Friday, January 4, 2013

Of outhouses and automobiles

Both Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias have interesting posts about how important network effects can be to the adoption of new pieces of technology (Megan is talking about indoor plumbing, Matt about automobiles).  An except

Saying that people are choosing the a cell phone over an outhouse is not the same as saying they’re choosing a cell phone over an indoor toilet. Maybe that’s the choice they’d make, if they had it—I don’t know! But as Kelly’s own account acknowledges, they don’t actually have that choice, and certainly not at anything like the same cost.

Indoor plumbing requires either electricity to pump the water, and a nearby well to pump it from, or a connection to a public system with enough pressure to force the water high enough to flush your toilet. That’s a lot of power, not a trickle charge off of a small solar cell; I believe my great grandparents used a gasoline generator when they installed indoor plumbing in the mid-thirties. Gasoline generators are fairly expensive, as is the gasoline to run them, and I gather that they were only able to do it because their newly married son (my grandfather) saved up to help pay the installation cost, and then paid them rent that covered the cost of the fuel. Most farmers, I am told, waited until rural electrification brought them grid power.
Mark also pointed out just how important these elements of infrastructure were in transforming American society.  It's humbling to think about just how much effort was required to actually do all of these things (and concerning that infrastructure moves much slower today). 

However, I am hoping that the shift to an information based economy will have other benefits.  In some sense, there is a possibility that information, stored as pixels, could be something of real value (think of books or television programs) yet require very little resources to create.  In that sense maybe we could end up being happier (overall) while using less resources.

That being said, I have also used an outhouse and have absolutely no interest in giving up my indoor plumbing.  I am not even all that happy camping, unless there is a rest area in the middle of the campground with flush toilets (essential) and showers (highly desierable). 

1 comment:

  1. "Indoor plumbing requires ..." None of the above? Gravity feed is the main force behind numerous water systems, and a tank on a platform using a windmill to fill it was common across the US plains for most of the 19th century. I am not discounting infrastructure, but we made some very bad decisions to wed ourselves to centralized infrastructure. The advances in fuel cell technology allows us to distribute electrical power generation, yet that is unlikely to be used to its fullest capability.
    You know your a hiker when your idea of luxury is a privvy. I've dug many a cat-hole in the backcountry, and the trend towards requiring the use of blue-bags is the future of the wilderness.