-- Frank DiMassa, Energy Consultant to Roseville Electric Utility.
Many of us in the "environmental concern circle" have over the years been deeply troubled by the slow pace of iconic reform because we understand that semiotics subtend social transformation. We live in a linguistically mediated reality and we know that symbols (products of a linguistic mind) have inordinate power. Think of how inspiring religious icons can be (for le bien et le mal!). Think of the power of a flag. Think of... ADVERTISING!
As William Burroughs was fond of pointing out "images are tangible and material -- neither ephemeral nor temporary." And Frankfurt School Philosopher Herbert Marcuse warned us "domination has its own aesthetics, choice is illusory -- to view is to surrender".
That is certainly the case when the imagery we view limits our choices to consumer goods that further the domination of a fossil-fuel worshipping military-industrial complex (to add the necessary gloss to Eisenhauer's warranted paranoia!)
The case in point here is THE LIGHT BULB. While a trip to the Bochum Coal Mining Museum here in Germany vindicates the suspicion that we have had energy saving lighting technologies for well over a half a century (including, suprisingly, compact fluorescent bulbs to replace incandescents, useful because they would neither ignite coal gases in the shafts nor require massive, heavy batteries for the long hours needed for working in the dangerous mines), the general public never gave a thought to such developments -- developments which would have cut our lighting energy consumption and hence greenhouse gas emissions from that sector over the past 50 years by up to 70% (!). Whose to blame in this, yet another, example of the pernicious "zeitgeist conspiracy" I keep talking about?
I blame semiotics. In particular I blame the unquestioned symbolism embedded in the image of an incandescent lightbulb.
It's found on everything from record album covers to advertisements for the work of the world's top game designers:
In fact, it is the FIRST image that comes up when you do a Google Image search for the word "IDEA" (try it yourself!).
Er... except the incandescent light bulb is a really BAD IDEA.
In fact it has been a bad idea for more than half of the time it has existed .
Yes, I agree that when the long lasting tungsten filament was invented by Coolidge in 1910 to replace the quick burning carbon filaments (> 1500 hours) of Edison and Latimer (patented in 1882) it was a rather good idea, but we must ask why it took so long to get there, considering that the first carbon filament light bulbs were created by Humprhy Davy a whole century earlier, in 1800; it took another 78 years for them to be refined and and put into operation by Swan (England) and Brush (America) before Edison finally found out that using a vacuum could extend the life of the arc-light.
And the more important question -- why are we still celebrating this outmoded, outdated and dangerously energy consumptive technology when a better technology, compact fluorescent lighting, was perfected in the 1980s (when we also began using those recently perfected devices called desktop computers --- shame that technology didn't spread either :)) was unarguably superseded and in functional form by the 1970s, was actually being used in German coal mines in the 1950s (as the Bochum exhibit proves) was first sold commercially by General Electric in 1938, and was patented by Berlin born Edmund Germer as early as 1927!
Yes, Philip's marketed what we now call the first "true" compact fluorescent in 1980, because before then, though compact versions of fluorescent tubes did exist, the phosphors didn't last long enough for them to compete commercially with incandescents in terms of a price/performance ratio, and Philips refused to liscence the "bridge technology" that promised them the success the world was hoping for-- a typical case of "hording the secrets that could prevent immiseration in the ungodly pursuit of higher profits":
"We didn't license that bridge weld - it was a very significant piece of technology."
Steve Goldmacher, marketing division, Philips, 1996
But though you can bicker about what construes a true compact fluorescent (efficiency, durability, marginal cost) , we have to own up to the fact that, much like the fuel cell, the idea has been around for one and a half centuries (Alexandre E. Becquerel experimented with and demonstrated the effect and theorized useful fluorescent lights in 1857!)
You would think, given the loooong history of the compact fluorescent bulb we would have changed the icon for "great idea" a long time ago to this:
I am not the first to say this of course. There is even a debate on the Ubuntu forum where enraged Geeks on both sides of the semiotic fence argue about whether Ubuntu's brainstorm icon should be changed from incandescent to fluorescent. The thread reads as follows:
"Written by andrewpmk the 1 Mar 08 at 02:25. Category: Brainstorm.
