Sunday, January 08, 2012
Ipencil - the complexity of a making a simple pencil
I stumbled upon a very interesting, classic essay: "I, Pencil: My Family Tree". The author, Leonard E- Read, traces the many steps that are necessary for manufacturing a pencil: Cutting wood, producing the saws to cut the wood, cooking the coffee to warm the loggers, mining the graphite, processing it, producing the lacquer, the label, the eraser and the metal holder of the rubber. It goes on and on - the point of course being to demonstrate how incredibly widely connected and interdependent an industrial process is.
As Read puts it: Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make a pencil. It takes the cooperation and skills of thousands and thousands.
The essay was first published in 1958, and since then the complexity has reached a whole different level. Think of an I-phone compared to a pencil. The phone is useless without being in ongoing connection to a network of communication, software, songs, news feeds - all of that. It's useless without regular charging from the electricity grid. Its value resides both in what producers have created, and in content created by the users that are connected through it. Read ends his essay arguing that the fact that so many people can come together without detailed instructions to make such a complex happen shows that we must leave men as free as possible to let the invisible hand work its magic. I would draw a different conclusion: The interconnection of everything and everybody is perhaps the most important trend shaping our future. it proves that we are increasingly interdependent. Our fate is common, we have shared interests. We should think less in terms of local, individual and short term gain - and more according to a planetary community. You could write a whole book about it - in fact, I did.