This Is The Modern World: Doors Which Open Themselves

This huge imposing oval shaped room taking up about a quarter of the carriage
This huge imposing oval shaped room taking up about a quarter of the carriage

The view from the train

I went up to London on the train the other day.

I like trains. I like the sense that I am being carried, that someone else is doing the driving for a change. You can relax on a train. You can look out of the window at the world going by. Even the world looks relaxed somehow. It looks serene, unperturbed, just going about its daily business as it drifts by through the window like a moving picture. It’s like you are looking at the world from a new angle, uncluttered by the debris of modern life.

Just think of the difference between the view from a train and the view on the motorway. There are usually several lanes between you and the world on the motorway. Even if you drive on the inside lane, there’s the hard shoulder and a wire fence in the way. It’s like that fence is dividing you from the world. Not that you have time to look. You are too busy looking at the traffic, too busy worrying what the other drivers might be up to. One slip and you could be dead.

Now think about the train. It’s true that there’s a verge and a fence, but you don’t feel cut off in the same way. The verge is full of trees and plants and wildlife. You feel as if you are a part of the landscape. The world has grown up to accommodate the train. The towns and cities you pass through have nestled themselves around the lines, absorbing them, incorporating them, so that the railway has become an expression of the town’s character. Can you say the same about by-passes and out-of-town shopping malls I wonder?

If transport had never evolved beyond the train, I would not be unhappy. On a train, you don’t take the journey, the journey takes you.

I like other forms of transport too. I like bikes, I like buses. I can imagine a world in which all of these forms of transport are spliced together to form one, unified, effective, cheap, safe and reliable transport system, and I would never have to suffer the stress of motorway driving again.

But, then again, I’m old fashioned. Sometimes I like to remember the world I grew up in, a world that actually worked, as opposed to the one we have now, which seems to stumble on from one mad crisis to the next, regardless of its apparent modernity.

It’s not that I’m against change. I like change.

I remember the first time I discovered predictive text on my mobile phone.

It was my son who showed it to me. He showed me how to use it, patiently taking me through the process: how to read the keyboard, how to change the words, how to find the address, how to send it off. My son became my teacher, and that was a revelation in itself. He’s been teaching me ever since. We sent a text to his mother, who was in Turkey at the time. And within a minute I’d got a reply. I fell in love with my mobile phone in that instant. What an incredible facility to possess, to contact anyone anywhere in the world, and to get an immediate reply.

I love computers, and the internet, and websites and Google Earth and digital cameras and have a huge hankering after a Tablet one day. They look like the embodiment of contemporary magic to me.

But for every innovation which enhances the world, there are a dozen more which make no sense whatsoever.


As I was saying, I was travelling up to London on the train, and I needed to go to the toilet.

I don’t know what the toilets on trains are like in your part of the world, but in my part of the world they are these huge imposing oval shaped rooms taking up about a quarter of the carriage. They fill up so much space that there’s hardly any room for seats nearby. Not that you would want to sit nearby, as they smell. And instead of door handles they have a button. The button flashes when the toilet is empty, but goes out when the toilet is occupied. Or maybe it’s the other way round: maybe it flashes when the toilet is occupied and goes out when it’s empty. It’s hard to remember. You press the button and the door swings open. You press one of the buttons inside the toilet and the door swings shut. Well I say “swings”, but that makes it sound smooth. It is anything but smooth. Rather, the door cranks its way open, juddering as it does so, making a sort of grinding noise along the way.

And on this occasion the door cranked and juddered open to reveal a woman with her child in there. The child was having a pee, his legs pressed up against the toilet, while the woman was behind, holding his rucksack and steadying him against the movement of the train. The two of them looked at me uncomfortably. It was an awkward moment.

“Sorry,” the woman said. “We forgot to lock the door.”

Instead of a catch there is a series of buttons.
Instead of a catch there is a series of buttons.
There's even a button for flushing the toilet.
There's even a button for flushing the toilet.

See, this is the kind of innovation that makes no sense whatsoever. Instead of a catch there is a series of buttons. There’s a button for opening the door, and a button for closing the door, and a button for locking the door – there’s even a button for flushing the toilet - and it’s an easy thing to think that having closed the door you have also locked the door. And when you do lock the door a remote woman’s voice echoes around the space. “The door is now locked,” she says. She doesn’t tell you that the door is unlocked, only that it is locked. Why would I want a woman in the toilet with me telling me that the door is locked? What’s wrong with a catch? In the old days you closed the door, and you put down the catch. It was obvious when the door was locked and when it was not.

