Beware technology bearing gifts; turn off the light
8/8/2012 11:00 AM EDT
Technology is great...and I know you can sense a "but" coming.
And the "but" is the law of unintended consequences.
Consider the light-emitting diode and the solid-state light. Humanity has gone from burning candles to gas light to incandescent bulbs to fluorescent strip lights and now we are now entering the era of LED solid-state lighting.
The advantage that drives adoption comes from the greater efficiency of energy conversion in LEDs and the fact that far less energy is "wasted" in the form of heat. Cost efficiencies should also come from the fact the LED lights can be engineered to last much longer than incandescent bulbs.
The benefit of solid-state lighting is usually presented thus; you can have the same amount of light for much less energy outlay. That's good for the householder and good for the planet. It may not be so good for the energy supply company but not many people care about that.
But I argue something different is going to happen; is already happening.
Because the energy consumption and cost of running lights is reduced by the move to solid-state lighting, householders and corporations and authorities both local and national are tending to install more lights, including outdoor lights in particular and just leave them to be controlled by day/night sensors.
So, effectively, we collectively may spend slightly less money and consume slightly less energy on lighting our lives but we will also have much more light, all day and all night. That's reasonably good for the energy companies but not particularly good for people or the planet and bad for astronomers who wish to look at the stars without their vision being obscured by skyglow.
That's not to say the LED lighting cannot be made more energy efficient than previous forms of lighting and should not be adopted. It can, it should and it will. But at the same time it is necessary to implement appropriate controls to prevent energy waste and unnecessary light pollution.
One aspect of lighting is that when you exercise your human right of expression to install and operate a little porch light you destroy the darkness or add to the light pollution for miles around.
This law of unintended consequences reminds me of a quote attributed to Walter Brattain, one of the co-inventors of the transistor. After Brattain retired from Bell Labs he returned to Walla Walla, Washington, to teach at his alma mater Whitman College. He said his one regret about inventing the transistor was its application to transistor radios that continuously played rock and roll music around the campus.
Brattain's idea that the transistor radio suddenly meant that for the first time there was noise everywhere and continuously has a parallel with the advent of LED lighting.