Ephemeralization against the bureaucracy

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
end-run govenments.

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.


  1. Which is also why the sub-$100 notebook computer that the MIT Media Lab is pushing is doomed. Just the fact that they will only sell the devices in bulk to governments, and only after those governments help finance the manufacturing spells disaster. It would be nice if they really will get those notebooks into the hands of the kids who will supposedly benefit, but it seems to me that they need clean water and reliable electric power even more.

  2. In a world where you need govt permission to grow crops, I see no reason to believe that no-infrastructure power and water will necessarily be unregulated.

    The infrastructure was not the reason for the regulation – the infrastructure was an enabling technology for the regulation. There are others.

  3. I think you may have missed the point that, once the network effect kicks in, and there is copious fresh water, we may terraform our own planet as a nice side-effect. Screw deserts.
    But then, what will those shrill liberals harp on?

  4. The shrill liberals may have plenty to harp on, if burning cow dung produces the kind of pollution I’d expect it to.

    I hope the “screw deserts” effect is sufficient to cancel that out, especially since I live in Phoenix.

  5. In a similar vein, there is a nice non-profit called Kickstart that has had great success in developing African economies from the ground up by enabling entrepreneurs with useful technologies. See http://kickstart.org/index.shtml. The businesses they’ve helped create now amount to 0.5% of Kenya’s GDP. Imagine how much could have been done if all the billions of foreign aid where instead spend of similar initiatives.

  6. If it was burned efficiently there wouldn’t be much pollution, though a lot of cow dung is already used (in India, at any rate) for cooking and fertiliser, which might have priority. One thing the article doesn’t go into detail on is how much power the water purifier uses. Perhaps the generator drives it, in which case those cows are going to be pretty busy. But maybe they can be genetically engineered to shit more.

  7. Ronald Lovejoy – The $100 notebook is supposed to also be sold to the public, for $200. The profits are going to producing more notebooks, subsidizing distribution in the 3rd world. A $200 laptop sounds very nice.

    Nick B – The article only gives cow dung as an example. I’ve no doubt that the water supplier will run just fine on a windmill. The power generator will run on any reasonable heat source, perhaps reflected solar?

  8. The article only gives cow dung as an example.

    Some of these places aren’t exactly bristling with alternatives.

    The power generator will run on any reasonable heat source, perhaps reflected solar?

    Seeing as one of the goals is to “give each villager a nighttime” that might not be the ideal choice.

    I’m not saying it can’t work, just that it’s a little early to be celebrating the downfall of liberal wrongthinking about development.

  9. Hi! Re: adrian10 – I found an article that gives the capacity of the water purifier at 10 gallons per hour, and its power draw as 500 watts.

  10. Okay, let’s meet again in five years and see how far these countries will have progressed. Anyone care to risk a bet?

  11. Scanian Redneck: *snort* That’s gone in my .sig quotes list, I hope you don’t mind…

    As far as bottom-up economic development goes, this liberal is all for it. Top-down development work (building big water purifiers and power stations) has a pretty poor record. There isn’t any local expertise, so the contracts to build the thing go abroad, so the money spent doesn’t benefit the local economy much. And then foreigners have to be employed to maintain it. Compare, for instance, the Japanese car industry, which grew bottom-up out of a network of bicycle repair shops. NGOs have known this for years: this is why Oxfam concentrates on small things like toilets, goats, rickshaws and so on. I’ve heard of the Grameen Bank before, by the way – they do microcredit to women only, and insist on various women’s-rights stuff in the terms of their loans. Website here. They sound like they’re doing good stuff, but my information’s sketchy.

    [The applicability, or lack thereof, of these arguments to the usefulness of governments in First World countries is something I’m not going to touch with a bargepole right now]

    This project, on the other hand, I’m distinctly more suspicious of. By my calculations, it would take nearly 24 kWh to vaporise 10 gallons of water, even if it were already at 100degC. (10 gallons = 38 litres = 38 kg; latent heat of evaporation = 2.3 kJ/g; 2.3kJ/g*38000g/3600 =~ 24 kWh). That’s a lotta cow dung. Heating it up from 40 degrees C (assume a Bangladeshi summer) would take another 2.7kWh. Let’s just hope that he was misquoted, but evaporation is always going to be a very energy-intensive way of purifying water.

    And as for “his plan to end-run governments”, cola’s article says that “Kamen said he plans to meet with officials from several African nations next month.”

  12. Oh yeah, Nick B: the shrill liberals would be very much in favour of burning cow dung to create electricity, seeing as how cow dung (which produces methane) is a major source of greenhouse gases… sure, CO2 is a greenhouse gas too, but it has about a quarter of the effect per mole of methane.

