Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
During the recent 17-hour electricity blackout (aka my next 17 years-worth of Earth Hour *wink*), I got a chance to roadtest a new toy. It cost $3.29 at the local pharmacy and, as luck would have it, I had purchased two a few days prior. The manufacturer’s packaging describes this device, about the same diameter as a hockey puck and a bit thicker, as a lamp. The sales receipt says it’s a flashlight.
In my view it’s an example of the fabulous new technologies that are currently being brought to market. These little babies contain 24 LED lights a piece. Even better, they have a magnet on the back as well as a fold-out multi-directional hook. When darkness fell the other night, I stuck one to the side of the refrigerator and pressed the “on” button. It lit up the entire kitchen with more than twice the brightness of a traditional night light.
The second one I attached to a hanging lamp in the living room. Especially after I’d repositioned a mirror to catch the reflection, that room was far from dark.
This sort of lighting has been advancing by leaps and bounds in recent years. My understanding is that batteries have become dramatically more efficient because software (inside the batteries themselves, as well as within battery-powered devices) has improved. The double-whammy is that LEDs require less energy to start with – and have the advantage of being safer since they remain cool to the touch.
This particular device runs on three AAAs. I haven’t had an opportunity to test it fully yet, but to give you an idea of just how far things have come, let me tell you about an experiment I conducted a few months back.
In February, at the dollar store, I spent $2 on a string of 10 novelty LED indoor lights. Even though this is cheap manufactured stuff from China, the aesthetics are appealing. The string is powered by two AA batteries. I strung these lights above a window, intertwined them with a couple of ferns, and turned on the switch.
I left those lights there, undisturbed, for over a month. They shone continuously – 24/7 – for all of that time. Really. I never turned them off.
I touched them occasionally, to assure myself that they were, indeed, cool. For the first two weeks, they shone brightly around the clock. Afterward, the level of light they emitted began to incrementally fade. Well over a month later, however, they still cast light and shadows in that corner of the room after nightfall.
Why am I so delighted by this? When I was a child, the sort of flashlight one took camping was a heavy, huge affair that required an enormous battery that seemed to die after only a few hours. Light that wasn’t powered directly from an electrical socket was unwieldy and expensive. Which means it was rare. Which means those of modest means had limited access to it. The natural resources required to produce those old-fashioned batteries, and the amount of landfill needed to dispose of them, far exceeded what’s required today.
This is why I adore cheap tech. When safe alternatives to emergency candles, like the hockey pucks above, become readily available to everyone I want to stand up and cheer. I’ve followed the history of technology for years (I’m currently reading about the early telephone era), and can confidently report that a definite pattern emerges.
Technology that is appealing and useful always starts out as expensive. It’s well out-of-reach of the average person. New tech is adopted first by businesses and wealthy individuals. As it catches on, economies of scale begin to kick in. Prices drop. In most cases, they drop dramatically. A DVD player was once beyond the reach of most households. Fast-forward a bit and and now you can pick one up for $30 along with your groceries. The length of that gap, that fast-forward period, continues to shrink.
Safer, cheaper, more efficient ways of doing things in affluent countries also spill over to the developing world. Too many people still don’t have access to rudimentary lighting. In addition to the safety implications, this makes it difficult for such people to study after dark – or to work past sundown. Those trying desperately to improve their lot are prevented from doing so.
I love the idea that the Third World is leap-frogging us technologically. Here’s what I mean by that: In the early 20th century horrendous amounts of money were spent installing the infrastructure associated with telephones across this vast North American continent. Holes had to be dug, poles had to transported and sunk, wires had to be strung and maintained.
The Third World is skipping that phase altogether. It’s going from no phone service directly to cellular phone service. If becoming connected to the wider world could only happen in one way – the poles-and-wires approach – much of the developing world would have a long wait ahead of it. Setting up cell phone antennas is much faster and cheaper.
So don’t kid yourself. When ordinary people in affluent counties embrace new tech we’re helping to make the entire world a better place.