Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The future is behind us

Five is enough?

The science-fiction thriller Demolition Man from 1993 beat The Simpsons Movie to the punch in portraying Arnold Schwarzenegger as president of the United States. Sylvester Stallone portrays John Spartan, a bust-it-up cop who was deep-frozen for his excessive violence but is thawed out in the future world of San Angeles to deal with a law-enforcement emergency. Part of the fun is watching Spartan get used to the brave new world of 2032 in which he finds himself. There's a scene in which Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) and John Spartan drive past the Schwarzenegger presidential library. Stallone gets to plumb the depths of his acting ability by putting on a dyspeptic expression upon finding out that Arnold had been chief executive.

Demolition Man also anticipated the brave new bathroom of the future, although not in quite the same way as imagined by Kimberly-Clark Corporation. The company's new electronic toilet tissue dispenser doles out toilet paper five squares per customer. That's about 20 inches in length and 4 inches wides. Eighty square inches. It's just a skosh bigger than a single sheet of tissue from a box of Kleenex. That's all, folks!

Richard Thorne, who glories in the title Director of Washroom Business for Kimberly-Clark, is quoted in an MSNBC article saying “Most people will take the amount given. People generally in life will take what you give them.”

Isn't that nice? (And I, for one, welcome our new bathroom overlords. May I please have a few extra squares now?)

In Demolition Man, however, John Spartan is defeated by the restroom of the future when he finds three seashells in the alcove where he expected to find toilet paper. When he confides his problem to Huxley, she laughingly explains to her fellow police officers that “They used handfuls of wadded paper back in the twentieth century.” (Note that Lenina is a student of ancient history. The shells are cited in the following YouTube clip. A more extended passage is available at 1:10 in a clip put together by summerofevidence. German speakers can get the whole “three shells” sequence in a dub.)

Spartan resolves his problem by reciting a list of banned profanities into one of the omnipresent electronic room monitors, which issues him a ticket for each curse word. With a wad of paper in hand, Spartan returns to the restroom to do his business. Heroes can do that sort of thing.

Kimberly-Clark's new device issues five squares by default, but it can be reset to issue more. Or fewer! A famous scene from Seinfeld has Elaine Benes in a paper-free bathroom stall begging her neighbor for three squares: “Three squares? You can't spare three squares?” She's rebutted with “I don't have a square to spare!” Is Seinfeld an ominous harbinger?

People have enjoyed repeating Karl Marx's questionable dictum that “History repeats itself—first as tragedy, then as farce.” When, however, the first act is farce, what can we expect in act two? Kimberly-Clark appears not to be afraid to follow on the heels of Demolition Man and Seinfeld. How brave!

It's only fair to note, of course, that both Demolition Man and Seinfeld are works of fiction. A Kimberly-Clark flack would be on firm ground in accusing me of not playing fair. Marx, after all, was talking about history, not escapist entertainment.

Okay. You want history? I'll give you history! Does anyone remember the wise words of the Ayatollah Khomeini from back in 1979? Everyone was quoting him (especially late-night comedians) when Iran's new leader issued his advice on personal hygiene: “One need not wipe one's anus with three pebbles or three pieces of cloth—one pebble or one piece of cloth suffices.”

That man sure was ahead of his time. I wonder. Did he leave his heirs any stock in Kimberly-Clark?

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