Readings: I, Pencil

“I, Pencil” is an essay written in 1958 by the libertarian economist Leonard E. Read. The short narrative is told from the point of view of a regular everyday pencil, and starts with the bold assertion that “no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”

Read intended it, to a large extent, to be an illustration of why the division of labour within a capitalist system works so efficiently; a powerful polemic in defence of a global free market. But that’s not what I’m interested in (well I am a bit, but I think he’s wrong).

What I’m more interested in is the way he explains how shared knowledge is so intrinsic to the production of pretty much every object we own. It is a wonderful illustration of all the various people and processes that all contribute separately to the construction of a simple pencil, whether its the lumberjack who cut down the wood, the miner who dug for the graphite, or the person who conceived the notion of pencil in the first place. As Read describes it, “Millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally in response to human necessity and desire, in the absence of any human masterminding.”

That quote could easily be used to describe the way in which the internet works. Wikipedia, for example, although now burdened with a certain amount of (often necessary) rules and regulations, essentially started off as a free market encyclopaedia, where anyone could contribute and edit whatever knowledge they wished. There was no hierarchy, no rules, and it resulted in it growing at an insane speed into the massively useful source of information it is today (and much more reliable than most give it credit for). It is a fine example of how giving people freedom and responsibility can work.

Read’s glossing over of the vast inequality and exploitation that occurs within real life free markets makes his political/economic argument here somewhat removed from my own opinion – I mean if everyone’s contribution is, as he says, of relatively equal magnitude and importance, then why are they never all rewarded as such?

The thing is, thanks to the internet, all those little pieces of knowledge are now out there for all of us to access. I imagine I could quite easily find out on the internet how to make a pencil, from start to finish.

I briefly looked into actually doing this as an experiment, but I definitely can’t afford it. Id need to go and cut down actual trees and mine for graphite in Sri Lanka and make glue and stuff. It would make a good documentary, I can see BBC 4 commissioning it. No-one would watch it, but that’s what BBC 4 is for, right?

I digress. My point is, now that knowledge is so easy to reach and collate in this great big thing called the internet, it’s now about how we apply that knowledge. Information, unlike labour, is free, and we can use it however we like, to build things, share things, design things etc…

In a passage of I Pencil that I am more inclined to agree with, Read says “The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited.” I’m sure plenty have said this before me, but I think we now have the makings of a system that truly allows us to do this.

We’ve done the knowledge sharing bit (pretty much). Now, how do we make a network that allows us to do stuff with it all?

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