Street lighting has always been a form of social control. As ‘smart’ lamp-posts start to adapt to our needs, are we entering a brave new world of big city lights?

In 1697, a few short years after street lighting made its London debut, one commentator remarked on how this new technology was affecting the nightlife:

“The scatt’ring light gilt all the gaudy way, Some people rose and thought it day. The plying punks crept into holes, Who walk’d the streets before by sholes.”

The night had once been a time of transgression, where “plying punks” (prostitutes) could walk the streets freely “by sholes” (as in a school of fish), but street lighting had changed all that. These dark hours of rebellion were now claimed for the world of public appearances. Street lighting sought to impose discipline on the unruly city streets, opening it up as a safe time for the upper classes to socialise and conduct business, pushing out the punks.

From these first gas lanterns to today’s big data-driven smart LED systems, street lighting has always been a powerful tool of social control: it shapes what is, and what isn’t, permitted in the city after dark.

Read more: The sci-fi future of lamp-posts

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