Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ In Praise of Artificial Light

In Praise of Artificial Light

Spurred on by the solstice and an associated Lantern Walk event, I am now in another candle phase. As I write this a candle is burning on my junk table, patiently waiting for me to stop paying attention so that it can set the house on fire.

I am struck by how less powerful my candle is compared to my room's electric lightbulb. With electric light, I can read and write and function as if the sun was shining; without it navigation becomes much more difficult whether the candle is lit or not. Certainly people worked at night before electric lights -- we exterminated the whales to light up our streets, after all -- but the dramatic difference between electric lights vs candles illustrates (some might say "illuminates") just how revolutionary electric lights have been to human civilization.

Of course, electric lighting has its downsides. Instead of exterminating the whales for light, now we are exterminating everything as we burn fossil fuels . Artificial lighting disrupts our natural rhythms. I live like a nightowl, but I am not convinced that this is my natural rhythm, and there are definitely ways working after dark negatively affects my health. Artificial light might be a substitute for sunshine but it is not a very good one; for all my fear of sunburns and skin cancer, I still find myself craving the sun; winter is difficult because the sun is so scarce. But artificial electric lights open up worlds of possibility that I am reluctant to give up. Like fire, electric lighting is simultaneously a powerful gift and a dangerous one.

Contrasting my candle and the electric light also highlights the technology gap between the two. I have little sense of the physics behind candles, and I know I don't have the ability to construct all the components of a candle from scratch, but if you provide me with some relatively simple starting materials (cotton for a wick, wax for the candle body, fire and a saucepan for melting wax) I am pretty sure I could fabricate a candle. I have no such hopes of reconstructing an electric light, whether incandescent, fluorescent or LED. I don't know how to work with tungsten or noble gases. I do not understand the tolerances required to manufacture functioning lightbulbs.

If the Calamity comes then it will probably take a while for us to lose our knowledge of electric lighting, but when we do then the survivors of this civilizational catastrophe are in dire straits. Personally I feel that the electric generators are going to stop functioning before we lose the knowledge behind electric lighting, but who knows?

Despite being simpler technology, I find candles fascinating, maybe because fire is fascinating.

If nothing else, candles inspire a sense of gratitude. Not only am I grateful to have candles around in case of power outages, I am grateful that we have moved beyond candles to light our living spaces.