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Why Independence is a Myth

“We require as many technologies to make a new technology,” said Kevin Kelly, the co-founder and founding editor of WIRED Magazine in a recent interview with Krista Tippett of On Being. “If we hold up your iPhone,” he continued “that’s a result of thousands of other technologies that are needed to produce that.”

Kelly’s words at this very recent moment are proportional to the words written by Leonard Read in the 1958 classic I, Pencil, an essay “written in the first person from the point of view of a pencil. The pencil details the complexity of its own creation, listing its components (cedar, lacquer, graphite, ferrule, factice, pumice, wax, glue) and the numerous people involved, down to the sweeper in the factory and the lighthouse keeper guiding the shipment into port.”

Leonard’s aim of writing the essay is to show “that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand.” That is, no matter how independently we think we are doing our works, we are indirectly and unconsciously working towards a universal course just as seen in the story of the pencil.

In 2010, Matt Ridley took to the TED stage to give a speech with many positions revolving around the central premise that civilization and human advancement are results of ideas having sex. One such position is that there is great benefit in exchange and collective effort towards human’s personal and technological development. He illustrated his position at length:

“Adam takes four hours to make a spear and three hours to make an axe. Oz takes one hour to make a spear and two hours to make an axe. So Oz is better at both spears and axes than Adam. He doesn’t need Adam. He can make his own spears and axes. Well no, because if you think about it, if Oz makes two spears and Adam make two axes, and then they trade, then they will each have saved an hour of work. And the more they do this, the more true it’s going to be, because the more they do this, the better Adam is going to get at making axes and the better Oz is going to get at making spears. So the gains from trade are only going to grow. And this is one of the beauties of exchange, is it actually creates the momentum for more specialization, which creates the momentum for more exchange and so on. Adam and Oz both saved an hour of time. That is prosperity, the saving of time in satisfying your needs.

Ask yourself how long you would have to work to provide for yourself an hour of reading light this evening to read a book by. If you had to start from scratch, let’s say you go out into the countryside. You find a sheep. You kill it. You get the fat out of it. You render it down. You make a candle, etc. etc. How long is it going to take you? Quite a long time. How long do you actually have to work to earn an hour of reading light if you’re on the average wage in Britain today? And the answer is about half a second. Back in 1950, you would have had to work for eight seconds on the average wage to acquire that much light. And that’s seven and a half seconds of prosperity that you’ve gained since 1950, as it were, because that’s seven and a half seconds in which you can do something else, or you can acquire another good or service. And back in 1880, it would have been 15 minutes to earn that amount of light on the average wage. Back in 1800, you’d have had to work six hours to earn a candle that could burn for an hour. In other words, the average person on the average wage could not afford a candle in 1800.”

In harmony with Kevin Kelly’s earlier assertion about every single technology being the result of the continuous exchange between a collection of several others, Matt Ridley adds:

“What happens when you cut people off from exchange, from the ability to exchange and specialise? And the answer is that not only do you slow down technological progress, you can actually throw it into reverse.”

Finally, in the same vein, in The Myth of Independent Thought Charles Chu shared a quote from cognitive scientists Sloman and Fernbach’s The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.

“The human mind is not like a desktop computer, designed to hold reams of information. The mind is a flexible problem solver that evolved to extract only the most useful information to guide decisions in new situations. As a consequence, individuals store very little detailed information about the world in their heads. In that sense, people are like bees and society a beehive: Our intelligence resides not in individual brains but in the collective mind. To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge stored within our skulls but also on knowledge stored elsewhere: in our bodies, in the environment, and especially in other people. When you put it all together, human thought is incredibly impressive. But it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone.”

This is the same phenomenon at work in the biggest search engine in the world today. Google is a result of millions of unaffiliated websites providing content for the Google bot to crawl. So it’s not just about an independent Google, it’s not even about an independent site somewhere on the web. Everyone must work together for everything to work.

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