Sunday, November 29, 2009

The end of demographics

Separate toilets really annoy me. They've been a pet hate of mine for years, since I was chased out of the ladies while trying to tell a girl friend of mine a story while she fixed her make-up back in high school. They are the last bastion of apartheid - segregating people in exactly the same meaningless way as having whites only entrances. The fact that no one has noticed this means there's either a male conspiracy afoot to relegate queueing to women only, or women are paranoid that unisex toilets would become iniquitous dens of sex and sin.

But I get that the world moves slowly. The kind of blunt compartmentalising of people that characterised apartheid and nationalism and feminism and marketing is giving way to an enlightened view of human nature. The digital era is making crude generalisations obsolete. Media channels are fragmenting to an almost individual level, people are forming communities based on interest and passion rather than geography, and marketers are realising that it's better to speak to people when they are interested in you. Demographic and psychographic profiling is all well and good, but most of your messages will miss their target, unless you're targeting those who are searching, seeking, speaking about your product.

In short, the age of demographics is over. Why bother trying to predict behaviour based on crude generalisations about groups of people? People choose what groups are meaningful to them, and they may be nothing like the groups you think they belong to. Now you can track actual behaviour of individuals online. It's increasingly obvious that our identities are not about "who we are", but rather, "what we do". We're free to be ourselves, to define ourselves by our actions and interests, and not be boxed in by descriptors.

And is it really fair, in the age of the empowered individual, to tell us where to pee or who we're allowed to converse with at the basin?


  1. Ja I agree in an ideal sense. You are one of few people who hasn't laughed at me when I have brought this up before. The practicalities are odd though. In a country where the recorded abuse of women is so massive, do you think that enabling the presence of drunk men in the sole women-only part of an establishment is wise? Worth keeping in mind.

    Personally, I think the segregation idea is ludicrous, but thought toward the practicalities is required heavily.

  2. Have you had the same argument with people? I knew you were a bright fella :)

    I bet the apartheid apologists cited safety too...

  3. Yes but Al, I feel that the underlying issue is one of prescriptive versus descriptive design. Should the design of toilets be part of the toolbox of shepherding structures by which architects and placemakers condition society? Or should they broadly mirror norms which dominate their particular socio-spatial moment? I am for the latter.

    Consider the large public toilet inside the private venue (a restaurant, say). The cubicles are private, but the basin area is in high demand by women for touch-ups and miscellaneous cosmetic upkeep. The basins and mirror are a semi-private space which is deeply appreciated for its social and cosmetic possibilities, all of which depend on gender segregation. In the context of an overwhelmingly heteronormative population in every large human community (except the 8005 post code), women (and to some extent men) surely appreciate the existence of a 'green room' or backstage.

    Prescriptive design would have us create unisex bathrooms which meld the gender threshold and the public/private boundary: currently, in the traditional bathroom, the single-sex threshold imposes itself at the bathroom door, while the public/private threshold hovers at the cubicle door.

    Does anyone have the right to wish away these anatomical distinctions as an ordering basis for the room that serves, par excellence, an anatomical function? This is not to say that I haven't felt discomfort when, on a first date, I am forced to use the urinal next to Mr. Right Now.

    Straight men, it is true, do not routinely expose themselves to their dates within two hours of meeting (I exclude Claremont in this case because Claremont should be excluded from everything).

    But the benefits of unisex toilets seem scant: a loss of 'backstage', a loss of the enjoyable mild homoeroticism of the urinal array, for the sake of a roomier WC and political points.

    A far more urgent amendment to the current plan, in my view, is a large, flashing light that reads "DID NOT WASH HANDS" which will sound the alarm whenever CCTV catches your date handling himself immediately prior to cutting everyone's baguette (à la The Far Side).

    Salute from France, Al! You are so clever to write all these things.

  4. Urinals are not homoerotic! They are high pressure firing lines of comparisons and stage fright, forcing everyone to do in public (and with awkward camaraderie) something they would rather do in private.

    Your point on descriptive design is exactly why this type of segregation continues and I have to say I don't think the distinction is relevant - blatant social engineering is obviously something people have shyed away from since the fascists, but reinforcing existing cultural biases is simply a subtler and more insidious form of social engineering. Surely an ex politico such as yourself acknowledges that the status quo is never a neutral situation. It is tied up in some heavy assumptions (which have nothing to do with the anatomical functions), such as that people can only really be friends and let their guard down in front of people of their own gender.

    Whatever the architect decides to do 'imposes' something on you, because it sets a relationship in stone. The choice is between outdated segregation of people by something as irrelevant as gender, and equality ;)

    I'm all for the flashing light plan too, though. And never let your date handle anyone's baguette until you've observed his hygiene habits in the home bathroom from a pretend-sleep.

    I hope France is wonderful! Are you doing Parisian cafes or romps in the wine country?

  5. You're about 25% hotter than both your profile photos.

  6. Thanks. I'll be sure to put that on the CV :)