Understanding Media: The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy

Episode 48

“A light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.

Marshal Mcluhan

An immortal lightbulb named Byron runs afoul of a secret international industrial alliance known as the Phoebus cartel in Thomas Pynchon’s cult classic Gravity’s Rainbow. When the cartel detects that Byron has exceeded his programmed life span, the Incandescent Anomalies Committee dispatches a hit man to take him out.

It turns out that many parts of Pynchon ‘s tale were actually based on facts: There was actually a Phoebus cartel, and it was targeting lightbulbs. See George W. Stocking and Myron W. Watkins’ 1946 text, Cartels in Action: Top leaders of all the major lightbulb producers, including Germany’s Osram, Philips of the Netherlands, the Compagnie des Lampes of France and General Electric of the United States met in Geneva on 23 December 1924 for a conference that would transform the world for decades to come.

The cartel conspired to create a shorter-lived incandescent light bulb. William Meinhardt, the president of Osram, often argued that the monopoly was to “the benefit of the customer ”

The household lightbulb was already technologically sophisticated in 1924: considerable light yield; burning time was 2.500 hours or more easily. It wasn’t just a matter of making an inferior or sloppy product; anyone could have done that. But it took some doing over a number of years to create one that failed reliably after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours. The cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress, by striving for something less.

Each factory bound by the cartel agreement-and there were hundreds of them, including GE ‘s licensees worldwide-had to regularly send samples of its bulbs to a Swiss central testing laboratory. There, they thoroughly vetted the bulbs against cartel standards. The company or subsidiary was obliged to pay a fine if any factory submitted bulbs that lasted longer or shorter than the specified life cycle for their kind. For example, in 1927 Tokyo Electric reported in a memo to the cartel that sales had jumped five-fold after shortening the lives of its vacuum and gas-filled lightbulbs.

McLuhan, like his mentor Harold Innis, believed that media were biased according to time and space. He paid particular attention to what he called the sensorium, or the effects of media on our senses, positing that media affect us by manipulating the ratio of our senses. The Lightbulb overthrew the regime of “time” and “space” and poured upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message was Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism.

The light bulb is a clear demonstration of the concept of “the medium is the message”: a light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium; that is, a light bulb enables space during darkness.


Everybody knows the light bulb‘s father was Thomas Edison. We read about him all the time and he is often remembered as the greatest inventor in American history. The truth is light bulbs had already been invented; what he did was buy the patent and refine the product. The incandescent light bulb would be groundbreaking, but only if Edison or someone else could succeed in getting power to America’s homes.

The least favorite of Tesla’s “impractical” proposals was the notion of using AC technology to deliver energy. Born in the Austrian Empire in 1856 (now known as Croatia), Nikola Tesla inherited his love for electricity and invented from his mother, who would make small appliances in her spare time as he grew up. Nikola went to school and studied architecture and physics, while his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become an orthodox priest. He invented an idea for an induction motor and a means of using alternating currents, but since there was nobody in Europe interested in his inventions, he moved to America, where the power boom was taking place.

Edison insisted that his own direct current (DC) system was better, maintaining a lower voltage from power station to user, making it healthier. Yet AC technology, which enables energy flow to change direction regularly, is more realistic to transfer vast quantities of energy, as a large city or industry center, say, needs. At the time, DC technology only permitted a one-mile radius power grid from the source.

Tesla insisted he could improve Edison’s prototypical dynamos’ output, and finally wore down Edison sufficiently to let him try. Edison, Tesla later said, offered $50,000 if he succeeded. Tesla worked for several months around the clock but when he finished and requested his payout, Edison reneged, claiming, “If you’re a full-fledged American, you’ll understand an American joke.” Instead, Edison offered a $10/week increase. Tesla quit and spent the next few months taking up minimum wage jobs.

