The price of light has fallen by 500,000 times since prehistory
February 15, 2017 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Tim Harford tells us about how economist William Nordhaus determined how much better we are at making light nowadays in a transcript of an episode of the BBC World Service's podcast series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.
posted by Etrigan (23 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is great - the same amount of labor that produced 54 minutes of modern equivalent light (60 hours of work, in this case cutting trees), now produces 52 years worth of artificial light. And it's falling still!
posted by blahblahblah at 9:56 AM on February 15


The whole series of these podcast episodes is great and I strongly recommend subscribing!
posted by trackofalljades at 10:07 AM on February 15 [3 favorites]


Soon, light will be so cheap that we won't bother to meter it!

This is cool.
posted by Naberius at 10:11 AM on February 15


"A thing that was once too precious to use is now too cheap to notice."
posted by stoneweaver at 10:14 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


Of course the "value" of something isn't really a function of how much it costs to produce it. It needs to sell for more than the cost of producing it, of course, but that's not the whole story.

One of the more obvious modern examples is telecom bandwidth, which has undergone an even more shattering drop in price. I once found, forgotten as a bookmark in an old book I'd purchased, a rate card from an independent landline telephone company in Iowa in the 1930s that gave long distance rates from their base in Cedar Rapids to surrounding cities. It was like 30 cents a minute to call Des Moines, a different figure for Sioux City, yet another for Springfield, Illinois. Every town had a different rate, and they all worked out to dollars a minute in current money. New York, Chicago, LA, none of these were even mentioned. Who the hell would want to call there and who could afford it?

By the 1990s, when I was covering telecom for a while, we were just rolling out digital cellphones to the mass market (the mid-90s PCS auctions that blew up the old two-carrier analog market). Right around then was when we kind of lost the concept of "long-distance" service as a distinct thing from local telephony entirely, and it all just became "minutes."

Also at that time, people in the industry were looking at broadband and getting really nervous. The example I remember was a discussion of video on demand services, which were now technically feasible, but everyone was terrified of what it would mean. If you're a phone company delivering a movie to a customer you're talking about what is essentially a switched video call delivering 4 mbps of data for roughly two hours. (That's Standard Definition, btw. More like 15.5 mbps for HD) If you want to be competitive with Blockbuster (remember them?) you need to be able to deliver that much data over that period of time for like five or six dollars.

And if you can deliver that kind of bandwidth at that price to customers watching movies, how much can you charge for your core product, a roughly 52 kilobit per second voice channel? Of course people still pay for phone service - massively overpay in the US. (Thanks regulatory capture!). It's just not priced the way it used to be. The cost of producing the product isn't really a factor anymore. It's how useful the product is to you, and what you're willing to pay for it.
posted by Naberius at 10:29 AM on February 15 [17 favorites]


I want to go back in time with a grill lighter to some Neanderthals futzing with sticks, click it on and give them a Nelson Muntz haha then vanish back to the present.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:29 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]


And God said, she said, let there be scale...
posted by lazycomputerkids at 10:37 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


I read somewhere that candles were the 2nd most expensive method of illumination.
The first being setting dollar bills on fire.
posted by MtDewd at 10:37 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


"Yeah, thanks assholes." - Every stargazer
posted by leotrotsky at 10:47 AM on February 15 [4 favorites]


The first being setting dollar bills on fire.

No, no, the purpose of setting dollar bills on fire to light cigars. Hundred dollar bills, by preference. And Cuban cigars.
posted by BWA at 10:49 AM on February 15


From "not for sale at any price really" to "hard to find any real darkness" is more than 500,000 times.
posted by sfenders at 11:25 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


"Yeah, thanks assholes." - Every stargazer

This APOD of a lunar eclipse shot over Chongqing, China shows just how hard it is even for the most dramatic astronomical events to compete with the (to me quite beautiful in their own right) lights of a modern city.
posted by jamjam at 12:01 PM on February 15 [3 favorites]


Artificial light in the form of oil lamps (qulliq) was probably the single most important technology for permanent, year-round human occupation of the High Arctic. Months of darkness and essentially no wood makes wintertime very tough to endure even with excellent clothing and stored food. With lamps, winter became a time of immense productivity to make and repair the countless little gadgets that make high arctic life possible.
posted by Rumple at 12:27 PM on February 15 [15 favorites]


Thank you for posting this - I love this programme, I keep catching it on the radio at the weekend and it's right up my street. I didn't realise you could download them as a podcast, they're just the right length for my commute.

