There are seven types of shit. I mean that literally. There are seven types of human feces. Researchers have established a schema for sorting stools into seven distinctive types. The Bristol Stool Chart was developed in 1997 assigns a number one through seven to bowel movements. The numbers span a spectrum from watery, diarrhea on one end to hard, constipated stools on the other end. For those keeping score, numbers four and five and considered healthy stools.
The Bristol Stool Chart has trickled down from researchers to medical professionals to caretakers and even to a small number of overly-fastidious laypeople. In fact, I had considered a joke about a future Bristol Stool Chart phone app but then soon discovered that it already exists. Those interested in the app may be disappointed to learn that it is really just the chart made available on your phone (“Brings the famous Bristol Stool Scale to your fingertips!” – hopefully you’re wearing gloves) coupled with a place to document (archive?) your movements and perhaps boast of your regularity. In the future one would hope that you might have the ability take a picture of your stool and have it categorized for you in the same way that someone can point their phone at a constellation in the sky and be told its name. This would go a long way toward minimizing the amount of subjectivity that still remains in using the scale.
More seriously though, the developers of the Bristol Stool Chart originally believed that the classification would correspond with the transit time of fecal material through the bowels. This claim has been called into question but the chart remains as a way for professionals and others to talk more precisely about the bowel movements of their patients and those in their care.
In the 2014 film The Giver starring Jeff Bridges (based on the 1993 book by Lois Lowry), one of the founding principles of the dystopian future society depicted in the film was “precision of language”. Mass society requires precise language in order to function. Indeed, complex phenomena may even need to be simplified for the purpose of capturing it with precise language. In the film, the protagonist uses the word “love” and is quickly reprimanded for deviating from the principle of precise language. To offer a real world example, in 1950 Alan Turing wrote that:
I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.
John Zerzan has often pointed out that this passage from Turing does not speak to the ability of machines to think rather Turing’s prediction concerns how people will have changed so as to more closely resemble machines. If machines cannot be made into brains, it may be far easier to make brains resemble machines.
The Bristol Stool Chart provides the precise language necessary for a society where many people are going to be discussing and in some way vested in your bowel movements and/or where you may need to report the nature, frequency, time, and size of your bowel movements to professionals of various sorts. It is easier to report having a “medium sized, type 4” than to get to vivid (the phone app claims to “make it easy to discuss your bowel movements with your doctor”). Furthermore, “medium sized, type 4” is something that can be (and will be) quickly entered into a form or computer program because not only does information have to be relayed from person to person, specialist to specialist, but it needs to be stored and tracked over time. Precise language allows things to be more readily quantified.
“The processing of large quantities of information is an essential aspect of complex societies, and indeed the need for this processing is probably one of the reasons that such societies came into existence.” (Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, p. 99).
In this way, this silly chart that compares shit to sausages and snakes, can be understood as a technology that makes mass society possible. In smaller scale societies, people obviously know that diarrhea and constipation are undesirable and that it may be indicative of overall gastrointestinal health and yet they are somehow able to make do without articulating seven categories of shit.