Jonah Goldberg

No one in the world knows how to make the newspaper you are holding (and, if you're reading this on your phone, computer, iPad or Kindle, no one knows how to make those things either).

Even the best editor in the world has no clue how to make a printing press or the ink, or how to operate a communications satellite.

This is hardly a new insight. In 1958, Leonard Read wrote one of the most famous essays in the history of libertarianism, "I, Pencil." It begins, "I am a lead pencil -- the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write." It is one of the most simple objects in human civilization. And yet, "not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me."

The pencil tells the story of its own creation. The wood comes from Oregon, or perhaps California. The lead, which is really graphite, is mined in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The eraser, which is not rubber but something called "factice" is "made by reacting rape-seed oil from the Dutch East Indies with sulfur chloride."

To make a long story short, the simple act of collecting and combining the ingredients of a pencil involves the cooperation of thousands of experts in dozens of fields, from engineering and mining to chemistry and commodity trading. I suppose it's possible for someone to master all of the knowledge and expertise to make a pencil all by themselves, but why would they?

The lessons one can draw from this fact are humbling. For starters, any healthy civilization, never mind any healthy economy, involves unfathomably vast amounts of harmonious cooperation.

These days there's a lot of buzz about something called "cloud computing." In brief, this is a new way of organizing computer technology so that most of the data storage and number crunching doesn't actually take place in your own computer. Rather, everyone plugs into the computational equivalent of the electrical grid.

Do a Nexis search and you'll find hundreds of articles insisting that this is a "revolutionary" advance in information organization. And in one sense, that's obviously true. But in another this is simply an acceleration of how civilization has always worked. The information stored in an encyclopedia or textbook is a form of cloud computing. So is the expertise stored in your weatherman's head. So are the intangible but no less real lessons accumulated over generations of trial and error and contained in everything from the alphabet to the U.S. Constitution to my daughter's second-grade curriculum.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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