blog post, sent it to him to proofread, gotten up to pee, and then realized I had omitted a key fact. I didn’t want him to set the post live during the 60 seconds it was going to take me to finish my business and wash my hands, so I did what any self-respecting digital native would do. I opened my Google Hangout app and chatted him to hold the post. When I emerged into our smallish, open-plan office, he immediately called me out on my behavior—“Did you just text me from the restroom?”—and in response I told a flat-out lie. “No,” I scoffed. “That would be gross.”

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But I can no longer live in the shadows, ashamed and afraid. It’s time for toilet texters to come out of the (water) closet. Done in the proper spirit, toilet texting/emailing/tweeting/chatting does no harm and is in fact a force for good—not to mention a cultural inevitability.

Here are just a few reasons I take my iPhone to the restroom: By doing a smidge of extra work during what were once known as bathroom breaks, I am doing my part to wring the last productivity gains from the IT boom that started in the 1970s and petered out in the early ’00s. I am also doing my part for (a certain variant of rich white lady workplace) feminism, checking the cute pics of my baby sent by my nanny without “stealing” the time from my employer or putting additional burdens on my childless colleagues. By breaking taboos, I am pushing back against the surprisingly large role that irrational or semi-rational feelings of disgust play in our moral judgments, an essential step in the historical march to a more civilized, pluralistic, and peaceable world (think: the end of prohibitions on miscegenation or sodomy). Gut bacteria, after all, aren’t transmissible via email, and proper order of operations and good hand washing should eliminate other hygienic concerns.

Plus, I’m pretty busy.

And you probably are, too. A YouGov/Huffington Post poll last fall found that half of people aged 18-29 use their phones on the toilet, with 42 percent of people aged 30-44 and a quarter of people aged 45-64 fessing up to the same behavior. In 2012, Nielsen reported that 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans admitted to using social networks while in the bathroom. (That study prompted Slate’s Will Oremus to create a highly technical timeline of Milestones in the History of Human Toilet Use.)

These are all people who presumably know that they would suffer social disapprobation for their behavior, but do it anyway. Which suggests that a layman’s version of the economic concept of revealed preference obtains here: Even people who say they disapprove of toilet texting do it, which suggests they value the gains they get from those stolen digital moments more than they’re willing to admit. In fact, similar numbers of people text and email in far riskier scenarios. A recent poll in Washington state joins dozens of similar studies that have found that about half of drivers under the age of 35 admit to texting while behind the wheel, a number that seems to be going up, not down, despite awareness campaigns and even outright criminalization of the behavior in many states.

And nearly everyone eats at their desks these days, combining work with yet another biological function while risking a certain amount of unhygienic grossness, right out in the open!

Such behavior makes a little excretory multitasking seem downright harmless.

But perhaps the harm is deeper and subtler. An ever-growing cadre of thinkers and writers worry on behalf of millennials and other device junkies. They fret that we are not taking time for mindfulness, that we are failing to realize the ultimate benefits of woolgathering and other downtime.  

Sociologist, TED talker, and amazing French accent-haver (and the inspiration for this diatribe) Yves Morieux suggested last week at a panel sponsored by the New America Foundation that smartphone use on the toilet is a sign that things have gone too far, that we are too stressed, too maxed out. Present at the same panel was Brigid Schulte, author of the new book Overwhelmed (and my fellow New America fellow).

In language that is unintentionally punnishly relevant to the toilet texting debate, Schulte is concerned about the notion of contaminated time, the lack of flow in our lives. She means that we are no longer enjoying long uninterrupted periods of peace and/or productivity. And sure, if you’re sending email from the bathroom because you are actually gripped by a sense of panic that everything will fall apart if you’re out of contact for even a second, something has gone very wrong. 

But I suspect that many of the millions of people who bring their phones to the can are actually extending periods of productivity in a way that feels natural and non-burdensome. Others may actually be grabbing those moments of serenity that are tough to come by in the modern world, islands of peace or self-determination in an otherwise maddening day. (Just ask Paul Rudd’s character in This Is 40.)

Our devices are increasingly parts of ourselves. Soon we will be wearing our devices on our faces, trotting to the pot with our Google Glass or Oculus Rift 3.0 goggles already strapped on. The notion that there are times and places where we should be separated from our devices will become increasingly quaint in the not-too-distant future. I, for one, plan to keep conducting work and social business in the throne room, and I look forward to a future where you all join me. (Just not literally.)

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of Reason magazine and a Future Tense fellow at the New America Foundation.

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