Are LEDs just an off-white flash in the pan? Or are they the lighting solution of the future? Rory Wilding – Commercial Director of Which LED Light, and passionate about behavioural economics – says the answer lies in a theory called the ‘Lindy Effect’, and the surprisingly long history of LEDs…
The Lindy Effect
To understand the implications of the ‘Lindy Effect’ on low-energy lighting, we need to define what it is. According to Wikipedia, the Lindy Effect means that for a technology or idea, every additional day it exists implies a longer life expectancy. This is in direct contrast to human and animal life, where every additional day implies a shorter life expectancy.
The theory first came from American popular culture author Albert Goldman in a 1964 article called ‘Lindy’s Law’. The article stated that the expectations of TV comedians’ future success are directly proportional to the total amount of time they have been on TV in the past. The legendary mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot picked up the idea again in 1984, when he coined the term ‘the Lindy Effect’ to describe how the future life expectancy of something (e.g. a person’s career) which is not itself alive (or ‘perishable’) but is bound by the lifespan of its producer, can be predicted from past trends.
More recently, the outspoken philosopher and statistician Nassim Taleb extended the idea of the Lindy Effect: non-perishable things that have been existence for a long time can be considered more likely to survive than new things that haven’t passed the test of time.
With respect to LED lighting technology, Taleb’s argument could be framed as saying that since LED technology is new, it is likely to only be a passing trend.
But if we look at the history of the LED bulb we can understand this technology is far from new. The phenomenon of ‘electroluminescence’ – a material emitting light due to the passage of electrical current or a strong electric field – was first discovered in 1907 by HJ Rounds. This led to the invention of the light emitting diode (LED) in 1927 by a Soviet inventor called Oleg Losev – so LEDs are far from a recent discovery.
LEDs are different from incandescent light bulbs, which rely on electricity heating up a wire filament and producing light as a by-product – a highly inefficient process. But as LED lighting technology and electroluminescence is more complex than incandescent technology it was tricky to produce an LED that could produce white light. As a result we have relied on the mass production of incandescent lightbulbs and have thus come to see lighting based upon perishable items with a short lifespan. The 2014 Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to the team behind the invention of the blue LED, which has enabled the bright white LED light sources that are starting to penetrate consumer mass markets today.
Lighting behaviour through the ages
The idea of lighting up the dark to create a sense of safety is likely as old as the human species. The idea of getting more efficient at doing this is also very fitting with the sense of striving for better living conditions that seems to define the human race. We first created this illumination through fire, then candle and gas light, to incandescent, and today LED light. Step-changes in efficiency took place along every change in technology along the way.
What perhaps has not evolved at the same rate is our ability to make rational decisions when it comes to choice, and how this can result in sub-optimal outcomes when finding a way to illuminate our environment. I have argued elsewhere that the lighting industry could benefit from lessons learnt in behavioural economics, and maintain that this holds true. People really struggle to understand why they should pay ten times up-front for what they see as a disposable commodity.
This can be tackled if the industry makes a real effort to educate and explain the total cost of ownership of both types of lights so people can make an effective decision. Behaviour change is notoriously difficult – especially when it involves the reinforcement of habits. LED lighting offers advantages here too – because these lights last 25 years users can just fit and forget them. A one-time decision to use a time-tested piece of technology can reduce the cost of our energy bills, and ultimately reduce our impact on the planet.
If long-established technology is likely to stick around for longer than new products, and LEDs have already been around for nearly 100 years, we could be seeing a lot more of LEDs in the future. But in order to realise this vision, humanity as a whole needs to get better at making rational, long-term decisions, by making use of more durable and energy-efficient technologies.
Rory Wilding is the Commercial Director of Which LED Light – visit their blog for further reflections and news on LED lighting.