The Spectacle of Electric Light When There Is None Around

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An image of a well-lit portrait of Kim Il Sung in a dark Pyongyang is a stunning lens into what the arrival of electric light on American soil might have felt like.

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Ubiquitous technologies never seem miraculous. Who could possibly be impressed with a car or a light bulb? Yet we know that people once were. A book we talk about a lot around here, David Nye's American Technological Sublime details the way that light blew people's minds when it began to arrive on the scene in the late 19th century.

"Dramatic demonstrations of arc lights began in the late 1870s and seemed to offer visible proof of coming changes. The Brooklyn Bridge or a skyscraper, when studded with electric lights, took on an entirely new appearance," Nye wrote. "As these changes filled the urban night, a shimmering new world came into being. The electrified urban landscape emerged as another avatar of the sublime."

A technology that, for Americans, allowed a particular kind of mediated sublimity takes on a different cast in this photograph, which I plucked from Alan Taylor's spectacular collection of images from the World Press Photo Contest. It shows an area of Pyongyang without a single electric light except that used to illuminate a portrait of Kim ll Sung, North Korea's founder.

We're so immersed in electric light at all times; this photograph may be the closest that I can get to thinking about what early Americans might have thought of lighting demonstrations at government and corporate buildings. The technology, in its specific association with power, seems to infuse it with a kind of other-worldliness. Such a demonstration has been impossible in the United States for decades and decades, but its effect is still visible in this photograph. Light and power go perfectly together when everything else is dark.

Image: AP Photo/Damir Sagolj, Reuters

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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