I, Toaster

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

In Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless, the protagonist tries to impress the inhabitants of another planet with his amazing Earth technology, only — as Adams writes — “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.”

This inspired — if that’s the right word — artist — if that‘s the right word — Thomas Thwaites to build his own toaster from scratch:

Beginning by mining the raw materials and ending with a product that Argos sells for only £3.99.

As Radley Balko points out, Thwaites’ Toaster Project could be called I, Toaster, because the basic idea behind it was explored in Leonard Read‘s I, Pencil back in 1958:

Read’s influential essay meticulously runs through the processes required to create something as simple as an Eberhard Faber pencil, including the harvesting and processing of cedar, the mining of graphite, and the mining, processing, and application of the many minerals and chemicals that make up the pencil’s eraser, ferrule (the bit of metal that holds the eraser in place), lacquer, ink, and the black nickel rings that fasten the ferrule to the pencil’s wooden rod. Read also included those things that power the processing and refining plants, as well as the automobiles that transport the pencil ingredients to those factories (which are themselves made up of thousands of parts made up of millions of ingredients, also mined, processed, and assembled all over the world).

Read’s conclusion, written in the first-person voice of the pencil:

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding!

In other words, the division of labor is what makes pencils — and, for that matter, all of the conveniences of modern life — possible. Millions of people are involved in the manufacture of a single pencil, or in Thwaites’ case, a single toaster. No single human being could possibly possess the know-how to make one on his own.

As you might imagine, Thwaites is not celebrating trade, technology, and mutually beneficial exchange; he’s condemning it. Sigh.

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