Friday, 18 November 2011

What we lost when we gained the light bulb

Amy Spira

In 2009, I found myself as far away from technology as I had ever been. I got off a rickety, disused school bus and watched it speed away through a cloud of dust, leaving me alone on a dirt road in the parched Nicaraguan countryside. It was the hottest afternoon of my life. After a short hike, I arrived at a small township, where I had arranged to lodge with a local family in order to immerse myself in the life of Nicaraguan subsistence farmers. In the heat of the day, the farmers took refuge in the meagre slivers of shade cast by the midday sun. I settled into the clay-floored hut which I was to share with my host family and then joined the farmers outside.

Within minutes, and despite the heavy heat, I was itching for activity. Something to watch. Or listen to. Some news from the outside world. A conversation, maybe, but I'd need to call someone because the townsfolk were, by that stage, sleeping off their morning's work. I sat in the thick silence. And then I noticed it. A sound unlike any other - the complete absence of white noise.

In this particular town, there was no electricity.

No lights, no televisions, no computers, no nothing.

A few days later, two American travellers arrived, as I had, dusty and tired in the midday sun. One of the first things we discussed was how we could help the town to obtain enough electricity to support at least a single light bulb for each family home. The town was so remote and the infrastructure so poor that connection to the grid was unlikely. So we met with the townspeople to discuss their thoughts on installing solar panels. Our plan was to fundraise in Australia and the United States to fund the installation of panels on each family's land.

What shocked me was the sadness with which many of the townspeople greeted our proposal. Far from being excited about the prospect of electric light, my friend, Alvaro, who was 26 years old, educated and progressive in almost every other way, sighed sadly and said, "I knew this day would come. We can't avoid it forever."

There is nothing surprising about a person who uses a typewriter or who reads by candlelight for the ambience. Similarly, no matter your views on the issues, resisting stem cell research or avoiding modern medicines are actions grounded on identifiable, if controversial, drivers. But what of a person who will not use a telephone? Or a light bulb?

This kind of resistance to technology is often attributed to irrationality, technophobia or a staunch adherence to tradition. Those opposed to industrialisation and new technologies are often compared to the Luddites, who lobbied against the technological advances of the Industrial revolution, often by destroying the machines which they considered to be destructive of social norms. The term Luddite usually carries a negative connotation, implying backwardness or primitivism. Perhaps this is because of the destructive methods the Luddites used when resisting change. Or perhaps it is because, in the industrialised world, technology is so intrinsic to "success" that, by reverse implication, a person who cannot or will not master a new technology is often perceived as incompetent, unambitious, or primitive.

What I failed to see in my enthusiasm for technology was what Alvaro's community stood to lose if it gained a light bulb. Alvaro was not blind to the benefits of electric light, but he saw what was precious in the dark of night. Over the weeks that I spent in the town, I came to see it too – the joy of visiting neighbours' homes when the moon was bright, and the debates that raged in the darkness of the family home on nights when there was only a crescent (or less) in the sky, making it too dark to leave. The town lived by the rhythm of the moon. Alvaro was right to lament the advent of an age in which there was always enough light to go out at night, or to sit alone and read.

A few nights ago, I came home from work and switched on the television. After an hour of mindless watching, I began wondering about the little town in Nicaragua. For all their concerns, the townspeople eventually capitulated to the electrical age and requested that we raise funds to bring them electric light. Solar panels were installed in 2010.

I wanted to ask Alvaro whether he was happy with the outcome – or whether electricity had changed life in the ways that he had feared.

But I may have to wait to find out – the townspeople don’t have telephones. Nor do they want them.

And who could blame them?

Image by IvanClow, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.

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