Tesla eventually raised enough money to found the Tesla Electric Light Company, where he established many successful inventions including AC generators, cables, transformers, lights and an AC motor with 100 horsepower. Tesla ended up selling most of his patents to George Westinghouse, an inventor, entrepreneur, and engineer who had been feuding with Edison for years. In fact. Their relationship, one can imagine, made AC ‘s eventual popularization even bitterer for Edison.




“The electric light is pure information”

Though Mcluhan books are written in a difficult style — at once enigmatic, epigrammatic and overgrown with arcane literary, historic allusions and flamboyantly undecipherable aphorisms he put out a few concepts that I find useful for our purposes.

McLuhan suggests that the world is explained and experienced differently depending on the specific “ratios of sense” that members of a culture share in the sensoria they learn to inhabit. New technology demands that we surrender our identity, writes McLuhan. The approach of our time is to use not one but several models for experimentation, he writes.

Technology, like the lightbulb before, has reshaped patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It forced us to rethink and re-evaluate virtually every idea, behavior and institution previously taken for granted. Print technology provided the audience. Electrical technology produced the masses. The public consists of individuals walking with different, fixed viewpoints. New technology demands that we surrender our identity.

For example, the alphabet stresses the sense of sight, which in turn causes us to think in linear, objective terms. The medium of the alphabet thus has the effect of reshaping the way in which we, collectively and individually, perceive and understand our environment.

Media are extensions of some physical, social, psychological, or intellectual function of the human race. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act. When these ratios change, men change. All organizations, but especially biological ones, struggle to remain constant in their inner condition amidst the variations of outer shock and change. The man made social environment as an extension of man’s physical body is no exception.

I think where people go wrong in imagining post-capitalist economies is starting with values. The stacking order is technology → economics → values. You need to start with alternative technological principles. Example: design with degradation/aging as a feature not bug.

Venkatesh Rao

Man thus becomes the sex organs of the machine world just as the bee is of the plant world, permitting it to reproduce and constantly evolve to higher forms. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity.

The Russian dictionary defines the sense of touch as follows: “In reality all five senses can be reduced to one” the sense of touch. The tongue and palate sense the food; the ear, sound waves; the nose, emanations; the eyes, rays of light. This serves to highlight how the hierarchization of the senses can vary significantly even between cultures. Any single perceptual modality may include or overlap multiple sensory structures, time and space as well as other modes of perception.

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

Anaïs Nin


Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication. According to McLuhan, there have been three basic lightbulb moments:

a) The invention of the phonetic alphabet, which jolted tribal man out of his sensory balance and gave dominance to the eye; The alphabet, for instance, is a technology that is absorbed by the very young child in a completely unconscious manner, by osmosis so to speak.

b) The introduction of movable type in the 16th Century, which accelerated this process. The alphabet and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment.

c) The invention of the telegraph in 1844, which heralded an electronics revolution that lead to software eating the world. The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems are immersing us in a world of information and are thus enabling man theoretically to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind.

Whenever a society develops an extension of itself, all other functions of that society tend to be transmuted to accommodate that new form; once any new technology penetrates a society, it saturates every institution of that society. New technology is thus a revolutionizing agent.


Audile-tactile tribal man partook of the collective unconscious, lived in a magical integral world patterned by myth and ritual, its values divine and unchallenged, whereas literate or visual man creates an environment that is strongly fragmented, individualistic, explicit, logical, specialized and detached.

The phonetic alphabet caused the brain’s third eye to succumb to the mind’s rational realm. The ear, as opposed to the eye, was sensitive, hyper-aesthetic and all-inclusive, and contributes to a seamless web of interdependence. Literate or visual man creates an environment that is strongly fragmented, individualistic, explicit, logical, specialized and detached. We can’t suppress sound automatically, we can’t.

If it rings a bell is because part of the mindfulness movement is trying to will itself up to a time before the invention of the phonetic alphabet where man lived in a world where all the senses were balanced and simultaneous, a closed world of tribal depth and resonance, an oral culture structured by a dominant auditory sense of life.