    TM Lutas: do you have a link for that? Their website specifically states that “the $100 laptops—not yet in production—will not be available for sale. The laptops will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives.” Which is annoying as hell, because I for one would love to buy one for $200 (more likely to be £200 here, but that’s still not too bad). And the whole graft-and-corruption thing, of course.

  13. Miles Gould: “… I’m distinctly more suspicious of. By my calculations, it would take nearly 24 kWh to vaporise 10 gallons of water….”

    Remember that you can get quite a bit of the energy back as you condense the vapour back to liquid and cool it down using a suitable heat exchanger.

  14. Here’s another article, if it helps any.

    “The design concept behind the water purifier, like the Stirling engine, is nothing new: it works by heating and distilling water. What does make it unique is its efficiency — the generator reclaims about 98% [!!] of the heat normally lost in the distillation process and reuses it to distill more water, Kamen says.”

    The purifier also apparently sterilizes the water with ultraviolet light.

  15. Ed: Good point, thanks. We’re reaching the limit of my thermodynamical knowledge here, but doesn’t that kind of recapture depend on the temperature difference being high? 60 degrees seems rather low for that high an efficiency.

  16. Miles Gould wrote:

    /* As far as bottom-up economic development goes, this liberal is all for it. Top-down development work (building big water purifiers and power stations) has a pretty poor record. There isn’t any local expertise, so the contracts to build the thing go abroad, so the money spent doesn’t benefit the local economy much. And then foreigners have to be employed to maintain it.

    These are good points. I have a “vote for me” tract by the former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso from the 2000 elections. One of his big planks for that election was to hire engineers to develop dams. Brazil has some serious rain in certain areas, and serious deserts in others. While local communities have tried to dam their own rivers and streams, they often end up making reservoirs that are very shallow and evaporate before doing anyone any good. And in the cases where they did the dam right, they forgot to put in the pipes to ship that water anywhere. So, I do agree that government planning doesn’t have a great track record (where commercial planning generally says “wait, are you sure we’re going to be able to make a buck off this?” which leads to putting the pipes in or double-checking the depth of the proposed reservoir).

    But in cases where the project does actually create a useful dam, purifier, power station, etc., I think the statement “the money spent doesn’t benefit the local economy” is naive (provided that the local economy needed the public works created). Doesn’t pure water help the local economy, regardless of who is paid to produce it? If the locals drink pure water instead of whatever was available before, aren’t they going to be in better health, and aren’t they going to do better at their day job, leading to a more robust local economy?

    Or, regardless of who builds it, doesn’t having a power plant available mean that a manufacturing plant can open and employ the locals? If those locals willingly take the jobs, they do so because they think the jobs are a net plus over what they were doing before the plant opened.

    And then why do “foreigners have to be employed to maintain it”? It seems to me that it may cost less to train the locals to maintain it because (a) training ought to cost less, and (b) you can still pay the well-trained locals less than foreigners. But, even so, if the public works created are truly needed by the locals, then it doesn’t matter who runs them (with the caveat that terrorist-sponsoring governments shouldn’t run important US ports) because the locals will get the benefits.

  17. So-called “$100 laptops” will provide an opportunity for local government officials to ask for aid money to buy them. They will then charge the peasants $50 for each laptop and limit the amount available, as they will resell most of them for $200 (or 200 pounds) to people like Mr. Gould. The Third World laptop will be next year’s most sought-after fashion accessory.

  18. Mr Speirs: watch your implications there :-) Actually, that was precisely what I meant by “the whole graft-and-corruption thing” above. Even though I myself (and everyone I know, come to that) would turn up my nose at an MIT laptop that I knew had been snatched from the hands of an information-starved Third World infant, others no doubt won’t. Which is one of the reasons why it’s annoying that they’re not selling them legally.

    Max: yes, clean water (or electricity, or whatever) is definitely a public good (as long as the plant continues to work). But you have to think about opportunity cost. The money spent doesn’t benefit the local economy as much as it could if spent in other ways. I’m by no means an expert on this stuff, but the idea is explained a bit better here.

  19. I hadn’t seen the article referenced by cola when I made the comment suggesting heat recovery. 98% seems pretty high to me too. Air-air heat exchangers used domestically get about 70% recovery (at least, the ones in a house I visited a few weeks ago do). Something of that order or maybe a bit higher was what I was expecting though I’m not so sure of the thermodynamics, either.

  20. TM Lutas: “The $100 notebook is supposed to also be sold to the public, for $200. The profits are going to producing more notebooks, subsidizing distribution in the 3rd world. A $200 laptop sounds very nice.”

