iPhone vs. Light Switch: which invention is more impressive?

If you could only pick one, would you rather have power in your home or a working iPhone?

We tend to believe that the latest inventions are the most significant, but often the opposite is true. Running water, electricity, shelter, heat, safe sources of food, and good medical care are far more important for quality of life than nearly anything else. And as far as convenience, a reliable power source in our homes that we can activate with the flick of a switch (something 25% of the planet’s population still does not have) is more impressive than an invention than merely uses that power.

I admit comparing technologies across time is unfair in some ways, as domestic electricity was invented first. But in terms of how much we depend on particular inventions to live, comparisons are useful. The exercise exposes how much we take for granted. Or perhaps more importantly, improves our aim for new inventions that do more than attempt to add convenience, but that truly improve our lives.

I recently conducted a simple poll on twitter asking the question: poll

Of 508 votes, 73% voted for electricity, and 27% for the cellphone (The poll didn’t let me explain, but my intention was the the cellphone could have unlimited power of its own and the internet worked fine on it. But if you chose electricity, you could not have a cellphone). Of course twitter polls have high bias (who are my followers? how do twitter audiences differ from the rest of the population) but it’s interesting nonetheless.

My belief is that for many among the 27%, if they actually experienced this choice for more than 24 hours, their answer would change. They  underestimate how much they depend on electricity to do for them, from keeping their food cold, to heating their apartment, to washing their clothes and keeping the lights on (better go buy some Apple candles).

In a recent post comparing Tesla to Steve Jobs, writer Rajan suggests the light switch is at least as impressive an invention as the iPhone. And I agree. If for no other reason, the invention of domestic electricity had to be done without the benefit of electricity itself. In the 1880s, in the age of horse drawn buggies and hand (or steam) powered tools, they had to not only invent electric power generators, and neighborhood transformers, but also provide the installation of physical power lines across cities, streets and sidewalks. To upgrade a phone is easy, but how would you upgrade the entire power grid of a city? Far more challenging. The rate of technology change is faster today, but mostly with technologies that are far easier to upgrade.

The iPhone and the light switch are both tips of the innovation iceberg. They depend on a massive network of other technologies and inventions to function. With no internet or cell service, a cellphone has limited use, just as a light switch in a house that hasn’t paid its power bills, doesn’t do much at all. As consumers we only see the final interface, the last layer, but what makes an invention impressive or not might be best understood by studying the amazing things required to make that interface work, that in daily use we’d never even notice.

Electricity demanded the introduction of entirely new concepts to ordinary citizens. A transformation the iPhone did not have to force, as its very name reuses concepts well known by the average citizen when it was released in 2007 (its arguably an amazingly powerful wireless telephone). The technological and conceptual leap of in home electricity likely surpasses, in impact on daily (and night) life anything we’ve invented in the last two decades (facts supported by the excellent book, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World).

If you disagree, do this simple exercise: go for 48 hours without using electricity in your home (except the power required for your cellphone and internet access). Then report back and leave a comment.

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23 Responses to “iPhone vs. Light Switch: which invention is more impressive?”

  1. PacoH

    Your basically asking if merely copying and slightly improving (and “deproving”) an existing modern technology is more impressive than single-handedly conceiving a revolutionary new AC power source, during the dark Victorian ages, in every excruciating detail in one’s cinematic imagination, and then going out and successfully building it, despite every effort of Edison’s to thwart the obviously superior system. That’s one of those questions that, if you have to ask… And comparing Jobs to Tesla is like comparing Edison to Tesla. Blatant opportunists who both exploited much more talented people than themselves to make huge profits -vs- a true genius whose ideas are still revolutionary to this day, whose electrical system is still in use to this day, and who got and expected nothing in return…

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      I give Jobs and Edison great credit. Wozniak and Tesla on their own probably wouldn’t have been able to bring their ideas successfully to the masses. I’m not giving them credit for everything, but they do deserve credit for something. What *all* of them achieved is notable and very hard to do.

      Personally I don’t think Edison or Jobs were particularly nice people, but if we used that as our criteria for heroes and pioneers, it’d be a much shorter list than we realize.

      That said – the point of my post was to notice inventions we’ve taken for granted. 27% of the people in the poll have I think forgotten what matters most in favor of what is most recent.

      Reply
      1. PacoH

        Credit for what achievement? For profiteering from the fruit of other people’s labor? Because that’s what they did. That makes them shady businessmen at best. Your statement only applies to Wozniak, maybe, but Tesla had already successfully brought his ideas to the masses by 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition where he, under the aegis of Westinghouse Electric, lit up the entire fair with his AC system, to the wonder and delight of everyone. He demonstrated his ingenious AC induction motor, which was deemed impossible at the time, and his AC generators. Westinghouse, under the guidance of Tesla, realized Tesla’s AC system which is the basis of our electrical power system today. What did Edison really contribute? It’s the brilliant TRUE visionaries who made the technology possible by their intelligent insight and knowledge that are the true heroes, not those who exploited them for their own gain.

        Your question was “which invention is more impressive?” Not which invention do we take more for granted. We take both inventions equally for granted. They are both commodities by now. We could live without mobile devices more easily than without electricity. Many people do. The introduction of distributed electric power was far more ‘impressive’ and far-reaching.

        As far as what matters most, obviously our wondrous mobile gadgets couldn’t exist without the power infrastructure that LONG preceded them.

        Reply
  2. Fendy Heryanto

    The poll is rather biased towards the people with access to both electricity and phone. In jungle / isolated area without electricity and large population, working smartphone with internet and unlimited power might be more useful.

