Thomas Edison Died Last Week, But Light Lives On

With the flip of a switch last week, the last factory in the United States making old style incandescent bulbs – the kind Thomas Edison spent much of the 1870s perfecting – closed down for good.

Like the other factories before it, this GE factory is being phased out in favor of new light technologies which produce more light and less heat and last up to 60 times as long.

On this special occasion, it’s worth pointing out that Marshall McLuhan used to call the the light bulb a “content-less medium.” Unlike cell phones, computers, and radios, light bulbs don’t transmit any data. And yet, the light bulb, as a medium,  radically alters the space into which it is introduced. When a light is turned on in a dark space, it completely transforms the area. What was unknown known, and what was usable becomes usable again. All without words or content.

Of course, we could point out the downsides to electronic light – we never experience darkness, we rarely see the stars, etc. Or we could argue that those trade-offs are worth it for all that light brings us.

But perhaps this historical event should instead be used to revisit the metaphor of “light” found in Scripture. the Bible tells us that Jesus is the light of the world, and that his light is to shine through us, his Body, his Church. As light powerfully affects any environment into which it is introduced, so also should we.

Yet, unlike a light bulb, the Church is not a content-less medium. We are not to change the world – digging wells, healing wounds, and giving hugs – silently. No, we have also been entrusted with a message about the person of Jesus, the one true God and only hope for salvation.

Without that message we are about as good as one of those new fangled LED bulbs is to a person freezing in the middle Antarctica – the light is great, but without heat he’s still gonna die. So the next time you screw in a fancy 60-year light bulb, remember that our calling is both to be the medium and to bring the content.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Edison Died Last Week, But Light Lives On”

  1. Interesting post. I’m just wondering whether light bulbs really are an entirely content-less medium. The way a room is lit, for example, can make a huge difference to the way the space is perceived – an effect well used in the film industry and interior designers everywhere. Does this count as data or is emotional response not part of a message?

    1. Simon,
      I think that’s just what McLuhan meant. Pure light doesn’t have any literal content (unlike a picture or a book), but the light still has meaning. His point is that if the medium of light conveys meaning, then so do all other mediums. We just get distracted by the content so we miss the meaning from the medium.

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