THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM: GENIUS PLANET, ENERGY SCARCITY TO ENERGY ABUNDANCE, A RADICAL PATHWAY, BY LUDGER HOVESTADT, VERA BÜHLMANN, SEBASTIAN MICHALE (publication is currently in preparation)
It does not necessarily seem all that intuitive, this notion of electricity as an “abstraction” of energy. What, you are entitled to ask, is an “abstraction” of energy? Is energy not either energy or no energy? How can you make energy abstract? And perhaps here we should qualify. Maybe “abstraction” is not so helpful a term. Because do we mean that energy becomes an idea of itself? That it can no longer do what it could do before it was “abstract”? No. What we mean is that it has become removed from its source and can now be dealt with in a non-material way. It has, effectively become a meta-form of itself.
Really? Well yes.
Take the log of wood. It’s a physical object, which we can stack up, chop in two, we can touch it, we can smell it. When we burn it, we know it’s burning, there is no doubt about it, it’s visible, tangible. In order to get it from the shed to the fire place, we have to go outside and lift it up and carry it in. If we want to make a big fire, big enough, say, to move a locomotive around a track, we don’t use wood, we use coal, which is fossilised, very old wood, and we burn that instead. Instead of going to the shed we go to the coal mine and dig it out from there. To get it from the coal mine to the train depot we load it onto lorries and trains.
How does this compare to an electric fire, or an electric train? What can you actually see, or touch here? Nothing. The electric “fire” is no fire at all, it’s a few metal bars that get red hot. So yes, if you touch them you’ll burn your fingers, but the bars aren’t burning, they just convert the energy back from electricity into heat. Or an electric train: we’ve once before remarked on the extraordinary fact that all it takes to get an electric train moving is a power cable and a pick up. And what’s so brilliant is that whether we want to light an electric fire in our living room, or drive a train from Hamburg to Milan: the way in which we now “package” or “handle” the energy is the same: electricity can do either, and a million things on top.
So perhaps what we should say is that electricity is energy once or twice or more often removed from its source. The source can be anything. If it’s coal, then you burn it to generate heat: the heat would be energy once removed from the coal. Turn that heat into steam and power a turbine, you get motion; the motion would be the energy once removed from the fire and twice removed from the coal. Neither the fire nor the motion though strike us as particularly abstract, and the reason they don’t strike us as very abstract is because they’re still visible, tangible and there are only so many things you can do with either. But the moment you remove the energy once more and turn it into electricity, you’re really doing something new and quite different with it. Because now you turn it into something that can be anything. A fire can’t be “anything”. A fire can only be hot and moderately bright. On its own, the fire can’t refrigerate your milk and it can’t store your photographs. It can’t suck the dust out of your carpet and it can’t ping you the football scores. It can’t get you to watch the moon landing and it can’t calculate the interest on your loan. Without somebody standing by and making smoke signals or blocking it off and then revealing it again at specific intervals it can’t even send you a short message. Actually, it can. By burning, say, on a mountain top, it could send a message to somebody on another mountain top. But that’s almost as far as it goes.
So what’s new isn’t that we can now, with electricity, imbue energy with meaning. We’ve been doing that for as long as we’ve been using energy. What is new is that up until the moment when we start to use electricity, the potential uses that we could put energy to, and therefore also the potential meanings we could associate with it, were determined by its own “type” or “form”. So, much as there is indeed a range, but a limited range, of uses we have for fire and a fairly wide, but still limited scope for forms that fire can take and the meanings it can have, once we turn the fire into electricity, the range of uses and the scope of meanings becomes limited primarily by what we are capable to articulate as an idea. We no longer need to talk of potential uses and meanings, we can simply talk of potentiality itself, the potential of potentials. Because many, you could say most, of the uses and meanings that we use electricity for could not even be imagined at the time electricity was first experimented with.
We can express this a little differently. We can say that up until the time, around now, over the last fifty, sixty years or so, when we began to really understand and make use of digital encoding and computing, the application of energy was always derived from its own “meaning”. “Meaning” to us, of course, but nevertheless “meaning” that was inherent in the energy itself. To stick with fire, because it is so elemental: the meaning that fire has to us is intrinsically linked to its own natural qualities, the way we experience them. We experience fire as “hot”, so it follows that fire to us means “warmth, comfort”. We experience that fire scares wild animals, so to us it means “safety”. We experience fire as lighting up the dark, so to us it means “light”. From these meanings we can derive uses that again follow “naturally”. Once you realise that cooked food tastes better and is more easily digestible than raw food, it makes sense to use fire to prepare food by cooking it. So close is the connection between the meaning and the use, that we consider them practically inseparable, and that too is no coincidence, because we most likely discovered the use by applying fire in its meaningful way, even if it was purely by accident.
With electricity, we are now able to put the energy to uses for which we may not even have a meaning to start with. The meaning may yet be invented or reveal itself. If you struggle with the thought of energy having any “meaning” at all, you may find it easier to think in terms of “form”. With electricity, it is no longer the case that the form that energy takes – such as fire – determines how we codify it. Instead, the way we codify energy – very specifically electricity – determines its application. You could say that the application is another, new “form” of the energy. And so you have, for the first time, a reverse relationship between energy, its form and its use. No longer does the form of the energy determine its uses, instead the use of the energy determines its form.
And it is in the word “codify” that you get a clue as to what we we’re getting at here: looked at in this way (and we’re aware this is one particular way of looking at it, this is not an absolute “truth” or and incontestable finding), energy could be said to be symbolic. Again, it doesn’t come so easily to us to think of energy as “symbolic”. How can energy be “symbolic”, you may ask, and it’s certainly true: the way we experience energy is not as “symbolic”. But that’s precisely the point. The way we experience energy is not “symbolic”, because to us energy is “real”. And that’s because whenever we come in contact with it, we do so when it has taken on a form that we can relate to again: heat, motion, light. We always experience energy as “real” and not as “symbolic” because there is no other way for it to manifest itself to us. Before we turn it into electricity it is either heat or motion or light or sound, and when we become aware of it again, we do so because we’ve turned it back into heat or motion or light or sound. And these are not abstractions nor are they symbols of energy, they are, to us, realities. So what about electricity? Is that not “real”? Of course it’s real enough, otherwise none of this would be happening, we wouldn’t be writing, you wouldn’t be reading, there would be nothing on TV tonight and nobody would be talking about an energy crisis.
But how would you describe it, as what? Well, exactly.