Part of the practices of the mindfulness movement is trying to find a way to understand/co create a space that has no center and no margin, unlike strictly visual space, which is an extension and intensification of the eye. There was little individualism and specialization, the hallmarks of “civilized” Western man. Tribal cultures even today simply cannot comprehend the concept of the individual or of the separate and independent citizen.


In McLuhan’s theory language too is a medium or technology.

“It is the extension of man in speech that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. Without language . . . human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention”

Part of the conflict any culture finds itself is an order of sensory preferences, and the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell, installing sight at the head of the hierarchy of senses. Literacy separates man from the tribe, gave him an eye for an ear and replaced his integral in-depth communal interplay with visual linear values and fragmented consciousness. The phonetic alphabet diminished the role of the senses of hearing and touch and taste and smell.

The alphabet is a system of broken bits and pieces that have no semantic meaning in themselves and must be strung in a line, bead-like, and given order together. Its usage fostered and promoted the habit of perceiving all surroundings visually and spatially.

Writing started for backup purposes, a sort of dropbox. The scribes were the first experts in data warehousing. More than simply transcribing the spoken word, they also compressed, rectified and authenticated, and regularly revised texts to reflect the current state of the oral heritage. Today we see epics of the popular verses as single works but it makes more sense to talk about convergent conversations that are closer to the index given by Google than to books.

What the Greeks meant by “poetry” was completely different than what poetry is to us. Its “poetic” expression was the product of a collective mind and psyche. Homer’s “Iliad” was pre-literate Greece ‘s cultural encyclopedia, the didactic vehicle that gave men guidance for managing their spiritual, ethical , and social lives.

Poetry is customizable software that comes in fixed-length chunks, with built-in consistency and error-correcting codes. Such Bardic songs were rhythmically arranged into metrical forms to be memorized and quickly remembered. This is designed to be distributed and replicated across unstable and noisy networks, one stone tablet, palm leaf, or a sheet of handmade paper at a time, through time and space. To ensure the faithful transmission of tradition from generation to generation, all the per-suasive skills of the poetic and dramatic idiom were marshaled.

Mimetic form was a technique which exploited rhythm, meter, and music. Listeners could memorize what was sung with greater ease than what had been said. Verses are uniform containers designed to hold words that are strong, compact and of archival consistency. Plato attacked this method because it discouraged argument and dispute. It was the main obstacle to abstract, speculative reasoning in his opinion.

“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of them- selves … You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”

-Socrates, “Phaedrus”

The phonetic alphabet was radically different from the older and richer hieroglyphic or ideogrammatic cultures. Egyptian, Babylonian, Mayan and Chinese cultures were an extension of the senses unlike phonetic writing, which uses semantically meaningless letters to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds and is able, with only a handful of letters, to encompass all meanings and all languages.

Anyway, the alphabet requested that sights and sounds be isolated from their abstract and dramatic meanings. This separated visual function from interplay with other senses, triggering profound psychological consequences, including the resulting isolation and impoverishment of his creative, emotional and sensory existence.

We started thinking in linear sequential fashion; We started categorizing and classifying data. When knowledge is distributed in alphabetical form, it is placed and divided into specialties, creating separation of purpose, social divisions, countries, and information — and, in the process, losing the rich interplay of all the senses that characterized tribal culture.

Literacy, contrary to the common perception of the “civilizing” process, produces people who are far less complex and diverse than those in the fragmented system of oral-tribal societies. The alphabet and music notation helped to neutralize all these rich tribal cultures divergences by transforming their nuances into simple visual forms. Separating all sorts of interactions into standardized and continuous units was the essence of Western man’s ascent.


With the cut-off of the Mohammedans’ stocks of papyrus, the Mediterranean, once a Roman lake, became a Muslim lake, and the Roman center collapsed. What had become the edges of this middle-margin system became autonomous centers on a new hierarchical, systemic basis. The Roman middle collapsed by the fifth century A.D. as cart, lane, and paper dwindled into a ghostly model of the former one.

