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To anyone familiar with the story of urban decay in major American cities in the 1980s – and with the subsequent abolition of toilets from city streets – the introduction of automated public toilets (APTs) to urban spaces sounds like very good news. This article explores the re-democratizing message that commonly accompanies the introduction of APTs to North American city streets as well as their on-the-ground manifestations. It focuses on two major components of APTs: privatization and automation. The process of privatization, which characterizes most APT operations in North America, carries with it various exclusionary effects that stand in stark contrast to the democratic aspirations of public space. Additionally, the APTs normally feature automated devices, and, most prominently, the auto-flush and the automated faucet and dryer. On the face of things, these devices eradicate the injustices that sometimes accompany human discretion. However, they also conceal the necessarily social and value-ridden human decision making that goes into their design. The article proposes that both the privatization and the automation of public toilets are part of a broader and increasingly expansive sanitary regime, one that imposes a morality in practice on its users. The latter are left with relatively limited options as to how to use the space of the washroom and at times join the nonhuman devices themselves in “kicking-back” at their programmers. By comparing automated toilets with attendant-based ones, the article suggests that the project of sanitary surveillance exemplifies the fluidity between traditional and new forms of surveillance.

Publication Title

Surveillance and Society

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