    How does a $150 laptop sound? Even better? Ah….what the boneheads at MIT, living in their academic bubble, without a lick of business sense didn’t realize is that there are thousands of potential competitors out there who will happily snap up MIT’s “public domain” laptop design and software; producing competing products in order to profit themselves. They’ll have no qualms (nor should they) about using MIT’s subsidized research and development, and MIT’s laptop program will fall on its face. MIT will never recoup the original development cost for the laptops, and their competitors in the market place will not channel the money into gifts for developing countries. In the end it will amount to an indirect subsidy for bottom-feeder industries; like most government subsidy programs, the money never ends up where intended.

    Supporting a low-cost laptop industry may well indeed have secondary benefits for the marketplace; principally, putting downward pressure on the prices of all laptops; but that really wasn’t the point in the first place. The laptop market in the developed parts of the world have demonstrated the ability to support $500, $1000, and $2000 laptops in large volumes, making the potential market for such a low-end laptop system likely quite small. After all, there is already a secondary market for laptops 1-2 years old in the $100-$500 price range; such laptops have reasonable specs for most uses, but people are just not flocking to buy them.

    MIT’s program is the epitomy of academic detachment and prescriptive thinking: “if we just imagine the right thing that those poor, undeveloped little children need; we’ll just make really cheap versions of that thing and give them away, and then the developed world will revolutionize itself!”

    Yeah right. I think the 2 billion lowest incomes in the world need clean water, food, medical care, and education–in that order–and these things cannot be gifted to them. They need to develop free markets and the cultural respect for hard work and trading for mutual benefit. Much of Africa is mired in tribal collectivism that cannibalizes subsidies and aid and represses the emergence of a value-for-value trading system between individuals.

  21. > range; such laptops have reasonable specs for most uses, but people are just not flocking to buy them.

    In the US, people aren’t flocking to them, but there is a dynamic market for use computers and parts in parts of Latin America where I have traveled. In Bolivia, where I have traveled extensively, laptops are very rare compared to desktop computers and have a high resale value.

    Countries like Nigeria import tons of e-waste in hopes of pulling out enough salvagable parts to cobble together old computers. Unfortunately, this has caused a huge environmental problem because most of the exported e-waste ends up being unsafely dumped. Recycling in India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, and other places is a cottage industry, which exposes people to hazardous levels of heavy metals and toxins. For instance, it is common practice in several places in China to dump the motherboards in acid baths to extract $1.25 of precious metals from each motherboard, then dump the acid on riverbanks where it will get washed away. They do the same with leaded glass from monitors. My hope is that the 100 laptop and lots of clones will remove the excuses of governments like Nigeria that the only way they can get cheap PCs is by importing lots of e-waste. It would help if all the developed world would sign and enforce the Basel convention which bans the export of toxic waste. The US is the biggest holdout. Then, only usable old parts would be exported, rather than lots of toxic electronic waste. The Basel Action Network estimates that 75% of the used computers going to Nigeria is actually e-waste. BAN describes the problem in this report and this report.

  22. Right. Toxic waste from computers is a big problem for people who are starving to death. I’m just reading an interesting book called the Bottom of the Pyramid about the manifold ways IT can help the poorest of the poor. But the costs have to be brought down. The $100 laptop just doesn’t make it. A $1 device every schoolchild could use to communicate with a $100 PC maintained by the local schoolteacher just might make it. Billions of people have less than $200 of cash available every year.

  23. Eric Raymond,

    I spent a few weeks thinking about this sentence you wrote: “Techno-libertarians like me have been saying for thirty years that the free market would someday simply compete the State out of existence.” Something clicked for me yesterday.

    Technology is on the verge of out-competing law enforcement agencies.

    Think about cheap cameras? Cameras are everywhere these days. Government-owned traffic cameras; privately-owned security cameras in and around places of business. Weather sattelite cameras are improving in resolution. Cell phones cameras currently aren’t always-on but they might be after cell phone bandwidth improves. Assume for the sake of my argument that a large percentage of these cameras are on the internet and are anonymously watchable by the public.

    Now add fast face recognition software. This already exists and is improving all the time. What do you get?

    Suddenly, the entire industrialized world turns into a small town where everybody knows everybody and the doors stay unlocked all night!

    How would a wannabee criminal commit theft or rape or murder knowing anybody with a laptop could download a complete list of people present at or near the scene of the crime? What are criminals going to do? Wear a ski mask everywhere? The cameras could still track “man wearing black ski mask driving blue Ford 2002 Explorer license plate ABC 123” all the way back to “the lair” or wherever it is that criminals hide out these days.

    All we need is a protocol making it easy to put anonymous camera feeds online. (May already exist). A a law requiring traffic cameras to be online would help. The rest will happen naturally. Of course there are “big brother” concerns — because all technologies can be used for both good and evil — but I think the Libertarian programming community has the power to make good things happen with online cameras.

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