Papyrus never returned. Byzantium, like medieval centers, relied heavily on parchment, but it was too expensive and scarce a material to speed up trade or even education. It was paper from China, gradually traveling through the Near East to Europe, that steadily accelerated education and trade from the eleventh century, and laid the foundation for the ‘Renaissance of the twelfth century’

In other words, to the spoils belongs the victor.


If the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man, the printing press hit him like a 100-megaton H-bomb. The printing press was the ultimate extension of phonetic literacy. It also laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution. Printing was the first mechanization of a complex handicraft; by creating an analytic sequence of step-by-step processes, it became the blue-print of all mechanization to follow.

The most important quality of print is its repeatability; it is a visual statement that can be reproduced indefinitely, and repeatability is the root of the mechanical principle that has transformed the world since Gutenberg. Books could be reproduced in infinite numbers; universal literacy was at last fully possible, if gradually realized; and books became portable possessions.

Type, the prototype of all machines, ensured the primacy of the visual bias and finally sealed the doom of tribal man. The new medium of linear, uniform, repeatable type reproduced information in unlimited quantities and at hitherto-impossible speeds, thus assuring the eye a position of total predominance in man’s sensorium.

As a drastic extension of man, it shaped and transformed his entire environment, psychic and social, and was directly responsible for the rise of such disparate phenomena as nationalism, the Reformation, the assembly line and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution, the whole concept of causality, Cartesian and Newtonian concepts of the universe, perspective in art, narrative chronology in literature and a psychological mode of introspection or inner direction that greatly intensified the tendencies toward individualism and specialization engendered 2000 years before by phonetic literacy.

With print, the homogeneity of money, markets and transport also became possible for the first time, thus creating economic as well as political unity and triggering all the dynamic centralizing energies of contemporary nationalism.

The Renaissance legacy. The vanishing point or self effacement. The detached observer. No involvement. The viewer of renaissance art is systematically placed outside the frame of experience. A piazza for everything and everything in its piazza. The instantaneous world of software media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible. The illustrated book contributed a lot to the modern religion of individualism, including easel drawing. The private, fixed point of view became possible and the power of detachment, non-involvement was conferred upon literacy.

Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production, centralism and also a new kind of urban shape and size. It is to the railroad that the American city owes its abstract grid layout the nonorganic separation of production, consumption and residence.

The railway changed the personal perspectives and patterns of social interdependence. It bred the American Dream, and nurtured it. It created the myth of an innocent, green pasture world. It satisfied the desire of man to withdraw from society, symbolized by the city, into a rural setting in which he could recover his natural and animal self. It was the pastoral ideal, a Jeffersonian world, an agrarian democracy designed to guide social policy.

The motorcar scrambled the abstract shape of the industrial town, mixing up its separated functions. The airplane completed the confusion by amplifying the mobility of the citizen. Metropolitan space is equally irrelevant for the telephone, the telegraph, the radio, and television, he says.

“We are marching back to the future. In Bonanza Land Suburbia”


“Whereas all previous technology (save speech, itself) had, in effect, extended some part of our bodies, electricity may be said to have outered the central nervous system itself, including the brain”

The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man, jazz lover and art aficionado of the Western world succumbed to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media. Electronic technology extends the central nervous system of every viewer as it works over and molds the entire sensorium with the ultimate message.

It was television that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology, although each of the other electric media have played contributing roles.

The Web has introduced the paradigm of navigating linked documents. The life of the individual who is permanently plugged into the network (hyperlink navigation, instant messages, live news) but at a cost: the continuous shift of context and therefore of focus takes a cognitive toll on the brain. Every time the brain has to reorient itself there is a cost in accessing long-time memory and organizing one’s “thoughts”.

Pre-electric extensions are physical-scale external explosions, whereas electronic technology is an internal implosion into human consciousness, a transition that has important implications. Zoom, streaming, podcasts, radio, films, telephone, computer and television, have strengthened and outsourced our entire central nervous systems, thus transforming them.

