Cell phones and toilets

One of the most interesting things about the telephone is how differently it has evolved in the Third World and in the First [1]. In the First World, where the telephone was invented as a simpler form of telegraph [2], it slowly spread from house to house so that by the middle of the last century nearly every house had a landline. As a result, when the cell phone finally changed from a promising idea in the 1940s to an actual technology in the 1980s, it was only slowly adapted by the average citizen. After all, why should you pay good money for a telephone that had inferior sound quality when you had a perfectly good one at home and a spare on every street corner?

It is only in the past twenty years, and mostly in the past five, that cell phones have gone from being a possibly useful supplement to the “real” telephone at home to being the central form of personal communication. Today, nearly 25% of all homes in the USA have only a cell phone and that percentage is rising. Cell phones have become a recognized source of information and irritation, complete with their own shibboleths and standards.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about cell phones is frequently overlooked by folks in the First World, simply because it proves that the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race [3]: the Third World is far ahead of the First in cell phone adoption and use. Why is that? Because landlines use lines and cell phones use towers. The phone line that physically connects a landline used to be made of copper [4] that had to be hand-strung from pole to pole through a congested city and physically hooked up to your home. That meant lots of physical labor, and lots of protection from those who would steal the wire for their own use [5]. As a result, getting a landline in the Third World was beyond the means of many families.

But a cell phone is connected using towers that are smaller, less physically demanding to install, simpler to protect, and have a higher capacity than the old landlines. As a result, many areas in the Third World skipped over landline telephone and went right to cell phones. And it is those areas that are driving many of the innovations in cell phone technology, simply because there are a lot more poor people than there are rich ones [6].

And that brings us to the question of toilets. You see, the two worlds are currently at the same place with respect to toilets as they were with respect to telephones in the 1990s. The First World developed basic laws of sanitation during the mid-1800’s; indeed, many historians feel that one of the decisive factors for the Union during the Civil War was their better use of sanitation [7]. The art continued to build after the war, with Pasteur proving the germ theory of disease and Lister developing new methods and standard for medical cleanliness. By the 1930s, outhouses had become a symbol of poverty and rural life. By the 1980s, running water and flush toilets were taken for granted in the First World, along with the demise of cholera and dysentery as serious
public health threats.

But the Third World has lagged far behind, for much the same reasons that they failed to build landline telephones: it takes money and labor to build sewer systems, and those are always in short supply in the Third World [8]. As a result, there are large swaths of the Third World that lack even the level of sanitation that prevailed in the First World during the 1940s. Half a billion Indians lack access to a working toilet (forget running water; we’re talking about a place to go crap without being attacked by snakes, spiders, and low caste individuals seeking to collect the poop). The numbers are similar for China. The proportion is even higher for Somalia, Haiti, and Indonesia.

As a result, these regions are ripe (in more ways than one) for the toilet to go the way of the telephone. Small, individual toilets that don’t require expensive and extensive infrastructure will transform the region. Even better, as they become more common, the price will drop, making them even more affordable and wide-spread.

Right now, the self-contained toilet is at the same stage that the cell phone was in the 1980s: big, bulky, hard to use, and expensive. But it only took ten years for the telephone to become something that you could forget in your pocket. What advances might we see in self-contained toilets in that same length of time? New chemicals [9], new techniques, and new materials will transform the toilet [10] as much as new electronics and new batteries changed the telephone. And once again the Third World will lead the First into the “brave, new” one.


[1] Remember that the “First World” (a.k.a. “the Developed countries” or “places where you can get ice cream whenever you want it”) is no longer the First World as it was first used. Back in the day, the First World was the US and its (democratic and capitalistic) allies, the Second World was the Soviet Union and its (communist and anti-democratic) allies, and the Third World was every body else (i.e., the folks too poor to be of value as allies). Since then, the Second World has gone away, and First World has come to be synonymous with “developed countries”. But the Third World is still poorer than dirt [a].
[2] Simpler in that you didn’t have to learn Morse code in order to use it; you just had to have a nickel.
[3] Elegiac geek points for the reference.
[4] Many of them are fiber optics now, but that makes the installation problem worse as it has finer tolerances than a copper line does.
[5] This is still a problem in the Third World, and becoming one in the First.
[6] Even though the math on this is simple, an amazing number of people miss it. If you have a choice between making $1,000 of profit on an item but can only sell 100 of them or making $1 of profit on an item and can sell 200,000 of them, go for the item with the $1 profit.
[7] Of course, the North had a hidden advantage in that much of their population was concentrated in urban areas which were easier to develop sanitation for than rural ones. It simplified the tailpipe problem, so to speak. But it says something for the North that even their warships had flush toilets.
[8] A naïve analysis would dispute that labor is in short supply in the Third World. After all, there are just so darn many of them, right? But what is often overlooked is that the typical Third World denizen spends a far greater part of his time and effort in simply amassing the essentials that there is very little room left for “non-essentials” [b].
[9] Especially in zeolites and low-temperature catalytic chemistry.
[10] For example, why must toilets only dispose of waste? Why not compost it for use in the garden? Or supply grey water for irrigation? Or clean water for personal use?

[a] Literally; many of these countries are so poor that they don’t even own their own land…
[b] The rub being that those non-essentials inevitably end up saving time, effort, and money. An electric stove is far more labor intensive to build than a fireplace – but it frees you from having to collect firewood every day and makes it far less likely that your house will burn down. A car is an order of magnitude more expensive than a handcart, but it can pull far more for far longer and far faster than the handcart ever could. And anyone who has ever tried to wash clothes by hand will appreciate the amazing benefit of early washing machines.


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