The Heart of Lightness

March 12, 2011

असतोमा सद्गमय।

तमसोमा ज्योतिर् गमया।

मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय॥

Viscount Marlow, I know you have some interviews in the works, but I’ve been hearing from certain elements of the informational rabble that posting gaps have been negatively impacting procrastination activities.  As such, let me put up a post (though my guess is that level of procrastination is independent of quality of procrastination activities).

Building on the curation/creation debate that has been going on, what do you think of using curation as a springboard for new creation: a kind of curation-based synthesis?  As one example, a paper on the C. elegans neuronal network that was recently published (and that has an interesting metrics framework) started out as a work of data curation, but led to new discoveries.  Connecting culturomics with Zipf’s Law is another example where large scale curation led to new discoveries.  But both of these examples are data analytics-based.

More in line with your take on curation/creation, e.g. by your mention of the Huffington Post, let me see if what I do next will be considered sponging or new synthesis.

So over the past few days, I’ve read:

One is a news article, the next is a blog entry, and the last is a book review, but all three are essentially about light bulbs.  The news article talks about the new laws that will strongly limit the sale of incandescent light bulbs, ending what might call the era of Edison.  The book review mentions how the advent of the Edison era was so significant, saying “More than any other breakthrough, the combination of electric power and lighting has changed the course of humanity for the better in a briefer span than all the advances before it, going back to the advent of fire itself.”  Having not gone to electrical engineering school at the beginning of the Edison era, I know very little about traditional lighting.  Though having gone to school as the Edison era ended, I did learn a little bit about nanophotonics.

Anyway, the most interesting among the three is the blog post, which talks across eras and says:

Consider what’s happened with lighting over the past three centuries. As people have switched from candles to oil-powered lamps to incandescent bulbs and beyond, the amount of energy needed to produce a unit of light has plummeted. Yet people have found so many new places to light that today we spend the same proportion of our income on light as our much poorer ancestors did in 1700

More specifically, this statement is based on a paper that shows historical data is “consistent with a simple expression in which per-capita consumption of artificial light varies linearly with the ratio between per-capita gross domestic product and cost of light.”  The authors make no serious attempt to explain the origin of the observed phenomenon.  They do conjecture, however, that similar phenomena might be found in historical studies of other things with environmental impact, such as transportation.  These are related to what is often called the rebound effect.

Let me put forth a potential explanation for this phenomenon.  Light is a well-known metaphor for truth: tamaso mā jyotir gamaya (from darkness, lead me to light), and its derivative Dark Side.  But moreover it can be thought of as a tool for shaping moral spaces.

Interestingly, there have been several studies in several areas showing a kind of psychological homeostasis and regulatory balancing with respect to things like risk or morality.

So the explanation I am putting forth is that expenditures on light are rather like altruistic behaviors and are held in balance through moral regulation.  Not only that, but with the increasing efficiency of lighting, social norms on what is meant by “well-lit” tend to increase.  Thus the dynamic interaction between morality and social norms leads to consistent income light fraction over time.

I wonder how psychophysical laws play into things.


One comment

  1. […] data).  From that perspective, the observation that everyone (current and historical) spends about the same proportion on lighting can be related to your interest area of information overload.  Just like there is a […]

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