With a new year comes a renewed focus on the years to come. This article is the first in a series on consumption in our world today.
Today’s world is enjoying an age of incredible technological prowess. We can fly anywhere in the world in less than a day. At any time, day or night, we use devices that give us up-to-the-minute information on what’s happening anywhere on our planet. We can also use that device to connect to anyone on almost every part of our planet. This level of interconnectedness is an amazing thing to consider, putting us in a time unlike any other. Of course, the same could be said about pretty much every other age in human history, as every generation hopes to advance past the previous one. Even if a generation’s technological leaps are more resemblant of stumbles, each one inevitably distinguishes itself apart from that of its predecessors. Once in a while, a certain invention pops into our lives and firmly implants itself there, deep in our consciousnesses, cementing itself so deep that we forget a time before its existence.
Human history extends far enough back that it would take quite a while to elaborate on all such inventions. There is one invention, not created long ago, that has profoundly changed our human existence more than any in its era. That invention is the mass-produced, incandescent lightbulb. The only other invention from its general era that can accompany it in its echelon of importance is the internal combustion engine. This article is not meant to compare the two, however. In my mind, since Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1879, the way humans would live their lives in the future would be markedly different from all past generations, and the beginning of an era that signifies all the wonderful and terrible things that come from our modern age.
I was first turned on to this idea through Clark Strand’s article, “Bring on the Dark”, in the New York Times. Saying that “our consciousness is driven by light,” Strand allowed me to realize how light has shaped the world we live in. Before artificial light, no productive work could be done during the dark hours of the day, putting a dramatic hold on the limits of our days. When cheap and effective lighting started to become widespread in the late 19th century, we began to see the benefits of our new, light-driven world. Breakthroughs in science, technology and medicine were all derived from the hours that light added to our workdays, says Strand. Only 130 years later, these benefits have significantly improved the length and quality of our lives and allow us to push forward in this young century to even greater heights. But this all comes at a cost.
Light in today’s world is hard to escape, and that has a profound impact on the individual and collective ways in which we live our lives. As individuals, it seems that we have the lights on at all times, a driving reminder that we must keep working, must stay productive; not let any of it to go to waste. Our lives are becoming increasingly fast-paced at all times of the day. A simple flick of a switch dictates when we decide that it’s finally time for bed, instead of the dark deciding it for us.
When we combine these individual behaviors, they represent a collective behavior. A light-driven world is inherently consumptive, thinking mainly of itself in its need for advancement. At a time when the world’s population is growing, the need to think of solutions that benefit us (and our planet) collectively is imperative. At the same time, however, light seems to cause us to spend too much time looking in the mirror but not looking at the world around us.
There’s no turning back from the role that light plays in our lives. As our century moves forward, reevaluating the role of darkness will be imperative. Darkness often gets a bad rap, representing something inherently insidious, lurking and damaging. Perhaps its a reminder of the seemingly uncivilized and dangerous times of our ancestors, of the strain it took to get where we are today. In many ways, I agree. But darkness also reveals some of our most admirable qualities of curiosity, hope and wonder, forcing us to use solely our imagination when we have nothing else to depend on.
Currently traveling in Thailand, I’ve enjoyed spending the last few nights on the beach surveying the night sky. Even though I live in a small city in the United States, light pollution doesn’t allow me to enjoy a smattering of stars in the sky. Here, I can see so many that wherever I scan my eyes, I’m riveted by a new cluster. The stars and the looming darkness wrap around me, inspiring a sense of smallness in my place in the world. That’s something I don’t often feel back home. Maybe it’s something we could all use a bit more of.