Ten years ago, these toilets were considered very modern. These days they are the height of decrepitude. What happens when they break down? They are always breaking down. The toilet is incorporated into the carriage and is full of complex electronics. When it breaks down the whole of the carriage is put out of commission. It takes an electronic engineer to fix it. It probably has to be hauled off to a workshop. Compare this to the old days. What used to happen when the catch broke? You got someone with a screwdriver to come and fix in.

The reason the new toilets take up so much space is so that the oval shaped door can slide neatly along the oval shaped wall, allowing the automatic mechanism to open the door for you, rather than you having to open it yourself.

Get that? It’s so you don’t have to open the door yourself.

Who thought of that? Who thought it would be a good idea to have doors which open themselves?

Invisible butlers

They are everywhere: doors which open themselves. They are in every supermarket and every bank. Every building society, every corporate building. Every shopping mall. You come to a door and instead of opening it you either have to press a button or you have to wait for it to open itself.

Are we so enervated as a species that we can no longer open doors? Are we so weak that the process of pulling or pushing a door to get it open takes up too much energy and thought?

We always managed to get doors open in the past. What has changed? Maybe the process is too intellectually challenging for our feeble brains to cope with? Would we stop, puzzled, at the threshold of every door wondering what to do without the aid of the automatic mechanism to help make the decision for us?

It’s like someone somewhere has decided that we need to have an army of invisible butlers everywhere we go, opening and closing doors for us.

We can’t afford to have real butlers but we can at least have a mechanical butler everywhere we go, opening and closing the doors.

I suppose doors which open themselves could be quite useful if you were weighed down with heavy bags, or you were pushing a pushchair or someone in a wheel chair. That must apply to a certain percentage of the population for a certain percentage of the time. But we had a method for dealing with people in this kind of predicament in the past, before we had doors which opened themselves. It was called politeness. Someone else would open the door for you. This had the advantage that you got to talk to someone in the process, something which, as yet, you can't do with an automatic door.

There is also something called a power-assisted door. This is the most confusing kind of door of all. It looks like an ordinary door, but it’s not an ordinary door. It’s not quite an automatic door either. It’s like a combination of the two.

There’s one of these in my building society. It first appeared there over ten years ago now, and I’ve still not got used to it.

There’s a variety of ways to make it open. There’s a button on the window. If you touch the window the door will open. Also if you begin opening the door in the ordinary way, it will continue opening by itself. It will suddenly leap from your hand and yank itself open. This is very disconcerting. It’s like someone has suddenly pulled the door away from you. For a time people would fall through the door rather than stepping through it. They would stumble through the door wondering what just happened.

The puzzling thing about all of this is who decided to make the world this way? Who decided we needed doors which open themselves? I don’t remember being asked about this, do you? I don’t remember there being a referendum on the matter. I mean: I can imagine a million more useful things I would like to have than doors which open themselves. I’d like cheaper fares on the trains. I’d like a transport system which works. I’d like trains that run on time and a bus to meet my train. I’d like plastic wrapping which was easy to open. I’d like programmes on the TV I wanted to watch. I’d like films with plots and characters and a few less explosions. I’d like banks which didn’t rip you off. I’d like shorter queues in the post office. I’d like less junk mail through my door. I’d like more independent shops on my High Street. I’d like the corporations off my back. I’d like lower utility bills. I’d like solar panels on my roof. I’d like the waste water from my bath to water the garden. I’d like newspapers with news in them instead of celebrity gossip and propaganda. I’d like a government I could trust.

But please, oh please, let me open doors by myself.

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Comments 16 comments

Syzygysue 4 years ago

Chris, I can hardly remember having agreed with an article so much! Every aspect is so completely true. You left out my bug-bear... electric windows in cars which are hugely expensive to fix and make the car unusable if they fail. What was wrong with a handle to wind the window up and down? And actually I want one of those crank handles to start the engine if the starter motor goes! Great validating article .. those awful train loos and the uncertainty of whether they are locked or not.. I'd rather pay 20p (!!) at Victoria.

CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Thanks Sue. It's a measure of our alienation from the technology that surrounds us that a good percentage of it isn't there because we asked for it or wanted it. It's there because someone else is making a profit from it. I wonder how much longer this insanity can continue? I suspect we are nearing the end myself.

Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 4 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

Well, you know I'm a technophobe, Chris, so it won't surprise you that I hate all this electronic stuff like these doors you describe. I also hate the new modern bus station in La Laguna here. It has no character, no bar or cafe, it is cold and windy outside and if you want to go to the shops in the centre of town you have to catch a tram or another bus to do so, and it also has a modern revolving door that once you have stepped inside you have to be careful because it can suddenly stop and smash the glass panel into your head. I even saw this happen to a bus driver who works there and it very nearly got my friend. There should be a sign saying BEWARE OF THE DOOR!

