I was listening to a show the other day on Freakonomics Radio where I was introduced to I pencil. This is not some new Apple product, it is an Essay on economics written in 1958 by L. Read. For the TLDR ( too long didn’t read) attention span people like myself it basically points out that no individual alive really knows how to make something as seemingly simple as a pencil. It goes into great depth about mining graphite, logging, logistic chains and all the other things that are required to get a single pencil produced. Think about it he’s not wrong. This notion was illustrated further by a chap who decided while doing a design degree to create a toaster from scratch. He did succeed, but he had to cheat a huge amount as, getting his hands on the raw materials was almost impossible, I mean how would you refine oil into plastic in your back garden? In the end it took him a year and over a thousand pounds to create and, when he first turned it on it glowed red for a while and then blew up. It was this toaster and the year of work that made me think.
The original I pencil essay portrays this kind of complex international cooperation that produces the pencil as a triumph of the free market, and yes there is something impressive about that many people working together to produce something, even if none of the individuals knows what it is they are doing. But that is not all there is to it though. The toaster is also a product of the same kind of blind process that made the pencil but it is easier to see a kind of underlying pointlessness that exists on some level. Essentially the toaster is a labour saving device, we have toasters because we are told that we need to save the three minutes it takes to put bread under the grill. We can, as the design student did take this to a more fundamental level. What does it take to go from scratch, from a sliced loaf of bread to a round of toast and what method would be ultimately quicker and easier if we were to do this on our own. What way of making toast would provide a net benefit to all in terms of time and resources?
Well we know that if you were determined to use a toaster and were left to your own devices it would take you a year to make one and, even then there is no gaurantee it would work. Last time I went camping it took maybe half an hour to get enough wood together to keep a fire going all night and, within an hour we had a camp fire hot enough to cook sausages and even melt glass. Toast? No trouble at all. Of course the other observation which is blindingly obvious is that one of these solutions is totally technology heavy, and the other is about as simple as they come. I will admit that I used a match to light the fire that time but I have used flint and steel in the past and, I guess with a bit of practice I could use a few sticks. I hate to say it but when you compare the two, primitive technology wins hands down in the toast making stakes. Ahh you may cry but surely the toaster is better in the real world where toasters are produced in bulk and shipped to shops around the world. I have not calculated but, imagine how much work is done by each individual in the chain from the earth to the kitchen wall socket. How much time it takes to refine and assemble the raw materials even if you are producing by bulk. All these things must be taken into account and for sheer speed and ease I reckon the open fire still wins.
So what is my point here? Probably something similar to the point made by an indeginous tribesman talking to Ray Mears. He points at Rays clothes and asks if he made them, he points to Rays boots with the same question, the knife he carries, the water bottle, everything in fact that is on Rays person and it has to be admitted that Ray made none of it. The tribesman then shows Ray all his possesions and explains that he knows how to make the lot, Ray is a child, left on his own he would die, the tribesman is a man he can wander into the jungle with nothing and live. This is the point we have gotten to, we have created a world of supposedly labour saving devices which require huge investments of unseen time and resources. The real cost is hidden from the purchaser as are the skills required to do the job the gadget does.
One last question before I leave this for a while. What have we really gained from all of this? Well as far as I can see we have saved our time to watch a bit of telly while subcontracting out the job of keeping us alive. We seem to complain about our unhealthy diets and obesity so we create machines to help us exercise and then complain about not having time to use them. Our labour saving devices haven’t freed most of us up much and certainly don’t seem to have made us happier. We don’t seem to have gained very much, in fact we might actually be slightly worse off.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a luddite. I love PC’s and tablets, I think the internet is a positive boon and I would not want to go back to living in a world without it. Some things are impossible to acheive without long supply chains and complex uses of resources. This is not universally true. All I am saying is that perhaps we should be thinking more carefully about how we distribute both our time and our stuff and what uses we can make of them. I can’t publish a blog without the infrastructue associated with the internet but, I can make a slice of toast with bread and sticks I find in a wood and possibly have a better time doing it.
What do you think?