Introduction to the Visual Arts

Ethnography (Pre-Electric Cultures)

ID Banner for Art 110 at CSU Long Beach for Spring Semester 2017

Deep Ethnography

It’s funny how many different analogies I’ve heard for comparing humankind’s 100,000 years on earth to the earth’s own age of 4,500,000,000 years. We’ve been around for 1/10th of 1 million years. It was all about trilobites for 300 million years. If earth ever did have alien visitors, it’s a lot more likely that they’d mark this place Planet of the Trilobites than that they’d know anything about human beings.

I once saw a video where science writer Timothy Ferris (not Tim Ferriss the entrepreneur, the other one!) found a 1-mile stretch of road in Florida or someplace and used it as an analogy for earth’s 4.5 billion years of existence. He drove along the mile showing where different epochs, like the Cambrian explosion were. When he got to the end of the mile he said, and here’s humankind, only as old as the last inch of that mile. And most of what we take for granted is only as old as the thickness of the paint on the stripe on the road. Young as we humans are, the world that you take for granted is very different from almost all humans who ever preceded you.

The electric grid and the light bulb as we know them today are each around 100 years old. Your parents and grandparents may have known them as you do, but before 1915 or so, for 99,900 years or so, human beings did not. Obviously The Internet and Mobile Devices are much younger. In your 20-or-so years of life I’m sure you’ve seen change, but you’ve also had the constancy of light and electricity as your backdrop. Even though virtually none of the human beings who preceded you on this earth ever did.

What was human life like before electricity & the light bulb?

That’s a pretty huge question to ask. But we can get a small piece of an answer by spending one night in a time-traveling ethnographic adventure.

Woman and child in a hammock


  • Spend a night without electricity.
  • Blog your experience.
  • Since you can’t use electricity, it will be hard to take a photo! So snap a photo of where you plan to be before the sun goes down.

Spend any night this week without electricity. No computers, TVs, Mobile Devices, Light Bulbs, Dance Clubs, Movie Theaters, etc.

When the sun goes down it will get dark! Then what will you do?

  • Go to sleep?
  • Eat by candlelight?
  • Read by candlelight?
  • Have a conversation in the dark?
  • Make out?
  • Walk in the moonlight?
  • Gaze at stars?

Have you ever seen the Milky Way Galaxy? That “cloud” of a hundred billion stars that our sun is one of? Our ancestors saw it, saw it looking like a “Milky Way” across the sky, every night. Today you have to drive pretty far for that experience. On most nights I can see not 100 billion stars, but about 10.

Your Blog Post

After your electricity-free night write a blog post reflecting on your experience and how it might resonate with the bulk of our human ancestors who may have lived a little bit like that every night of their lives.

  1. What did you think the experience would be like?
  2. Was it “easy” or “hard”?
  3. “Frustrating” or “Liberating”?
  4. Did you get better sleep? Are you usually sleep deprived? What would it be like to sleep well every night?
  5. How is living without electricity more organic or harmonious with nature?
  6. How is living without electricity more limited? Is it boring?
  7. How do you think people survived without constant stimulation?
  8. What would be your ideal level of life activity and connectivity?

giant Buddha sculpture

Images: Emory University / eScience Commons / Shedding Light on a Pre-Electric Sleep Culture