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida

I understand your frustration and disappointment in the face of progress(?) coupled with your inability to accept change. This is a normal part of aging, part of the route to curmudgeonhood, so don't worry too much. You'll soon be on to the next step which is pointing at new building developments and saying "I remember when that was an empty field over there..." and expressing your disdain for the modern world with such phrases as "in my day..." Watch for these new symptoms. After reading this article, I predict they should start by the end of the week.

By the way, I love automatic doors, especially when carrying an armload of bags or pushing a cart full of shopping or a client in a wheelchair.

CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hello Steve, yes I know you're a technophobe Steve. I'm not myself. It depends on the technology and how useful it is.

And Immartin, I agree, I'm well on my way to curmudgeonliness. I was going to talk about people with heavy bags in the piece. I was going to say, we used to have a solution for that. It was called politeness. People would open the doors for you. The advantage of this is that you got to talk to a human being in the process. But I suppose if you like talking to automatic doors, that would do just as well...

spryte profile image

spryte 4 years ago from Arizona, USA

I've never really thought about doors that open and close by themselves...well, except for when somebody stands accidentally on the trigger and the door constantly opens and closes...opens and closes...opens and closes....and I, what an idiot. :)

I love technology...but it seems for everything that is made easier, something is lost and this makes me sad. For example...I love my iPad...and I fought owning one for a long time, but it's nice to be able to read whatever I want, wherever I the dark, enlarging the font so I can read it (which is important as you get older)...but damn...I miss the smell of paper, the weight of a book in my hands.

Thanks for posting this in FB so that I could enjoy this. I love your's so warm, mellow and leaves me with a fuzzy feeling of contentment.

CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hello spryte, there's a little bit of wilful exaggeration in this piece. I was actually trying to create a "character" who I could use to express certain ideas. He's sort of me, and sort of not me at the same time. And I agree about the iPad. I'd love one, but will probably have to make do with an Android Tablet instead. Glad I make you fee warm, fuzzy and mellow. There are worse things to feel. How's the novel coming on?

spryte profile image

spryte 4 years ago from Arizona, USA

I love the idea of this character and I'm curious about how you plan to use him. You'll have to tell me more.

The book is basically done, I'm just doing one last run through...pollishing up a few areas that feel a bit rough or where I've been blatantly repetitive. Of course, it seems that this draft is where I've become my most critical and it's going a little slower than expected because I want it to be exactly right (i.e. honest...with both myself and the reader). Memoirs are tricky things aren't they? On the surface they seem very simple...but when you don't smack that nail of truth soundly on the head, it rings false and what you thought was the truth may not be what you know is the truth deep down inside.

CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

I'll happily tell you about my character, but it would have to be in a private exchange as there are little secrets tucked away here.

Very much looking forward to reading your memoir when it's finished. I know it will be good. How do you plan to publish it? Do you have a publisher or are you going to release it as an ebook?

spryte profile image

spryte 4 years ago from Arizona, USA

I'd love to hear all about your curmudgeonly character and privately makes me feel extra special. You have my email still, right?

I'm taking a lesson from Shades regarding the publishing since his ebook seems to be doing extremely well, but the hard copy doesn't seem to be returning the investment. Exactly which venues I'm going to use for epublishing, I haven't settled on yet. I figure while it is being edited by two hand-selected individuals, I'll begin that research. Have you published anything in ebook format?

IslandVoice profile image

IslandVoice 4 years ago from Hawaii

Exactly! What happened to simplicity, practicality and self empowerment? Tttally enjoyed this one!

CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Thanks Island Voice. Glad you liked it.

Not tried publishing in ebook form yet spryte. I'll be watching your progress with interest. You'll have to remind me what Shades' book is called.

spryte profile image

spryte 4 years ago from Arizona, USA

Shadesbreath's novel is: The Galactic Mage. I haven't finished it yet, but I haven't been able to do much reading at all with everything on my own plate. He has both the hard copy and the e-version available.

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

I found public toilets in England to be, for the most part, engineering marvels. But then I never had to use one while on a moving train. In fact, I never even saw one of the Oval Wonders, for which some will consider me fortunate, right?

I wholeheartedly agree with you, Chris, that some of today's technological "advances" advance nothing.

As one example right here in front of us, who decided the UP button was useless! And that profile pics or avatars next to our comments are no longer necessary! I LIKE to "see" the person who wrote the comment! Taking them away is NOT progress, only makes it harder to find one's own profound and witty comment on return visits. ;D

CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Yes I wonder at all the changes to HubPages too. Not all the innovations are in any way improvements. I think it just gives the people in the office something to do. It's the same with facebook and Google Mail. You get used to something and the next thing you know that are changing it.

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Many illogical changes are nothing more than a staffer justifying his/her salary. Real improvement would be making such staffers redundant...but then you've had the same thought many times at your own workplace!

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