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Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

Jane Brox

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Jul 2010)

“Rows of lights to illuminate lines
Why don’t they turn them off and let us see night?”
  - “Ohio”, by Modest Mouse


For most of us artificial light is known only by its absence. At night walk down any street in any town in the industrialized world and your shadow will blink off and on as it follows you, intermittently illuminated by ubiquitous street lamps.The generation of Americans that can remember a time without artificial light, those living in rural areas during the first half of the 20th century, before power lines reached them, are quickly dying off. My grandparents were of that generation – a rancher and a farmer that were each born by the light of a kerosene lamp.


Today, artificial light is a constant companion. Darkness implies a situation to be remedied, if only by the dim light of a television or computer screen. However, our relationship with it has also blinded us to its effects. For most of us, the charges on a monthly electric bill serve as the only reminder that there is any cost at all to flipping a light switch. Brilliant, The Evolution of Artificial Light, shows how artificial light and its twin invention, electricity, have in one way or another shaped everything that we have become.


The book follows the path of this catalyzing technology as it winds it way from the last Ice Age into present day. As Brox connects the dots from early humans using stone lamps for painting the walls at Lascaux, to the the whaling trade as it arose to supply the world with lamp oil, to Edison’s Menlo Park and the dawn of modernity, to the massive power grids of today, a story of evocation begins to emerge. Seeing the broad strokes of history laid out in front of you, it’s difficult not to see a form taking shape in the flickering candlelight.


What that form is has yet to reveal itself, but its effects have probably been best described by Marshall McLuhan in 1964 when he wrote in Understanding Media, “The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no ‘content’. And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. […] The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone and TV, creating involvement in depth.”


By focusing almost entirely on the evolution of light and electricity, in a few hundred pages Brox achieves what could be considered a historical proof of McLuhan’s ideas. She shows in Brilliant that technology, as extensions of our own bodies and minds, are what shape humanity; not the messages contained in the technology, nor the petty power struggles of day to day politics and ideologies. We have made our tools, and in turn our tools have made us.


A curious thing begins to happen to you as you read the book. You begin to notice things. The humming of the fluorescent lights in a coffee shop, the ubiquitous street lamps as you walk home, the lights that you thoughtlessly turn on while entering your house or apartment. Brox takes us back to a time when none of those things existed and simply lighting one room in a home was a time intensive and even dangerous chore. By pooling hundreds of resources and many first person accounts she tells a story that resonates with meaning and is almost psychedelic in its expansive reach. Through the historical narrative you begin to feel connected to technology, to see the human hand that underlies what have become “shiny, pretty, things.”


However, a Faustian bargain seems to have been struck. The twin needs of profit by commercial interests and convenience by consumers drove the expansion of light from the earliest days of the candle to today’s ubiquitous power lines. Curiously, destruction of the natural world seems to walk hand in hand with the evolution of artificial light, and its Siamese twin, electricity. From hunting sperm whales almost to extinction in the 1800s, to polluting the air and killing miners for coal to power yesterday’s gas lamps and today’s “modern” power grid, the history of artificial light and electricity contain a hidden undercurrent of turning inwards, of staying inside, of looking towards a lit screen, of fear and alienation. Through artificial light and electricity we have unintentionally created our own world, free from the natural rhythms of the earth, and even our own bodies.


It’s this last note that sticks with you after turning the page on the final chapter. Brilliant functions as an elegy to a time in which men and women were in touch with their world, their environment. The rhythms of time coursed through their veins like the 200,000 volts that Nikola Tesla passed through his body at the 1893 World’s Fair. Unlike Tesla, they had no other choice. This is not to demonize technology or the modern world, far from it, but the reader of Brilliant must have the intellectual patience to tease out the subtleties of our contradictory relationship with what we have created.


The most arresting example of this complex relationship is the effect that artificial light has had on our natural sleep cycle. Brox cites historians and sleep scientists to explain that when no artificial light is present humans experience what is called “divided sleep”, which is a period of intense sleep followed by a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night during which you would be awake and active. This is then followed by a “second sleep” which is a lighter, dream filled state which lasts until morning. People on long hiking trips can begin to experience this after a week of being in the wilderness. Artificial light has changed the most basic way that we live.


We have awoken after just over a hundred years of electric light to a world in which most people could not imagine life without it. The world seems ready made for us as we move from one size box to another, and graduate from gadget to gadget. The great majority of us are no longer thinkers, but choosers. Novelty scarcely seems to stand a chance. Yet once and a while, we get a hint that the world is out there, waiting for us.


In her final chapter Brox relates that due to electric light pollution, “two-thirds of all Americans and half of all Europeans can no longer see the Milky Way, our own galaxy, in the nighttime sky.” According to her the sight of it has become so unfamiliar to people that during the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles, “emergency organizations [...] received hundreds of phone calls from people wondering whether the sudden brightening of the stars and the appearance of a ‘silver cloud’ (the Milky Way) had caused the quake.”


We live in a world where the origins of the most basic objects have become mysterious. Being at the end of such a long chain of cause and effect, even the most intelligent and encyclopedic among us usually don’t know the history of the simplest, everyday objects; things like light bulbs or the electricity that we use utilize for almost every activity of our lives. Jane Brox has given us a book that illuminates not only the history of artificial light, but the history of our supersonic push into the future. It’s a book that deserves to be read, if only to underscore a past that seems dimmer and dimmer as the days rush by.

Rating:

George Russell is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. His PopMatters essays have appeared in an anthology published by W.W. Norton. He can be reached at russell@popmatters.com.


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