Archive for History of technology

Lightbulbs as ‘architectures of control’

I moved into a brand new house earlier this year (at Upton, on the western edge of Northampton). It’s an eco-house but that’s actually not the reason for the story that follows.

The lightbulb fittings in the house are of a non-standard design: instead of the classic two-prong ‘bayonet’ fitting to hold the bulb in place, it has a 3-prong fitting. Bulbs with these fittings (BC3) are only available as compact flourescent lighting (CFL) bulbs – the energy efficient kind – rather than old-fashioned tungsten bulbs. This is due to a change in building regulations which requires that a certain proportion (at least 30%) of lightbulbs in newbuild properties must be CFL, and according to the general interpretation by the building industry, the fittings must be such that they can only take CFL bulbs.

There is one curious but annoying side-effect of all this. The bulbs are, to date, only available from one supplier, not widely sold in shops (though readily available online), and are significantly more expensive than typical CFLs – the new bulbs cost £8-10 instead of about £2 for a good CFL or around 50p for a basic one. Some of this will presumably be rectified over time – I’ve seen no suggestion that the new fitting is patented, so with sufficient demand other suppliers should be able to enter the market and in time drive down prices as has happened with normal CFLs.

So far, a bit irritating, but Dan Lockton has written about these bulbs as an example of an ‘architecture of control’ – a deliberate attempt to regulate good behaviour (use of CFLs) through structural factors rather than personal choice. I like this phrase a lot, and it’s been used by Lockton in other academic work (in fact he credits Larry Lessig for it); it reminds me both of the classic sociological structure-agency debate, and Donald Norman’s concept of the ‘forcing function’ in product design.

Yes, lightbulbs are a very ordinary technology, but then as David Edgerton argues, it’s through everyday technologies that the most interesting features of the history of technology occur; and this is a most unusual adaption of the lightbulb. Feels like a case that deserves to be known better!


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