|Greyor wrote on the 1 Mar 08 at 02:33|
|This is kind of ridiculous.|
|dhardy wrote on the 1 Mar 08 at 02:34|
|I have to give this a vote up! What you think about, you bring about--|
|Vertelemming wrote on the 1 Mar 08 at 02:37|
|I daresay that even when light bulbs are just a faint memory, they will still be the iconic image for an idea. It's just too firmly ingrained in the public consciousness.|
|timwylie wrote on the 1 Mar 08 at 02:37|
|Why not just skip the flourescent and go straight to an LED bulb. :)|
Timwylie's comment is the most prescient of the lot. While Vertelemming believes the incandescent is much too firmly ingrained in the public consciousness, and others think it is "kind of ridiculous" to consider such a change, our colleague Andy Posner and his fellow students at Brown University have already dismissed this hold-over from the zeitgeist of a stupid era. Andy's new logo, we have discovered (by way of a sneak preview "news leak" made available through undisclosed sources ) is the following:
This remarkable young man is as indicative of the new zeitgeist as he is considered unusual by the old guard. He, like many young people in their early 20's and younger (most of them Obama supporters or fellow dreamers in a new era of reconciliation and hope) have nothing "ingrained" in their consciousness that smacks of "wrong wrong wrong". Or, if it has been ingrained by the subtle zeitgeist conspiracy of semiotic reinforcement, in nests in the parts of the hippocampus that link to our limbic sense of reptilian stupidity. It is filed away under "wrong idea", and people like Andy (and older folks like me) look forward to a time when you can google "bad idea" and immediately see the famous Edisonian incandescent as its iconic representation. As for the symbol for "great idea", Andy's hypostatized, reified rendering represents a sea change for all of us.
Fortunately, lest you think these young folks are alone, our "en-lightened" policy makers, young and old, are rapidly moving in the right direction: Australia has already "BANNED THE BULB", phasing out all dumb idea bulbs within the next 2 years, and California, governed by our brilliant Arnold Schwarzenegger (no dim bulb that one!) will be the terminator of the incandescent as soon as he can get the federal government to stop interfering with state politics (er... which presidents have used the party line that we should eliminate big government interference in state-led initiatives? Perhaps we should think of lighting our houses by "Burning Bush?")
I argue, however, that even as we try to implement laws to discourage the manufacture and sale of this barbarian technology, as long as our societal imagery bank makes us associate great ideas with energy wasting incandescents, we risk hanging on to what industry insiders call "heaters that give off a little light" (as opposed to "lights that give off a little heat").
So we not only have to change our light bulbs, we have to change our icons.
So while we are rushing headlong into the 1950's, scrambling to replace our doomed incandescents with the kind of bulbs the Bochum coal miners were carrying into the veins of hell (CF bulbs) , we should stop and ponder Posner's logo. Shouldn't great ideas be symbolized by the revolutionary LED! Shouldn't we be led by our symbolic flags of a new reality to the LED lit world?
We should let our imagery help us think of leapfrogging past the fluorescent to the "reversed solar cell" we call a "light emitting diode". For the LED may be the brightest idea we've had in a long time, and the true candidate for an icon for genius.
The white one which the Light Up the World Foundation is using to provide long lasting, safe, clean, mercury free, light to third world countries, invented in Japan by Shuji Nakamura, winner of the Helsinki Millenium Prize, uses only a fraction of the energy of even a compact fluorescent, and because it is a very efficient semiconductor -- basically a solar cell in reverse -- it can be run off of solar panels very easily. The idea is -- sunlight hits one semiconductor and turns into electricity, and is stored in a battery. At night that electricity makes the reverse trip, through another type of semiconductor, and turns back into light. The losses are minimal since almost none of the energy is lost as heat.
Of course we'd better jump on this LED bulb bandwagon soon -- this technology, which was first discovered by one of Marconi's technicians in 1907 (!) was rediscovered in 1922 and patented four times by the Russian inventor O.V. Losov between 1927 and his death during World War II (when his records were destroyed), then repursued by K Lehovec in the early 1950s until commercially introduced in the late 1960s, will soon be replaced by the even more efficient "Quantum Dot Light Technology".
Yeah, that's right, there is a new kid on the block, an even better idea to serve as the candidate for the new icon for "great idea". Hell, we could have been switching to regular old, vanilla LED lighting back when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. How passee!
In this context, you wonder why the incandescent is allowed to persist. Must be part of that awful zeitgeist conspiracy!
Hey Andy -- how would you design a logo that showed a quantum dot bulb? I understand from our solar cities rocket scientist friend Ted Stern (who works on quantum dots for solar applications and has toured Egypt with us as part of the Circus Guy Musical Goodwill Ambassador Tour Program from the U.S. State Department) that we will be able to literally paint these lights on to the surfaces we want to emit the photons we live and play by.
Might it look something like this?