That brain gets trained for short spans of attention and to switch focus all the time have a different character and they remember less and learn less. This is because the transition of information from working memory to long-term memory (the “cognitive load”) is “costly” for the brain. Cognitive “overload” makes it impossible for the brain to process, store and relate information to pre-existing memories.

In the end, the medium that we use changes our brain physically. Each medium fosters certain cognitive abilities but at the expense of others. There is a kind of zero sum of the cognitive abilities. A blind person improves both vision and smell. Videogames improve visual-spatial capabilities but at the cost of other talents. The “centered” brain has skills developed through books, while the “switching” brain has skills developed through the Internet.

“With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. To the degree that this is so, it is a development that suggests a desperate and suicidal autoamputation . . .”

Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extension of man — the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and nerves by the various media. Whether the extension of consciousness, so long sought by advertisers for specific products, will be ‘a good thing’ is a question that admits of a wide solution”

The Web has so much information that one does not need intelligence anymore to solve a problem: most likely the solution can be found by navigating hyperlinked pages on the Web. The new way to solve a problem is not to concentrate on the nature of the problem, study the dynamics of the system and then logically infer what the solution could be. The new way is to search the Web for the solution posted by someone who knows it.

The Web makes the sum of information nearly limitless and eliminates the inference needed by problem solving to just searching the knowledge for an adequate match. No need for mathematical logic. We are heading towards a less and less sophisticated way of solving problems, but also a more and more successful way of solving them.

There’s no need to use the orientation skills to find a place: simply use the car’s navigation system or the smartphone. That avoids the need to consider and debate about whether to turn left or right. Before navigation devices came into being, one had to use all the inferential abilities of the brain, and all the experience gained over a lifetime to determine which direction to go.

The simple act of browsing the Web constitutes a new cognitive ability. The browser is de facto being a different organ of the body, an organ used to navigate the Web’s synthetic world much as a hand or an eye is used to navigate the real world. This organ produces a new awareness much like the hand produced the feeling of touch and the eye generated the sense of hearing. The new definition means a different brain function much as every word suggests a similar brain function.

The switching brain must also be refining another skill that has been evolving over the last century: choice. Streaming has expanded the the amount of information available and made them available around the clock. The “superficial” brain does not want to dig directly into any single case but may need to be much more careful to scan and pick the news. Choice is also involved in social networking systems to decide what is worth discussing, what is worth knowing and what is worth telling others.

The point for modern technologies is that they free humans from the bondage of ordinary activities, so that humans can dedicate themselves to exceptional achievements. In reality the algos know what you like/want will tend to give it to you every time it the circumstances allow for it; but this means that your life is starting to be confined to a very narrow range of behavior (of restaurants, of hobbies, of friends and so forth), that you will be stuck in a groove that gets deeper and deeper. You will tend to do only the things that you already like, not to try other things that you have never done today but that might be useful and fun. The whole process of cognitive development might be slowed down by the use of a personalized assistant.

The history of civilization is a history of reducing the amount of cognitive skills required to survive. Civilizations have constantly been refining the process of finding and using knowledge at the expense of the process of storing and understanding knowledge. The Web-based society is simply a further step in this process, where navigating and multi-tasking prevail over deep understanding. We don’t need to understand how things happen but just how to make things happen (e.g., if you want light, press a switch).

Eventually human brains may not be able to understand anything of the world that they “navigate” but will be able to do a lot more a lot faster. This society will inevitably change the meaning of what is important. Science, literature and art were at the top of the hierarchy when a different kind of understanding understanding was important.

‪Culture is not democratic at all. As our brain changes the question is whether we also change in dealing with other individuals and with our world at large. Literacy reorganizes the brain at the physical level: reading and writing hijack a brain. So do other symbolic activities and art.

Often people end up using a medium in a way that is not the one it was designed for. This is particularly obvious in the case of software, but also in the case of many technologies that became runaway success “despite” what the inventors originally intended for them. Maybe it’s time for a reinvention.

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