Dispersed Knowledge Systems

In 1958, an economist named Leonard Read pointed out that, in fact, no one knows how to make a pencil.1 The pencil, as simple as it might seem, is really the sum product of a vast range of specialities that are, collectively, more complex than any one person could accomplish:

Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!

Thus the humble pencil, like virtually every human invention, is a testimony to the power of creative collaboration working through the synthesis of diverse disciplines.

There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how.

There is another contemporary edition of this thought experiment. As a design challenge in 2008, Thomas Thwaites set out to make a simple electric toaster from scratch with raw materials. After figuring out what he needed (copper, nickel, iron, oil for plastic, and so on) he was faced with sourcing questions: where could he get these materials himself, without industrial machinery and assistance? How could he even get to those places without accounting for the travel technologies and his footwear? Thwaites chronicles his journey in The Toaster Project,2 which, like Read’s essay on the pencil, highlights the depth of interdependency we have on networks and one another for even the simplest of actions. Who actually knows how to make a slice of toast?


  1. Read, Leonard E. (1958). I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E. Read. The Freeman. December 1958. 

  2. Thwaites, Thomas. The Toaster Project. http://www.thomasthwaites.com/the-toaster-project 


Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Dispersed Knowledge Systems' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on October 28, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17022
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