Let there be light switches
From dark living rooms to dark ecology
Ed. Justin McGuirk, co-curator of an excellent new show, ‘Home Futures’, at the Design Museum in London, kindly asked me to write a short piece about the light switch for the accompanying catalogue. Given that analogue switches may disappear, in favour of smart lighting, Justin thought the light switch might be “a metonym for the voice-operated smart home”. Here’s a different edit of the piece I wrote for the catalogue. Thanks to Justin for asking — and edits! — and do go and see the show if you’re in London.
The inventor of the light switch, John Henry Holmes, was a Quaker, member of a doctrine generally united by a fundamental belief in the ability of each person to access “the light within”. The light switch, of course, enables each person to access the light without, and has been doing so, solidly, since 1884.
At least until the emergence of the voice- or presence-activated smart home version of lights, brave solution to an unspecified problem. Unlike contemporary design patterns, Holmes’s switch is a simple design that has lasted for centuries. Still, entering an old house, we brush our fingertips over the wall in the gloom, tracing spatial memories, caressing plaster or brick or wood before your hand brushes against an early plastic, or even Bakelite. The switch itself still tends to be firm, the ever-so-slight sensation of rolling as it moves to form a circuit, one of the most pleasingly robust ‘actions’ that an industrial designer could imagine.
It means the resilient light switch, like the door handle, reveals the accumulated touch of all those gone before, a patina of presence. Juhani Pallasmaa said that the doorhandle is the handshake of the building; is the light switch the equivalent for the room? It is the most universal of everyday objects, in fact far less glamorous than Pallasmaa’s Helsinki door handles. Morrison and Fukasawa, those most acutely aware curators of the ‘supernormal’, found room for just one designerly light switch in their collection: Achille Castiglioni’s for VLM. Yet even that Castiglione thought of as his “little secret”, according to his daughter, capable of entering every house effectively unnoticed.
Castiglione’s switches, which almost became a European standard for table lamps, possessed a discreetly humble subservience, always present but not listening—and so quite unlike the potentially prying eyes and ears of the various Nests and Homes, which are no longer the equivalent of domestic staff that could keep ‘little secrets’. Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’ plays on this question of how subservient characters in the background of domestic life interact with the foreground, and the notion of the unreliable narrator, and interpreting a story from a limited ‘dataset’. Given the butler motif is frequently reached for by designers of the smart home—including by me, in my weaker moments—we might do well to re-read Ishiguro’s novel.
Pallasmaa, in his ‘The Eyes of the Skin’, noted that touch is a key part of remembering and understanding, that “tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations”. Is this reach for the switch merely functional, then? A light switch can stick around for decades, as with the doorhandle. When you touch the switch, you are subconsciously sensing the presence of others who have done so before you, and all those yet to do so. You are also directly touching infrastructure, the network of cables twisting out from our houses, from the writhing wires under our fingertips to the thicker fibres of cables, like limbs wrapped around each other, out into the countryside, into the National Grid.
If we always replace touch with voice activation, or simply by our presence entering a room, we are barely thinking or understanding, placing things out of mind. While data about those interactions exist, it is elsewhere, perceptible only to the eyes of the algorithm. We lose another element of our physicality, leaving no mark, literally. No sense of patina develops, except in invisible lines of code, datapoints feeding imperceptible learning systems of unknown provenance. As is often the case with unthinking smart systems, it is a highly individualising interface, revealing no trace of others.
In his book ‘Being Ecological’, it’s telling that Timothy Morton selects the light switch to explain Heidegger’s notions of vorhanden and zuhanden. He relates the condition of being jetlagged in a Norwegian hotel room, when “the light switch seems a little closer than normal, a little differently placed on the wall”.
Heidegger’s word for how light switches seem to peer out at you like minor characters in an Expressionist painting is vorhanden, which means present-at-hand. Normally things kind of disappear as you concentrate on your tasks. The light switch is just part of your daily routine, you flick it on, you want to boil the kettle for some coffee — you are stumbling around, in other words, stumbling around your kitchen in the early morning light of truthiness. (From ‘Being Ecological’, Timothy Morton)
The light switch when jetlagged is vorhanden — suddenly present-at-hand, “oppressively obvious” —where usually its everyday resilience means it is zuhanden , simply ready-at-hand, normalised, routine. When “stumbling around”, he notes that we don’t pay attention to the object itself — the irreducible thing that is the light switch —and so nor do we stand any chance of paying attention to the broader systems of living, of infrastructure, that it is connected to, and part of. For Morton, that includes our understanding of mass extinction due to climate change. And given Pallasmaa’s fundamental emphasis on touch as understanding, in order to truly sense and interact, this deleterious situation is hardly likely to improve when the analogue light switch disappears, when the object becomes further detached, and so may we.
More prosaically, how dull rooms will become if they are always automatically bright upon entering, just as the over-lit streets of our towns are increasingly sanitised of their mystery. The cornerstone of most horror movies, vanished overnight. Fortunately, smart homes will not work any more effectively than smart cities do, and a different sub-genre of horror movies will emerge, domestic versions of Stephen King’s Christine or 2001’s HAL.
Indeed Morton points out that when objects malfunction, they become vorhanden again, obvious and present, perhaps enabling us to move towards a richer understanding of dark ecology. Ironically, an all-too-likely fragility may yet prompt the most useful role that voice-activated smart homes could play: an awareness of contingency, of dependence, of broader systems.
Dark ecology doesn’t mean the absolute absence of light. It’s more like Norway in the winter, or the summer for that matter, the way that light in the Arctic reveals something slippery and evanescent about itself, the long summer shadows, the night that lasts for fifteen minutes in Helsinki in June, the dimness. Light as such isn’t directly present, you can’t pin it down and you can’t fully illuminate it: what illuminates the illuminator? Light is splashy and blobby, as quantum theory tells us. And it can’t reach everywhere all at once, as relativity theory tells us. (From ‘Being Ecological’, Timothy Morton)
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote beguilingly in praise of shadows, with a nuanced complexity largely lost on today’s designers of smart systems, for whom light and clarity are always preferable to shadows and ambiguity. Yet it is by feeling and touching systems of light and dark, engaging with such objects directly, that we can imagine their potential, for this dark ecology of long shadows and flickering low light. Simple analogue switches, such as John Henry Holmes’s or Castiglione’s, most directly articulate these “slippery and evanescent” complex in-between states.
Bur perhaps a more considered approach to interaction design, voice-activated lighting could also be “splashy and blobby”, or just as nuanced? We do need to raise our game, though, for we need only visit Home Futures to see how poorly today’s smart home products match up to the radical visions of 1950s to 1980s, in terms of imagination, yes, but also everyday functionality and resilience.
It seems a long bow to draw between Heidegger and HAL, Tanizaki and Pallasmaa, quantum physics and mass extinction – and then the humble light switch. And it is, of course. Nonetheless, as the light switch may quietly begin to fade away, now is the time to reconsider its true value and broader meaning.
Indeed the everyday light switch lets us actively exert the light without, while connecting us to our daily infrastructure and the lives of others, with humble analogue intensity.