    But still with current technology it’s hard to comprehend the situation since working internet need internet provider and electricity.

    Reply
  3. Kevin Morrill

    It’s a fascinating question. And reminds me of another thought experiment…

    You can actually go one step in a different direction: “How much would I have to pay you to not use Wikipedia (or an iPhone, electricity, etc.) this month?” It turns out the answer is really interesting. Right now Wikipedia actually hurts GDP numbers, because it cut out commercial encyclopedias, and no one pays for it. Surely Wikipedia must have some positive impact on the overall economy though.

    Coming to grips with these kinds of questions is important for measuring our progress. Measures like GDP are probably not helping us.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      GDP is interesting – like all metrics it has biases built in that are both useful and deceptive. Most uses of GDP in America focus on growth and the belief that growth is always the goal. But in any natural system, there are natural and healthy limits to growth.

      Specific to Wikipedia – it displaced profitable services, but the access to knowledge it provides, as you suggest, might very well help others create new sources of profit (or knowledge :)

      Reply
  4. Christina Claeson-Jonsson

    Working in the construction sector, by many seen as a low-tech, low-innovation sector, it was a delight to read your post and its insights. Sometimes we take homes, offices, roads etc for granted and tend to value gadgets and “instant gratification”, me value-adding things more highly. While the construction sector has indeed potential for major improvements, its outcomes are essential for our survival. So, it is fortunate that many of us has the possibility not having to worry about power cuts too often and instead worrying about not having the latest updates or poor internet access.

    Reply
  5. vicace

    iphone is a luxury which we can live without… the other things you mention is a necessity.. which we cannot live without…

    Reply
  6. Adam

    If this article had come out in the middle of summer I might come up with a different view. Living in northern Minnesota, in the midst of winter I’d have many issues without electricity, and would much rather give up any number of electronic devices.

    I have a fireplace, but it can’t heat my home. My furnace is a gas furnace, but has electric ignition and needs fans to move the warm air. My refrigerator and oven are both electric. Granted in winter, the fridge isn’t such an issue, but it sure is nice to have a range and oven to cook with.

    My phone, well, it’s just a ‘necessary’ convenience.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      It is interesting how we come to depend, and then forget about, certain technologies. Time of year and where you live are things technology has shielded us from (e.g. Las Vegas, a city that could never exist without resources from very far away).

      I’ve come to learn that fireplaces are terribly inefficient the way they are designed in most homes – they’re mostly a form of entertainment, far less useful than the fire pits Viking shelters had 2000 years ago.

      Reply
  7. Sean Crawford

    I enjoyed your reminder of steam power, as I think people take diesel for granted.

    Until about the time of the appearance of Dick and Jane, in the (wikipedia says) 1930’s, big steam shovels were common (and if you were looking for your mother they’d go “snort!”) That was back when my dad, a WWII veteran, was a boy. Also, for building roads, as can be seen on the Merry Melodies cartoons, there were big “steam rollers.” They were so impressive that the word has remained in our vocabulary, long after steam has gone.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Yes – I never thought about it before, but I’ve used the word “steamrolled” many times without ever thinking of it’s literal origins. Similar to horsepower.

      Reply
    2. Shantnu

      I was lucky to see one of these old steam rollers recently. Some still exist in England (preserved by museums etc), and you can see them at fairs.

      And even today, they are impressive.

      At the steam fair a few years ago, I saw things like steam powered tractors, steam powered egg cleaning machines (which increased number of eggs that could be cleaned by hand by something like a 100 times. Believe it or not, before that, the women on the farm sat for hours cleaning each egg before it could be sent to the market for sale).

      And you can see how revolutionaries these machines would have been. They turned back breaking labour into a five minute job.

      Take that, iPhone and Angry Birds.

      Reply
      1. Sean Crawford

        Hi Shantnu, thank you for sharing that. We’ve commented together here before.

        I like how my favourite people—you, Scott, writers in general—have an interest in the world.
        I’ve been meaning to tell Scott, so now’s the time: My writing buddies, at weekly Free Fall group and conventions, very seldom talk about writing—we talk about the world. And books.

        Reply
  8. Murali

    Writing from Bangalore and subject to frequent power outages we don’t need convincing. Even in India some of my colleagues argue on the greatness of iPhone. No doubt it has transformed our lives, but nowhere in the same league as Wheel, Fire, Steam Engine or IC engine or even invention of the common stock. These didn’t happen in our lifetime and hence we are debating these.
    No way takes away Jobs genius in putting together the iTunes eco-system, which model might be the framework for innovation for many decades easily outliving the device

    Reply
  9. Lois Patterson

    I already know how much the introduction of electricity improved my grandparents’ lives in rural areas. People who’d prefer an iPhone to electricity may lack access to such family stories. (Laundry, refrigeration, light sources, heating and air conditioning, for starters)

    Reply
  10. Sadaf S.

    Assuming you are lucky enough to have access to both electricity and a cellphone, I would choose electricity every time. The iPhone would probably not exist without a light switch so I think it’s weird to compare the two. Those days when my power is out I feel like my life is at a standstill. So yes, light switch all the way.

    Reply
  11. Judy

    Is that picture of the wall plaque with user instructions for the light real? I love it!

    Reply
  12. Bob Baxley

    Another amazing invention that goes unnoticed despite being fundamental to modern life is containerized shipping.

    Without those standardized metal boxes, the global economy would be a fraction of what it is.

    Reply

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