I'm the sort of person who is often amazed at the fantastic resources a lot of us have at our disposal in our homes in a lot of parts of the world. The fact that we can turn on a tap 24 hours a day and get clean, fresh water piped in; press a light switch and have stable electric light; let alone communicate instantly with people in all corners of the world like I am doing right now by typing this comment and sending it as a flash of light down a cable.

I love to think about the innovation and technology and infrastructure that's been put in place, particularly over the last century or so, to make all this possible; the improvements that have happened to so many people's quality of life in the past 100 years, and what will happen next. :)
posted by winterhill at 1:44 PM on February 15 [3 favorites]


One cost, not taken into account here, is that we can no longer see the night sky.
posted by Owad at 5:39 PM on February 15


" I once found, forgotten as a bookmark in an old book I'd purchased, a rate card from an independent landline telephone company in Iowa in the 1930s that gave long distance rates from their base in Cedar Rapids to surrounding cities. It was like 30 cents a minute to call Des Moines, a different figure for Sioux City, yet another for Springfield, Illinois. Every town had a different rate, and they all worked out to dollars a minute in current money. New York, Chicago, LA, none of these were even mentioned. Who the hell would want to call there and who could afford it? "

I remember being a little girl and my mom's long-distance Sunday calls to her mother were sacred, and expensive, and interrupting them would have resulted in MAJOR TROUBLE. Even when I was three and four I knew they were expensive, and I knew better than to interrupt.

My kids grab my cell out of my hand and chatter nonsense at my mom for basically free.

I also hardly ever change light bulbs, which was a thing that was a weekly task when I was little. I may not have changed my favorite reading lamp's bulb in two or three or four years? And when I first got this lamp ten years ago, it was FUCKING HOT in the summer to read next to it!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:32 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


This being Nordhaus, I'll assume the carbon cost of this revolution is ignored if it is even considered at all...
posted by 8k at 12:18 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


I could be wrong, but I feel like the carbon cost of burning tons of wood is going to end up being less than the carbon cost of burning a pound of coal.
posted by Etrigan at 3:40 AM on February 16


Wood is renewable so long as you’re planting more of it & so doesn’t represent a net contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere.

I think in general us moderns are shockingly unaware of just how much time was spent simply managing to stay alive a few centuries ago. Things we take completely for granted (food, light, clean clothes, having clothes full stop) represented days & sometimes months of labour back then.
posted by pharm at 4:06 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


The carbon cost isn't the only externality either, health impacts are pretty substantial for some energy sources also, plus there will be others like acid rain contribution, mining and transportation impacts, etc.
posted by biffa at 4:19 AM on February 16


I recently ran across a reference to the practice of placing making collect calls that are declined as a signal of a predetermined message. Totally brought back memories. When I was a teenager, I worked at a restaurant. The end of my shift could be anywhere between 10:00 pm and 11:30 pm depending on how long it took to clean up. Fifteen minutes before we were done, I'd place a collect call home, which my parents declined, as a signal that it was time to come get me.
posted by tippiedog at 9:13 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


Artificial light in the form of oil lamps yt (qulliq) was probably the single most important technology for permanent, year-round human occupation of the High Arctic.

Huh. Never thought about that, but it makes perfect sense. It's not like you can do the typical Northern European thing of simply spending longer in bed as you continue to follow the sun, with maybe a little bit of work in the evening by the fire. If you don't have an artificial light source, you simply can't live through the months of dark.
posted by tavella at 9:40 AM on February 16


A couple of years ago, Planet Money covered this topic The History of Light.

If you enjoy the 50 things podcast, I highly recommend Planet Money.
posted by obliquity of the ecliptic at 6:40 PM on February 18


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