Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Path Dependence and the Stupidity of LED Light Bulbs

Why are we cramming 21st century technology into a socket designed by Edison?

  • May 10, 2012

LED lights, mass produced as tiny individual diodes, can be configured into any shape you can imagine. In the future, they and their successors could cover large flat (or curved, or whatever) surfaces, mimicking the light that comes through windows and skylights. They can be used to create diffuse or concentrated illumination, in a radiant or beam configuration. Yet for all their flexibility, the way they’re most likely to show up in your life is in this form:

LEDs aren’t anything like incandescent bulbs, only you wouldn’t know it on account of path dependence. (Photo: J Nichols)

Which is ridiculous. Edison’s bulb had to be roughly spherical in order to contain a vacuum while withstanding atmospheric pressure. And people were used to gas lamps, whose fixtures can be repurposed for electric lights. Because of this, a hundred years later, we have to cram LEDs into something that requires space-age fins to keep it from overheating?

In economics and social science, this phenomenon is known as “path dependence.” The simplistic definition of path dependence is that “history matters,” but there’s an even better way to think about it, and that’s as a sort of evolutionary constraint. Just as evolution is forced to build upon what came before, preserving and reusing parts (i.e. genes) along the way, so too does our technology, economics and mindset limit the ways in which we can progress.

Here’s a gem from the Museum of Industry in Baltimore that further illustrates this point.

Who in their right mind would put poorly insulated electrical wiring in close proximity to a gas pipe? But around the turn of the 20th century, this was a perfectly acceptable solution to an earlier issue of path dependence, namely our previous reliance on gas lamps. It illustrates the simultaneous insanity and unavoidability of path dependence.

America is full of light sockets and electrical wiring that can’t be reconfigured without punching holes in the wall, which is why we’re stuck with LED lightbulbs that exploit only a fraction of the potential of this technology. We need new standards and new notions of how and where to place lights that are infinitely more flexible than the sort we’ve grown up with. Meanwhile, whoever figures out how to solve the problem of how to retrofit millions of homes and buildings will unlock whole new horizons in lighting.

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