Researchers at the MIT are publicizing that they have fixed the incandescent lightbulb with a brilliant improvement. They have wrapped the interior filament in a crystal glass that both bounces light and contains heat. It recycles energy in a way that addresses the main complaint against Edison’s bulb: It burns far too much energy for the light that it produces.
Why is this interesting? About a decade ago, governments around the world developed a fetish for banning incandescents (through an efficiency rule) and replacing them with expensive LED technology and florescent bulbs. It happened in Europe first but eventually came to the United States. The last American factory to produce them closed in 2010, and they are ever harder to find in even the big-box hardware stores. (As with all such bans, there are exceptions for elites who desire specialty bulbs.)
The change has been seriously annoying for many consumers. It has even given rise to hoarding and gray markets (in Germany, such bulbs were repackaged as “heat balls”). It has produced something of a political backlash, too.
On a personal note, my own dear mother replaced all her incandescents with fluorescents several years ago. I was sitting in her house feeling vaguely irritated by the searing lights in the room — cold and dreary — and had to turn them off. Sitting in the dimly lit room, my thought was: this is what the government has done to us. A great invention from the dawn of modernity is being driven out of use. Do I have to bring my own candles next holiday season?
Why should governments be in the position of deciding what technologies can and cannot be used, as if consumers are too stupid to make such decisions for themselves? Who is to decide what is efficient, and what the proper trade off should be between the energy expended and the light produced?
Maybe some people don’t mind the “inefficiency” of incandescent bulbs relative to the warm and wonderful light they produce. Entrepreneurs need to be able to discern and serve their needs.
The bans have given rise to a vast debate about which bulb is best and what kind of light technology governments should and should not permit. But these are really the wrong questions. The real issue should be: Why should governments be in the business of picking right and wrong technologies at all?
As the MIT innovation in lighting suggests, there are possibilities yet undiscovered that regulators have not thought of. If you write detailed regulations about existing technologies, you are forestalling the possibilities that scientists and entrepreneurs will discover new ways of doing things in the future.
A vast regulatory apparatus on cell phone technology in 1990 could never have imagined something like a modern cellphone. Regulations on digital commerce in 2000 might have stopped the rise of peer-to-peer services like Uber. Indeed, one of the reasons that the digital world is so innovative is precisely because the regulators haven’t yet caught up with the pace of innovation.
Regulations on technology freeze the status quo in place and make it permanent. How, for example, will regulations respond to the news that a new and improved form of incandescent bulb is possible? Early tests show it to be more efficient than the replacements which the regulations favor. Will there be a new vote, a rewrite of the law, a governing body that evaluates new lightbulbs, the same way we approach prescription drugs? None of this can possibly match the efficiency of a market process of trial and error, of experimentation, rejection, and adoption.
In government, a ban is a ban, something to be enforced, not tweaked according to new discoveries and approaches.
Herein we see the problems with all attempts by government to tightly manage any technology. Bitcoin is a great example. As soon as the price began to rise and the crypto sector began to appear viable, government agencies got in the business of regulating them as if the sector was already taking a shape that would last forever. And because technology and industry are always on the move, there is never a rational time to intervene with the proclamation “this is how it shall always be.”
Regulatory interventions stop the progress of history by disabling the limitless possibilities of the human imagination.
By the time regulators get around to rethinking the incandescent, the industry will probably have moved on to something new and even better, something no one can imagine could exist today.