Segway inventor Dean Kamen unveils his next act, and it’s a doozy.
He’s invented two devices to address the power
and clean-water problems in the Third World — essentially, a
rugged still and a generator that burns cow dung. But the real
challenge to conventional thinking is Kamen’s (rightly) contemptuous
dismissal of conventional development economics, and his plan to
What makes Kamen’s invention possible is the phenomenon Buckminster
Fuller called ‘ephemeralization’ — the replacement of bulk
matter by design information as technologies get smaller, lighter, and
more clever. Of course the most dramatic example of this is the
microchip, and the huge number of ways computer-mediated
communications increasingly substitute for pushing around matter and
energy — but the phenomenon is everywhere. I haven’t seen the
blueprints for either device, but does anyone want to bet against the
proposition that they’re a helluva lot smaller, lighter, and more
ingeniously designed than their nearest functional equivalents would
have been in 1960 or 1980?
No? No takers? I didn’t think so. Modern life is so saturated
with ephemeralization that we hardly notice it any more. Think about
the weight difference between your first cellphone and the one you
have now — then think about how they compared to the big old
Bakelite-encased wireline handsets of the 1960s. As we learn how to
ephemeralize more and more of our technology, we downsize and
decentralize it because that’s the cheap and effective way to go.
Entire countries are now opting out of building telephone landlines.
Why bother, when cellphone towers are cheaper and less obtrusive?
Kamen is taking the next logical step: downsizing and
decentralizing the power and water infrastructure. And look at the
way he plans to do it; not by enlisting governments, but by tapping
local entrepreneurialism. Says Kamen: “Not required are engineers,
pipelines, epidemiologists, or microbiologists,” says Kamen. “You
don’t need any -ologists. You don’t need any building permits,
bribery, or bureaucracies.”
Yeah, baby! Techno-libertarians like me have been saying for
thirty years that the free market would someday simply compete the
State out of existence. Kamen, bless him, is actually setting out to
do it — or, at least, to demonstrate that the heavyweight
physical and bureaucratic infrastructure many of us think we need to
provide ‘public goods’ like clean water and power is an actual hindrance
rather than a help. Today, Third-World villages; tomorrow the world.