The switch induced a new and modern space defined not by size, shape, structure, material, use, ornament, or any other conventional measure of architectural merit. Rather, it conjured a space distinguished by its instantaneous appearance, willed into visibility, as if volition alone were enough to make it so. Indeed, the very idea of a volitional space presumes that individual will is as much a part of the transformation created by electric light as the switch mechanism’s metal contacts. Visibly projecting willpower into a third dimension, volitional space is the amalgam of technology and desire, an image of desire reliably fulfilled.
… the switch typifies the “device paradigm,” an idea introduced in 1984 by the philosopher of modern technology, Albert Borgmann. The phrase describes a common trait of modern technology: the way in which a particular configuration of components enables a productive mechanism to be eclipsed by the commodity it delivers. Borgmann saw social relations in modern society as structured by the pairing of productive apparatus and a delivered commodity in such a way that consumption appears to be unmediated. Pipes and ducts, for example, separate the combustion of fuel from the resultant heat: they convey warmth while concealing the means of making it. Though common to many tools, and facilitated by modern technologies, this cultural preference was neither inevitable nor neutral in its effects. Indeed, Borgmann argued that dissociation from productive mechanisms made us ignorant of their social and material costs. As long as benefits were assured and costs predictable, consumers remained strangers to their own environments. The invisibility of the technology was proof of its effectiveness.
At first glance, the switch seems to contradict the device paradigm since it refocused attention on the mechanisms of the delivery system. But in experiential terms, the switch exemplified the ease with which vast amounts of labor, incalculable stores of energy, and sprawling networks could be snapped into service at a moment’s notice. The switch not only controlled the flow of electricity, it represented that control. Its trifling size and trivial operation encouraged confidence in the ability to bring to heel a force of nature. Additional details — an ivory or gold-plated key, common adornments for ceremonial switching, even an ordinary decorative switch plate — moved the switch further from technical functionality and into the realm of cultural signification. If anything, the switch’s instantaneous operation and distant action dramatized the device paradigm, at least for those earlier generations that marveled at the spread of electricity. With its disproportion between physical effort and visual impact, the light switch is the device paradigm made emphatic.
The switch became a crucial interface between ordinary people and an all but invisible infrastructure, between potent natural forces harnessed by new technologies and the day-to-day doings of everyone. It was the banal object wherein the juggernaut of modernity became the stuff of everyday life.
Clips from an excellent essay, “At the Flip of the Switch” by Sandy Isenstadt, at Places Journal. Lots of parallels with my own theoretical work. I’m astonished that I never stumbled across the work of Borgmann before, but the curse of the contemporary academic corpus is precisely its size: this is not the first time I’ve found a literature effectively parallel to (or at least shadow-mirroring) the ones I was working with, but which is all but unacknowledged by them.
(The ubiquity of this phenomenon, particularly when it comes to technological and infrastructural topics, is almost certainly political: put simply, heresy goes uncited. The effect is compounded by the ubiquity of search engines in literature review processes: heavily cited works float to the top, and everything else sinks into the long tail. If nothing else, it explains why the last five years of my life have felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall.)