Choose One: Flush Toilets or Facebook?

This is Kevin Kelly:

[Robert Gordon] is trying to argue that the consequences of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, which bought to common people electricity and plumbing, was far more important than the computers and internet which the 3rd Industrial Revolution has brought us. (Gordon’s 1st Industrial revolution was steam and railroads.) As evidence of this claim he offers this hypothetical choice between option A and option B.

With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

Gordon then goes on to say:

I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for Option A is so obvious.

KK then tells us about some people who have Facebook but no flush toilets:

This area of Yunnan is consider one of the poorer areas in China, and the standard of living of the inhabitants here would be classified as “poor.”

Part of the reason is that these homes have no running water, no grid electricity, and no toilets. They don’t even have outhouses.

But the farmers and their children who live in these homes all have cell phones, and they have accounts on the Chinese versions of Twitter and Facebook, and recharge via solar panels…

Now, it isn’t clear that these people have had to make the choice between flush toilets and Facebook. But even if they had, I bet they’d be very tempted by Facebook. I spent a weekend in rural China many years ago and lived without flush toilets there. It isn’t so bad.

But only if I ignore externalities: indoor plumbing isn’t just about personal hygiene, it’s also about public health and disease control. Ask the rural Chinese if they’d choose Cholera and E Coli over Facebook you might get a different answer.

Considering their full benefits, I don’t think there’s any question that those older technologies are better in just about every conceivable way except one: they’re really expensive to install. That’s what’s cool about this (third by Kelly’s count) industrial revolution. Walk down to the shop and buy a phone and you’ve got Facebook. Not so easy to install plumbing in an entire town.

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