We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain …”
– Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock,” 1969
Every cell of our human bodies, every protozoa floating in the sea, every chloroplast in every green and growing thing – all of Earth’s organic entities must wrangle energy for life from rays of sunlight. The photons that stream out of the Sun’s corona (and the seductively named ‘Photosphere’ and ‘Chromosphere’ of the solar body itself) are the necessary precondition for life on earth: millions of years of energy bathed rock and sea before lifeforms finally evolved to capture, store, and use solar energy in this great buzzing symbiotic heap of a planet.
We are on the edge of synthesizing such processes, which offer us a dream of evolving beyond industrial age technologies. Instead of modern-age obsessions with banked photosynthetic energy layered in shale, compressed in anthracite coal, or oozing in crude oil deposits, we now imagine that we might be able to stimulate, streamline and miniaturize the kinds of processes that formed those deposits in the first place. Will we ever escape from the laws of thermodynamics? Not likely, but we may be able to swap energy around in real time, without borrowing it from prehistory. And if we can’t yet reliably ‘produce’ it from an artificial leaf or oil-sweating bacterium, we can herd it with solar mirrors, grab it into wind turbines, or snag it for Little Sun before it whips past us in the solar breeze.
Solar technology, by avoiding the language and relation of extraction, offers to escape what Martin Heidegger called the ‘instrumental’ relation to nature as just so much ‘standing-reserve.’ His classic ‘Question Concerning Technology’ insisted on a questioning of these relations, characterized as follows:
the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is, in turn, distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing.”
The wood whose harvest might necessitate an African woman traveling for miles is replaced by a solar oven that uses a folding carapace of mirrors to harvest active sunlight. But in one respect, the Heideggerian ‘reserve’ of wood still trumps the brilliant solar device, since it stores solar energy for release when needed. (Who wants to cook in the heat of the day?) Wood / coal / water heated to steam – propulsions for the dynamos generating electricity – these chains of stored solar energy are still dominant in the ‘revealing’ of industrial technē that Heidegger saw as the alētheia, or uncovered truth, of technology. But if this ‘revealing’ of humanity culminated in the great grids of advanced electrified states (still the ur-model for our ‘nets’ and ‘clouds,’ and the infrastructural reality of our massively electric servers), we also know that this grid dependence, this ‘unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about’ will kill us. Getting off the grid – not quite as the hippies and utopianists imagined it – may come from finding a way to surf on the solar wind, and store its kinesis in potentia. Magically, as if in answer to a child’s question, Little Sun seems to do this. There is a switch. Stored solar energy can be released at will.
Doubtless this ‘releasing’ does not release us from the episteme of standing-reserve, enframing the sun as it does in a newly instrumental relation. Still, the scale of this relation is important to acknowledge – dipping a thimble into the solar blast will not exhaust it. Tapping a millisecond of the sun’s energy output at the source would dwarf the energy potential of all the fracking in the world.
Little Sun is not a massive solution, but a modest increment and a small new thought in the world. Its manufacture surely uses megawatts of standard fossil-fueled electricity, along with plastics, microchips, precious water, and state-of-the-art voltaics and solar batteries. Yet it does two simple things extraordinarily well – it moves off the grid, and releases light from a solar charge as desired. One would hope it spawns a culture of tinkerers, who might unpack its black-boxed technologies to hook up other things to its power source (let’s enjoy the dark, but hear music, or send a message, or record a poem).
Articulating an alternative to the grid is radical enough, since in most of the world the grid itself is either an unkept promise or an erratic and unreliable partner. Nowhere is grid electricity amenable to small-scale community organizing (although it can be illegally ‘harvested’ by the slumdweller once it exists). As to targeting ‘energy poverty’ in sub-Saharan Africa, that might too readily evoke the grand agendas of development (from dams and sub-stations and NGOs and outside experts to managed aid for the energy-deprived). Let’s allow Little Sun to stay shy – a simple gift to those who might imagine, or be constrained, to live off-grid, a gift of hand-sized, mobile, night-banishing light.
Caroline A. Jones
Department of Architecture, Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA
 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” lecture delivered as “Die Frage nach der Technik” at the Technische Hochschule, Munich on November 18, 1955; translated and with an introduction by William Lovitt in Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).